On Squamish Climbing As Some Sort of Religious Experience, and Short People Problems at the Gym

Short people problems. It’s a thing. Today, using an auto-belay my first time climbing with ropes — save the proper belay course I took two days ago — I felt entitled to complain. Inside my mind. Because, yes, I know, in the words of that belay course instructor, bouldering is “very different” from rope climbing. But it’s not that different, at least not in the gym. Not so different that I can’t tell when a route setter has just created a climb where a short-statured person such as myself either has to just give up or get pretty freakin’ creative. It feels totally unfair, when someone with longer reach can at least get a few metres up the damn wall.

I refuse to believe that nature is so biased in favour of tall people. Rocks in the real world — i.e. outside — must have intermediate holds, right? I mean the entire planet isn’t El Capitan, is it? Of course not. That’s why people like my fellow course attendees last Sunday — who had never outdoor climbed before — were able to plan to take a class in Squamish the following weekend. They were taking the belay course as a prerequisite. The fourth attendee climbed with her boyfriend and was heading with him up to Kamloops and/or Penticton. She also just need a refresher, since he’d already taught her to belay. So, inexperienced climbers, but were ready to take on the outdoors. Maybe outside there were intermediate holds. Or maybe they just have longer reach.

Me, I know no one interested in climbing. Not even indoors. So it’s solo climbing for as long as this obsession lasts. What sucks is that the obsession doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Because after complaining internally today about how if I just had longer reach I could at least just climb for awhile I ended up at the auto-belays set up on the training wall. I got a fair ways up before running out of holds and running out of reach. Next time I’ll try to figure out a way to get up higher so I can actually practice falling back on the damn rope. As it was, I felt like I hadn’t gone high enough that the rope would catch me. So, like a good boulderer, I downclimbed every time. It’s not a terrible habit, really. If you ask me, it’s a good one.

On Sunday, when I was forced to fall back on the rope, I got why my bouldering instructor said a few weeks back he doesn’t trust ropes. I get it. It’s a weird feeling. It’s better to pretend the rope doesn’t exist, I suppose, and just concentrate on using your own body. You know, when you can reach those plastic holds. Holds that some route setter has decided are the right distance apart.

I felt a bit better tonight when I read this forum discussion that said yes, it isn’t just you, gym climbs are biased against short people and nature is typically a bit more inclusive. Granted that discussion is from 2010. And there are plenty of people who would disagree, and say no, there’s no gym bias against short people. But I’ll take it.

I just want to climb, and I’m flexible and strong. Is that so wrong? Just wanting to climb? Why should a rope climb — which was supposed to be easier than bouldering — be a challenge to even start? Don’t rope gyms want to make money? Don’t they know short people want to climb too?


Truth be told, I wasn’t that frustrated. I left the gym feeling confident I’d come back again and the holds wouldn’t seem so far away. I had forgotten about Corky the whale (temporarily). Life was good.

But if you talk to anyone, of course, real climbing doesn’t happen in the gym. Real climbing happens outdoors. Real climbing happens in Squamish. I know this because people at the bouldering gym talk about it all the time, like it’s some kind of pilgrimage site. That’s what it feels like. Unlike those women in my belay course, I couldn’t imagine just showing up as a climbing newbie in Squamish. I feel like you have to be invited, like an initiate, where your guru says “yes, student, you are ready.”

Not that I particularly want to be invited. Because Squamish, although I didn’t grow up there, reminds me too much of my childhood. It looks too wet and mossy, with the boulders hidden within thick forest. I know. It’s a healthy environment and I’m fortunate to live here. But when it comes to outdoor climbing, I’d rather experience something dry and open.

Because I think rock scares me less than forest. Yes, falls happen anywhere, but let’s not forget trees are dangerous too. When I listed out my childhood falls a few weeks ago, I neglected to mention one that left me with a permanent scar on my right forearm. For years, I thought everyone had a scar there, like everyone has a belly button. But as it turns out it had something to do with a bad fall into a tree, or something like that. It’s the kind of knowledge your mother has, or mine did. I don’t actually remember what happened. You can trip so easily in a forest. In dry rock areas, the hazards, I assume, are different — and none of those for me are connected with childhood trauma.

So, my point: outdoor climbing = yes. Squamish = no, guru, unless you think it’s really important to my development into the next plane of existence. But then, if we’re just left with those annoying routes with the plastic holds indoors, I’ll take just about anything, guru. I just want to climb.

And that’s the kind of day it was.

Corky is an Orca at SeaWorld San Diego. I Can’t Get Her Story Out of My Head.

I first learned about Corky, a killer whale living at SeaWorld, on Saturday. In the two days since, my mind has continually strayed back to her. Still living at SeaWorld San Diego. Very far from her home in Pender Harbour, British Columbia, where some of her family still lives.

I came to this blog to try to write it out, Corky’s story. But there just isn’t any way to write it. So instead I am just going to lead you through the internet search (part of it at least) that lead me to learn about her.

On Saturday, someone posted a 1972 National Film Board of Canada documentary called “Mudflats Living” on Facebook. It was about a small group of people living (illegally) on land slated for development in North Vancouver. I watched it, because I like that kind of stuff. I like history, I like timelines. I like looking at old images and interviews and thinking, “wow, that was almost 50 years ago. That land is so different now. That water isn’t as clean as it used to be. Those people, 50 years ago, knew what they were talking about, but we burned down their settlement and built a shopping mall anyway.”

Among those interviewed was a Dr. Paul Spong, who talked about coming to Vancouver from New Zealand. As an academic, he’d ended up working with the local whale population after his arrival.

Mudflats Living, Robert Fresco & Kris Paterson, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Curious, I Googled Dr. Paul Spong to see what had become of him almost 50 years after the documentary. I was lead to Orcalab, the organization he founded. Orcalab was not an unfamiliar name to me. As a lifelong British Columbian, I’m used to groups, organizations and individuals who want to Save the Whales and Save the Great Bear Rainforest and Save the Wild Salmon and Stop the Pipelines and Stop the Mining. I agree with all of these folks, of course. But in a land of so much activism, over so many decades, a lot of it has become overlapping buzz.

It was the latest blog entry on Orcalab’s website where I first learned about Corky. That entry, entitled, “Corky’s Saddest Day Number 49,” begins:

“Almost unbelievably, today is the 49th anniversary of Corky’s capture! Please give some space in your day to thinking about her and dreaming of her returning to her home waters. She is not forgotten by us and by people around the world.”

At which point, I think I stopped. Wait, 49 years? What?

And you know, there’s this modern-cynical disbelief that sets in, because this is 2019, and it cannot possibly be true that a killer whale has been living in a tank for 49 years. It just cannot be true.

But then you look a little deeper, you know, and you discover that, not only is it true, but activists have been trumpeting her cause for decades. Decades. And it gets sadder and sadder because, not only is this beautiful, sentient creature confined to a tank at an amusement park, but getting her home seems implausible. That’s not just because SeaWorld won’t send her back to B.C. where she was captured on December 11, 1969, but because their reasons for not doing so are, well, valid reasons — if you accept them at face value.

Here’s what happened. In the late 1960s, several orcas were captured by fishers off Pender Harbour, who sold them to places like Marineland for cash. At the time, whales were not a protected species; they were seen by some as plentiful and sometimes an annoyance as they fed on the local fish population. Corky was among those captured. It’s estimated she was four years old at the time.

In a statement to the CBC in August of 2018, SeaWorld said this of Paul Spong’s proposal to create a “retirement home” for Corky near her ancestral waters:

“The animals at our parks know only human care. To take them out of this environment would be inhumane and irresponsible, and we will never take such a risk.

“This option would expose them to harmful pollutants and toxins, rapidly changing environmental conditions, infectious viruses, the effects of boating traffic, algae blooms, pathogens and other known issues for wild killer whales.”

Of course, SeaWorld would also lose a cash-generating attraction if it were to release its orcas. But you also can’t deny that whales raised in captivity — or, like Corky, kidnapped in her home waters and transported to Marineland and then SeaWorld where she lost all semblance of life as a wild and free creature — are vulnerable to untold risks in the ocean if they were to go back there. That’s not just because of the adjustment; it’s because we’ve done such harm to the ocean environment it’s no longer safe for marine species who would otherwise live there.

Dig a little deeper, and you discover that Corky’s story has made headlines before. Back in 1993, she was featured on Nightline. A reporter played her a tape, provided by Spong, of her family’s vocalizations. All of the SeaWorld orcas responded to the sounds; Corky alone not only responded, but began to shudder.

But the most poignant moment in that Nightline report actually comes near the end. The voiceover says that, “time is running out” for Corky, who, at (then) age 28, was nearing the maximum lifespan for whales in captivity.

At age 28, time was running out. Corky is now 54. She has lived longer in captivity than any other killer whale. In a few months, it will be 50 years since she was first captured.

Fifty years. Fifty years. Think about that for a second. Think about what 50 years means to you. If you can remember fifty years ago, society considers you almost part of the senior population. Yes, you may be young and vibrant, but you qualify for AARP membership (literally). Fifty years ago, people in Vancouver were still routinely hunting whales, according to this 2016 Province article that offered an in-depth history lesson of how we used to view whales and how our attitudes about the natural environment have changed in that time. We’ve evolved, from hunting, to capture-for-education-or-entertainment to no-cetaceans-in-captivity.

[The Vancouver Aquarium agreed just last year to stop keeping whales and dolphins in its facility only under pressure from the Park Board to do so (and a new bylaw). The Aquarium has long stated its research and rehabilitation work were crucial and that the ban would impede that mission.]

We’ve evolved; it’s been at least two human generations, the past 50 years. But Corky is still in captivity. According to Orcalab’s description (from 2012), living a life of limited… well, of limited living:

“When she is not performing, Corky is held in one of the back tanks with some of Sea World’s eight other orcas. Mostly she passes time by circling her tank. She has found some companionship from the younger whales in the Sea World tanks, including Orkid (Orky’s daughter, now 23 and without offspring despite attempts at artificial insemination) and Nakai, a male who who born in 2001. In April 2001, Bjossa, an Icelandic female orca, was added to Sea World’s San Diego “collection”. Bjossa had previously been held captive at the aquarium in Vancouver, B.C., where her companion for many years was Corky’s cousin Hyak. Bjossa knew the calls of the A5 pod, and used them as well as her native Icelandic dialect. Corky and Bjossa had a common bond in Hyak, but it did not last long, as Bjossa died just 6 months after arriving at Sea World. As the years pass, Corky’s life continues much the same, day by day – around and around and around.

Before you write this off as spin written by an advocacy organization, remember this: Corky is a killer whale. And she has lived in captivity for just short of 50 years.

Fifty. Years.

If you’ve actually read this post, here to this point, and want it to really hit home how long ago that is, scroll back up. Have a look at the Mudflats documentary. The events in that film took place in about 1970-71. When that film was shot, Corky had already been stolen and sold to Marineland. The land in that film looks very different, as do the people in that film. Corky is still living in an amusement park, her experience limited to those few metres of water and her interactions with human keepers.

“Every once in awhile she mistakes something, we don’t know if it’s her brain or her eyes.”

There’s a video on YouTube that purports to be a closeup view of Corky, filmed on April 14, 2019. The visitors wave, and Corky, pursuant to her training, eventually waves back. The person leading the tour points out the various characteristics of Corky’s physical frame. The point, I suppose, is to educate the visitors about killer whales.

At one point, the woman says, “every once in awhile she mistakes something, we don’t know if it’s her brain or her eyes.”

We don’t know, they don’t know, because we can’t talk to Corky about her experience. We can’t ask her what life feels like for her day after day after day. It’s like that with all animals, but we’ve learned (I hope) that just because we can’t express or understand the unique perspective or experience of animals doesn’t mean they don’t exist. If we were to ask Corky if she wanted to go home, she might say yes, she might say no — imagine if a human, in the same circumstance, were asked the same question. It would be too confusing, too traumatic, to even consider. To keep her in captivity seems cruel; to transport her to risky waters seems cruel; to make choices about her welfare without asking her or knowing what she wants also seems cruel. But I believe she is sentient, and has a soul. And she’ll take the experiences from this lifetime and use them in the next, in a way that karma and justice will ultimately prevail.

Rich Roll, Russell Brand and White Men Talking About Their Addictions

Back in the day, Britney Spears shaved her head. Craig Ferguson, then host of The Late Late Show, took the opportunity to explain why he wouldn’t make any Britney jokes. What followed was a 12-minute, deeply moving monologue about Ferguson’s recent sobriety anniversary. Of Spears, Ferguson eventually said, “She’s 25. She’s a baby. She’s a baby.”

I was thinking of that Ferguson monologue tonight, as I watched part of Rich Roll’s podcast with Russell Brand. The two men discussed addiction, the 12 steps, and to some degree both told their stories. Because that’s what you do, when you’ve decided to have a conversation of this type, I suppose. Roll begins by asking Brand about his experience with The Program, before Brand eventually turns the tables and asks Roll, “What happened to you?”

It’s in some ways, compelling stuff, these charismatic men talking about blackouts and getting sober and how it elevated them spiritually. Their stories are sincere, and personal, and you feel that they each had a sense of their own privilege, at least now, where they sit. Still working sobriety, but still privileged. Or is that my perception? That it’s hard to look at these men — Brand, Roll, Ferguson — and say yes, I hear your story, but it’s hard for me to envision a time when you were not charismatic and able to navigate your way out of any situation — addiction included.

That’s probably not true, and it’s the flipside of the experience of watching wealthy white men talk about their pasts when you compare it to what it might be to hear, say, a poor woman of colour tell the exact same tale. One is comfortable, intellectual conversation; the other somehow voyeuristic. It’s a problem, our perception. At least mine, the only perception I can really speak for.

Awhile back there was an exhibit at the Vancouver Public Library. In the atrium were several huge, amber cylinders made to look like pill bottles. Inside were real people, reading a book, or otherwise keeping busy while onlookers gazed in at them from the outside. All of those people had lived with opioid addiction. The point of the exhibit, at least in part, was to show that anyone can become an addict, and that the face of addiction is not what you may assume.

The exhibit came out at about the same time as a series of advertisements that reminded people that an opioid addict could be your brother, your coworker, your best friend. The ads were criticized because they seemed to rely on the fact that people don’t care about addicts who don’t look like them. Instead of forcing people to care about those who are dealing with addiction while unhoused or living in poverty, the ads said, “it can be privileged people like you who also experience addiction.” The intent may have been to help translate the health crisis for those without direct knowledge, so they could not so easily write off the unhoused person as an individual not worthy of assistance. But few saw it that way.

But I found myself challenged while watching the Rich Roll interview to ask why exactly I was interested, why I care. I do like to think I would feel equal compassion for everyone who has overcome such a challenge. I think these men would too, because “there but by the Grace of God go I,” or by the virtue of the 12 steps I’m still here, able to tell my story in book or podcast form.

“What if He Had Fallen?” Yeah. But He Didn’t.

A few weeks back, as the Grouse Grind was opening for the season, I mentioned to someone that maybe I’d do it again this year. It had been awhile. I was feeling fit. A few days later, when she checked up to see if I’d gone, I said, “No!” With a laugh, like, “of course not. I fucking HATE the Grouse Grind.” Twice in my life I’ve done it. Each time it was freaking miserable. No plans to do it again.

She, on a working visa from Australia, had been thinking of trying it. Knock yourself out, I told her – I won’t be going with you.

Near the top of the Grouse Grind, the trail gets very narrow and steep. By that time, you’ve hiked up a natural step system, dodging first-timers and daily grinders alike. Near the top, it’s wet. If you’re tired, you can’t exactly step to the side. You just have to keep going and hope you don’t slip. It freaking sucks.

Neither time I did the Grind did I slip, tumble or fall. But my body has experienced a lot of falls, and the scars are still in my tissues, my bones and my psyche.

On Saturday, at the bouldering gym, I decided to make a list of those falls. The little kids were there – it was a birthday party, and the last thing I wanted was to struggle with a problem while a bunch of toddlers and pre-teens either darted haphazardly across the mats or floated up the walls like they were staircases. I hid out in the lounge upstairs, searching back in my memory.

  1. Age 11 (or thereabouts). Back toe caught running hurdles, dislocated kneecap and torn ligaments.
  2. Age 8 (or therabouts). Tumbled on a crazy carpet down an icy hill at my elementary school, broken collar bone.

There are four others, with sketchy details due to young age and the passing of time. Maybe these were normal falls, that kids of my generation (I’m in my 40s now) simply experienced as a matter of course. You fall, you get back up, you go on. But they were not insignificant. And my body has never been the same, because your body repairs itself as best it can — but after something breaks, something tears, it’s never exactly what it once was.

I decided to list my falls because, since I’ve started gym bouldering, I’ve become more and more interested in the psychological aspects of climbing. This is me, trying to bring in-depth psychological perspective to something I’ve only ever done in a gym, at relatively low heights, but nonetheless awakens previously unused brain transmitters that can make you feel euphoric and/or teetering on the edge of paralyzing fear.

In my Fundamentals class last Thursday, we were perched, one at a time, midway on the wall where there’s an arete (“edge” in real world speak). Our instructor was teaching us heel hooks by having us maneuver in a specific sequence using a few specific holds.

“Wait, what? What do you want me to do?”

I hung out at the top, feeling nice and stable with two solid footholds and one comfy handhold, my other hand feeling around the corner trying to figure out where I was going. Eventually I shuffled my foot around into the hook, scrunched up in a weird position, and I hesitated before following the shouted instructions coming at me from below.

“I feel like I’m going to fall.”

“Fall how?”

“Off the fucking wall.”

I didn’t, of course. When I got down, I blurted out that I’d fallen during the Introduction to Bouldering workshop a few months ago, and probably had a subsequent head block.

“That shit’s normal,” he said, meaning the fear, the mental blocks. Later that night, after I started to downclimb after cleanly making my way almost to the top of an easy problem but stopping a few holds short of the top, he told me a story about getting a mental block bouldering in Squamish. He went away, thought about it, trained more, came back and sent the problem.

(Squamish, of course, is always the goal for these particular teachers. “When you get to Squamish, you have to mantle at the top. It’s not like in the gym…” Squamish, Squamish, Squamish. Fuck Squamish.)

But I knew that I was telling a bit of a fib when I said it was just about falling in the Intro class. My body’s been broken in the past. It’s panicked at the edge of suspension bridges, 40 years ago and last week. It remembers its old injuries, even if my conscious mind keeps them hidden.

So that’s kind of why I read James Lucas’ article in Climbing, “The Fallen Soloist,” with interest when it came through my social media feed this morning. It seemed to me Lucas was trying to make the point that soloing is dangerous. Let’s not forget that you can be an elite climber and still fall soloing. It’s an important point — because one thing that never really gets discussed in the oft-recycled Alex Honnold dichotomy of “perfection or death,” is the perhaps more common, and more troubling scenario, of “perfection or serious injury.”

Lucas asks what the response would have been if Honnold had fallen on Freerider.

“Would people say that he’d been too confident, that he’d gotten in over his head? Every soloing accident can be categorized as someone being “in over their head”—because if they weren’t, they wouldn’t have fallen.”

But he didn’t fall. Maybe if he’d pushed through in the fall of 2016 he would have, perhaps stumbled in the dark on the slab. But he didn’t. Indeed some would have said he was “in over his head,” if he had died or suffered debilitating injury. But you never really know when you’re going to fall, do you? Whether it’s catching a toe on a hurdle or sliding down an icy hill or crossing a busy street with poor traffic signs.

Back in 2003 I did the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, from St. Jean to Santiago, walking every day. Before I left, I packed all the remedies I anticipated I would need: for migraines and menstrual pain. What killed me? That knee. The knee, and to some extent, the shoulder, and the general imbalance from the mild scoliosis that showed up during a medical exam when I was a teenager.

Near the end of the Camino, my knee was so swollen and painful I had to prop it up every night just so I could sleep. A nice woman from Denmark, who was finishing before me, left me her knee brace so I could manage. When I returned to Canada, after arriving in one piece in Santiago, I had a massage therapist tell me the imbalance in my back caused muscle tone to develop in the wrong spots while I was walking. I’d done the pilgrimage, successfully. But my body was trashed.

My body was trashed last week, too, when I went to see a massage therapist for the first time in years. She’d just moved to Vancouver from Squamish, as it turned out, and refused to climb because of what it does to the hands. Even professional climbers who use proper holds, she said… it still messes up their hands. And her hands, of course, were how she made a living.

During that massage, I made a promise to my body to take better care of it. To support it better. It’s been fighting a long, long time to keep up with the stress I’ve put it through, internally and externally.

But that doesn’t mean stopping climbing. It could be the addiction fully setting in (in the words of that climbing instructor, “Get all your friends into climbing. And if they’re not, get new friends. Only hang out with people who like climbing.” And in the words of his co-instructor, “Climb and then train and then climb and train and you’ll hate climbing but you’ll LOVE climbing…”) but it’s also just nice to feel physically stable. I am unbalanced, physically, which is why I hate yoga. It’s why I’m not a fan of walking. But climbing can make you feel safe and stable. You can use your toes and smear the wall. You can bend your knees and stabilize with different muscles. It’s nice to feel that you can be solid and stable and move smoothly. It feels safe. Until it doesn’t, until sensory memory kicks in and you panic.

A year from now, I am sure, I will read this blog post back and say, “oh dear. You were so addicted. Already. And you’d just started.” I’ve just started. So who knows what’s to come.

Amy’s Horrific ‘Big Bang Theory’ Makeover, Climbing, and Fear

I wouldn’t say Mayim Bialik is my hero like, say, Alex Honnold is my hero. But I admire her tremendously. She is unabashedly herself in an industry that pushes an alarming degree of conformity. She’s ballsy. Vegan. Openly religious. And you know she must have cringed when she learned how Amy Farrah Fowler’s story was going to end on The Big Bang Theory.

Because, if you watched you know, Amy’s happy ending was to get a makeover. After she won a Nobel Prize. Let’s say that again. Amy wins a Nobel Prize. Then she sees pictures of herself. Says to Raj, “Am I really that frumpy?” And to relieve her tears, Raj suggests a makeover. So she gets a haircut, red lipstick and new clothes. Cue happy ending.

I don’t know exactly where to begin here, so I am going to start with a picture of a sign that’s posted in the bouldering gym I started going to, after watching Alex Honnold scale El Capitan inspired me to Finally. Try. Climbing. This sign is posted in the inner doors of one of the changerooms. Likely it’s posted in both, but I only ever go into one.

Maybe That Isn’t Scary For You, But It’s Scary For Me

For anyone who’s never tried climbing, it might be helpful to know that it’s a scary thing. In bouldering gyms, there are no ropes. The flipside is that the walls are comparatively low. The ones I go to — a network of three under the same brand — have walls that range from maybe 10 to 18 feet, and most are about 15. If you successfully complete (“send”) a route (“problem”), you usually end up at the top, meaning you have to either jump or climb down. Most people down climb, but some sail down off the top, which is why they always caution you to look overhead when you’re walking past a wall.

The upshot is that you can be in a very vulnerable place. Bouldering is not like going to other gyms. There’s a whole lot going on at once. You’ve got to analyze the route, figure out the sequence, physically try it, probably jump or fall off, rest, look at it again, try it again. If the gym is busy, you may be competing for space in front of the same section of wall. It’s easy to be intimidated (at first) by the more experienced climbers who sail up the routes and collapse on the mats to chat with their friends. When you’re new, it can feel cliquey and exclusive.

Even now, a few months in, I give myself the same speech inside my head as I approach the wall. “It’s just you, just you, take it slow, stay here, on this route, keep your mind here.” And I do. When I leave the gym I either feel a blissful load of brain chemicals — dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, I really don’t know which — that make me stable and at peace with the world. Or I feel mentally relaxed, like I’ve had a successful meditation session that — to be honest — is better than meditation. Usually the chemicals come after I’ve successfully made it (partway) up the wall. The mental relaxation comes from thinking about the routes, and wondering if it’s just me or are they not designed for someone 5’2.

But the good feeling doesn’t take away the vulnerability. Tonight, during a late evening session at what I think of as the Zen location of the bouldering gym (this one is often very quiet and nestled near a forest) I was working an easy 1 Hex route. I’d worked the problem before and learned I could get up higher by ignoring one of the lowest footholds. But about 2/3 of the way up I found I had a block of some kind. Just scared, I thought. Whatever, get down, try it again. And then I realized I was scared because the problem was doable. I could finish it, get to the top, and be higher on a wall than I’ve ever been before. My fear was not falling off, exactly, but getting up to the highest point and then having to make my way back down. Eighteen feet may not sound like much, but once I realized that’s what was going on, I couldn’t look at the problem again. It was a kind of oh fuck sort of moment.

The World is Made of Spaces That Make You Feel Vulnerable

So imagine me, or imagine whom you think me to be, in that gym, pressing chalk into her hands over and over again, analyzing the callouses on her palms, trying to figure out what to do next. Then remember I am in a safe space, a quiet, Zen-like gym where you have the gift of being able to just sit with a problem. It’s a gym that has that sign in the changerooms, as an overt indication that this is a safe space for all genders, but even more so, all people. This sign says, explicitly, it does not matter what you look like.

Of course, I’m taking it slightly out of context. But like most things having to do with gender, identity, inclusion and respect, what you don’t say is almost as important as what you do. The environment you create is often set up by just a few key flag poles. One may fly a pride flag — as this gym had on display tonight, for the first time I’ve seen. It may hire the right people who say whomever you are, and however you come here, you are welcome. And safe.

Because often in the world many of us, perhaps all of us at one time or another, are at risk for harm. And we are saved by each other. We don’t need a social norm to intrude on what makes us feel safe. If social norms make us feel unsafe, perhaps they shouldn’t be social norms. And we don’t need a massively popular television show, in 2019, or at any time, reinforcing a gender norm that can make some feel unsafe.

‘Big Bang’ Always Did Amy a Disservice, and In So Doing Sidelined All Women Who Fall Outside The Beauty Ideal

Why, oh why, did Amy have to feel pretty? What exactly are we supposed to make of that conversation with Raj, where she — I don’t know, has a “realization” that she’s not what some people consider a beauty ideal? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not only enormously offensive, but it’s just plain stupid. It’s stupid. Who writes this shit?

But this isn’t the first time The Big Bang Theory has shown Amy disrespect and unkindness. (There’s another word I’m looking for, but it’s fallen out of my brain. What I’m trying to say is that they could have elevated the character of Amy. They could have made her powerful and self-assured while still staying true to herself. Instead, they decided to write her as a woman who despite winning a Nobel Fucking Prize still only saw beauty — aka attractiveness to men, her potential for sexual prowess — as the only thing that mattered.) In one recent episode, Sheldon wanted Amy to spend more time on his project. So he went to the university’s president and got her lab reassigned. She’s fuming mad, of course. But later in the episode, she says she’s not mad because Sheldon got years of work taken away from her, but instead because she feared she was “losing herself in the relationship.” I’m sorry — what?

At this point you could say that The Big Bang Theory just always did a shitty job writing women and people of colour. One could ask Jim Parsons if he was ever conflicted about benefitting so handsomely from a sitcom that relied on stale gay panic jokes and thinly-veiled homophobia. I mean, Big Bang is just a terrible show. It really is. Sometimes it’s funny, but really, it’s a piece of shit.

Thankfully, it’s gone now. Mayim, stand tall. Honnold, you are my hero because you taught me about moving slowly and working through fear. Taking a course in a few days on the Fundamentals of Climbing, though, because god knows I could use some technique. I’ll be vulnerable, again, but in a safe space.

[n.b. This. The most bad-ass Honnold climbing video ever.]


A woman I don’t know well was talking to me about her university-bound son the other day. She was concerned about his choice of schools, since he was only 18 and had never lived away from home. So she wanted him to opt for the smaller, less prestigious college in lieu of the monolith that she feared might be too overwhelming.

I tried to be compassionate, but I didn’t understand. What exactly did she fear was going to happen? I started at that same monolith school when I was 17, I told her — although that was “a generation ago.” I was on my own, financially and otherwise, and yes, it was tough, but “you work it out.”

You work it out. Because, like I said to her, “as you know, as a grown up person, life doesn’t go anything like you plan.” That was the heart of the conversation for me. Spending so much emotional energy over the choice of a school seemed ridiculous, when really, nothing, ever goes as planned — and you can graduate from law school but still find satisfaction working retail.

I write for a living, and for a couple of weeks now, I’ve been missing deadlines. I’ll admit the occasional slip isn’t unusual, but now things are going a day or two overdue. My brain has just collapsed, folded, exhausted from 10 years of ghostwriting web content on health and law and finance and insurance and whatever else people will pay for.

That’s the reason for this blog post. I’m hoping to clear some junk from my brain. I can’t miss deadlines forever. I have bills to pay. But the energy that has left my mind seems to have moved into my body, which doesn’t want to sit in front of the computer anymore. It would much rather be on a rock somewhere, like it was a few days ago, feeling the stability and certainty of 100-million-year-old granite. I don’t want to think anymore. I want to move.

Back in 1991, I went on an exchange program to France. I was in my last year of high school. It was not a pleasant experience, high school in Canada or the exchange program to Lyon. It was in that school’s cafeteria where I had my first taste of rabbit meat, served in a large steel communal dish. One bite and everyone at the table promptly turned up their noses and threw the animal flesh back, uneaten. It was only upon reading the menu on the way out did I know what I’d consumed, and my horrified reaction was a precursor to the moment I became vegetarian three years later (in my dorm, eating steak, and realizing it was the flesh of an animal that had once lived).

In 2014, I put a picture of that cafeteria on my Instagram (@polikarm). It was an old, grainy shot I’d somehow digitized. I think I was trying to be creative at the time. I found that picture today, and realized 1991 was just the year before I started university in 1992. In my memory, the eras are ages apart, one attached to a [descriptor] childhood, the other to an emerging sense of self. My parents divorced in the interim, I am realizing now, as I write this, at age 44, hoping this long text will somehow dislodge my mind enough so that I can meet the three deadlines I have tomorrow.

In 2013, I went back to the school. I had not returned to Lyon since the exchange, but made a point to go as part of a skip-hopping trip to Europe that was supposed to be a second pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago (I did my first in 2003). The Camino wasn’t meant to be that time, as through a series of “happenings” I ended up staying in London for two and a half weeks, spending most of my days sitting on the grass in Russell Square, trying to access the past life memories that I thought must exist for me there, so intense was my feeling of connection.

In Lyon, I walked into a bank with an old account number and deposit slip. It was the same bank that held my allowance as an exchange student, and I wanted to confirm there were no funds still there, lingering in a dead repository, gathering minimal interest over two decades. There wasn’t. But I had managed somehow to engage in the entire conversation in French, not an easy feat for someone like me who could never get the swing of languages.

I walked the same route from the bank, to the old apartment building where I’d lived with my host family, down to the Lycee where I’d spent three stressful months. I did not enter the building, because it felt awkward and intruder-like, but observed it for a few minutes before setting on my way. I remembered a conversation I’d had with a fellow exchange student when I lived there, who’d challenged me to, “tell me what you like about France.” I answered that I liked walking to school and seeing the men drinking coffee in the outdoor cafes.

A couple of months ago I started bouldering in a gym. I’ve wanted to try rope climbing, in a gym, for a few years, but was always intimidated by such an unknown physical activity (to me) and hindered by the fact that I’d assumed I would have to find a partner to belay me. My mid-life crisis fully kicked in when I saw Free Solo and I happened to discover a bouldering gym that gave introductory classes. No ropes in bouldering, just free movement across the wall.

The intro workshop was taught by a beautiful hippie of a soul with warm energy. He told us his first time in this gym, seven years prior, he’d climbed all 18 feet to the top using one of the easy bumble bee routes. Once there, he was terrified of the height and froze. He told us this story, I assume, to make us feel more comfortable in what turned out to be — once we left the training area and into the “big gym” — an intimidating, somewhat clique-y environment that one would need an extreme level of self-confidence to overcome.

I was the oldest, shortest, and heaviest of the workshop attendees (there were only four). But I somehow managed to attach myself to the wall, if only to muddle my way around and fall off spectacularly at least once. Later on that day, the instructor told me I had “exceptional body awareness,” but that I wasn’t trusting… and he sort of trailed off. If he were to teach me, he said, he would just ask me how I felt on the wall, instead of telling me to place my body in a particular position.

He’s right, as I’ve come to realize, in the several weeks since that I’ve been going to the bouldering gym every second day or so. I can barely make it on to the problems, usually, and when I do, I can only go up so far. Then I freeze, sometimes out of fatigue, but most often out of a mental block. Could I push myself and go up further? Yes, probably. Would I fall off? Maybe. There are no ropes in bouldering. And those mats aren’t super bouncey.

But on a good day, it makes me feel strong, connected to a deeper part of myself that has been long ignored. The brash, rude, foul-mouthed child I was told not to be, who had a lot of her strength and vigour taken from her through the force of silly gender expectations. It was not until I was 44 that I fully realized what I lost of myself by growing up and putting away the angry girl, learning to always be nice in order to navigate the world without conflict. There is middle ground. You can be welcoming, compassionate, and kind without being a doormat. The strong, foul-mouthed girl I once was wants to come back out, to emerge again. Maybe soon she’ll actually finish a problem, overcoming the fear.

About a week ago, Tommy Caldwell gave a talk at an outdoor retailer about a 15-minute transit ride from where I live. When I saw it advertised, I thought, how timely and deeply special. And it was. Tommy Caldwell, as it turns out, has a beautifully open energy, without a stitch of ego. There were about 200 people crammed into this mid-sized conference room, and he was just there, walking into the room without introduction. I looked up from the transit report I’d just received from my astrologer (seriously) to see him chatting with some of the store staff. Aw, it’s Tommy Caldwell. Right there. How special.

He talked for about an hour, about climate change and climbing and Alex Honnold. He showed pictures of his bloodied knees and explained that Honnold always finished a climb looking like he’d just come out of the shower. Tommy played time-lapse footage of him and Honnold speed-climbing the Nose of El Capitan, which we in the audience watched with rapt attention, so compelling was it to see the world’s best rock climbers move like orchestrated ants across that beautiful mountain.

In response to a question, Caldwell said he would continue to climb with Honnold, explaining the soloist doesn’t want to leave Caldwell’s kids without a father, so he takes on most of the risk. As for himself, Caldwell said (and bear in mind, in case someone interested in these people actually stumbles upon this blog post, I am going by memory here, a memory tainted perhaps by several days of missed deadlines and stress, so do not quote me) that Honnold really doesn’t care (about himself, if he dies).

So that’s true, then, I remember thinking, at least from Caldwell’s perspective. Honnold really doesn’t care if he dies. I feel like I’ve known about Honnold for years, watched him on the Oprah Belief special but even then was already familiar with him. Personally, I think death is natural, but I don’t think it’s meaningless. Life has to be lived, because we are here for a reason. We’re working out karma, constantly meeting the same people we’ve had relationships with in previous lives, again and again, sorting out whatever needs to be sorted. When I wrote above that I was trying to figure out what Russell Square had meant to me in a previous life (or lives), I meant that literally.

I’m done, I think, I’ve shifted enough out of my mind now that I should be able to meet my deadlines tomorrow. The mother I spoke of and I have to attend an event tomorrow night and are meeting ahead of time to go for a walk. If she talks about her son, I’ll try to remember what it was like to be 18, feeling a sense of urgency about making the right choices in life, as if there really is such a thing as a right choice.

Let’s Talk ‘Free Solo’ And The Editorial Spin Put on Alex Honnold and Sanni McCandless’ Relationship

Update December 2019: They’re getting married! Good on ya, Sanni and Alex. ❤

Originally posted March 17, 2019

“Why do you want to do this? It’s a Totally. Crazy. Goal.” — Sanni McCandless

Today I saw Free Solo for the umpteenth time. I use the word “umpteenth,” because the actual number is somewhat embarrassing. I have seen this film many, many, times, so many times it may be the hallmark of a mild addiction.

I’m not sure what it is that grabs me so much about this movie, except it seems to be something a bit different every time. It’s the extraordinary landscapes (yes, it’s not quite as affecting on a small screen, say on a laptop, than it is in the movie theatre), the incredible score, the story, Honnold’s personality, and the way it moves slowly, but unwaveringly, from a fun little romp about a rock climber living in a van to a treatise about death, and how our passions affect those around us.

It’s that latter point that is, perhaps, the filmmaker’s justification for making Alex Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, such a key part of the narrative. And in so doing, ends up painting a somewhat slanted portrait of a woman who, we can assume, in real life, was just trying her best to have a relationship with this guy obsessed with a death-defying feat with no clear payoff.

[About five years to the day before Honnold “sent” El Capitan free solo (forgive me for using the climber lingo, I’ve been reading too many articles about the sport lately), his friend James Lucas wrote a revealing blog post about what it was like to live with the “professional climber” who seemingly had no life beyond the sport. The post gives you an idea of how hard Honnold actually worked to get where he is — that rope of muscle that extends from finger tip to shoulder is apparently no accident.]

There’s no way any girlfriend of Alex Honnold, in this context, in this highly edited film of events that took place over a year or more, could come off looking good. If she was fully supportive of his dedication to climbing, she would come across as dim-witted and lacking backbone. If she was supportive but still expressed concerns, as she does in the movie, she would come across as a hinderance to his ability to “achieve his highest potential,” or, as Honnold says in the film — describing the time he wanted to break up with her — as “bad for his climbing.”

Today, when I left the theatre (after having seen Free Solo for the umpteenth time), I heard two men talking behind me. “I just wanted him to break up with her! Just break up with her!” Other things I’ve heard coming out of the theatre: “He reminds me of… with that morose outlook on life… I’m glad he found a nice girlfriend.” Or, “I don’t think his girlfriend gets it.” Once, a man said, “that guy is crazy!”

(Crazy, well, crazy is a matter of context and perception. There’s one thing for sure — he looks beautiful climbing El Capitan. El Cap looks beautiful supporting that climber in the red shirt. It’s stunning, visceral, and inspiring.)

My own response, the first time, was that Sanni was trying to make Alex into something that he wasn’t. That he had been very blunt with her, and he’d never lied to her. But if she wanted to stick around, well, that was her choice. My feeling was that she would just keep banging her head against a wall, because — as the film chose to spin it — she was trying to get him to communicate with her in a way that he wasn’t prepared to do, and was trying to get him to make life choices that he was not prepared to make.

It was the second or third screening before I found a lot more compassion for Sanni, the character, and by then I was really more interested in the climbing part of Free Solo than the relationship.

Let’s Remember, Even Documentaries Are Edited to Form a Narrative

But it also took a couple of viewings to become fully cognizant of the editing at play, especially when it came to Alex and Sanni’s relationship. There’s one key example that makes Sanni look particularly bad, (or Alex particularly bad, depending on your perspective) but brilliantly moves ahead the story of Free Solo. In other words, it may not be chronologically truthful, but it reveals something meaningful about Alex’s personality in this context, and it makes the struggle in their relationship glaringly obvious.

When Alex decides to make his first free solo attempt of El Capitan, he declines to tell Sanni. He’s cagey about who he’s climbing with the next day, until she finally asks, as they are seated in the front of his van, “Are you thinking of soloing it tomorrow? Is that why you’re not telling me who you’re climbing with?”

“I’m not not telling you, but yeah.”

“Whoa, Alex.”


Then, the scene cuts away, and comes back. The two are seated in the same positions in the van, except now Sanni is saying she would like him to “take her into the equation” when he decides to go soloing. Eventually he says he feels “no obligation” to maximize his lifespan for her.

At first, you’re left with the impression that she sprung this conversation on him the night before he was about to attempt an extremely dangerous feat which required extreme mental preparation.

But if you are paying attention, you notice they are wearing different clothes. It’s not the same day. The conversation may have taken place days, weeks, even months before. But in that quick moment, a casual moviegoer could be left with the impression that she chose to indulge her own insecurities about the relationship at risk of getting in his head and damaging his ability to fully prepare for the climb. It seems selfish.

It’s a great scene, for a movie. For real people engaged in a relationship off screen, it’s unfair. For both of them. Because of course, during the press tour for Free Solo Honnold has had to defend his seemingly unkind response to McCandless in that moment. As if it’s any of our business, which it is not.

In this interview from September 2018, Honnold says that he was in that conversation weighing his life dream of soloing El Capitan against a “new” relationship, and maybe now the balance would be a bit different.

(In another interview, I believe he said the “new” relationship was “just” a year old, which, to me, does not qualify as “new,” but that goes to the point that it’s not for me, or any moviegoer, or anyone else, to say.)

No One Else’s Relationship is For Us to Judge

It’s easy to forget, when you’re watching a movie, that no one of us really have any right to say anything about anyone else’s relationship. That goes for us, in real life, as well. Because… well, it’s none of our business. With few exceptions, like if either partner is unsafe in the relationship, you just really have to stay out of it. It’s none of our damn business.

Because no one — I repeat, no one — lands into a perfect relationship and stays there. It just doesn’t happen. The whole point in life is to learn through situations and circumstances that are imperfect. That includes two good people being romantically involved, when they don’t quite communicate the same way or have the same interests or goals in life. Finding common ground — or finding your own limits and dealbreakers — is the very point of human engagement. And as it’s being worked out, it is no one else’s business, at all.

But when you are watching a movie, it’s easy to make judgments. The movie seems to invite it. The movie asks us to assume that Sanni is no fan of the ambitious part of Honnold that wants a continuously bigger, better climb. If that’s even true about Alex. Who knows. But it’s why the movie ends on a big laugh: we’re supposed to smile at that look on Sanni’s face, when really, we have no idea what she was actually thinking in that last scene.

The Movie Is About Alex Honnold, Not Sanni McCandless, So She Doesn’t Get to Tell Her Own Story

It is easy to leave Free Solo thinking that Sanni and Alex are wrong for each other. But it is easy to forget that the film centres around Honnold, and how everyone else fits into his life. There’s no attention paid to McCandless, which makes sense, but also means she’s at a serious disadvantage when it comes to analyzing their relationship objectively. We know about Honnold and his family background, but nothing about her and why she feels so compelled to fight for this relationship in the first place.

It’s easy to dismiss Sanni McCandless as a woman who saw Alex Honnold at a bookstore event, thought he was cute, and became his starry-eyed companion. Because that’s all Free Solo tells us about her. But it turns out she used to work at a startup dedicated to energy efficiency and runs a personal coaching business for outdoor-minded people. So, it’s not like Sanni and Alex don’t have anything in common, and the fact that their relationship has lasted this long might not be a fluke.

So, let’s leave her alone, shall we? Free Solo is an extraordinary, beautiful film, which makes me feel inspired and happy. But every aspect of it is angled. Even the 3 hours and 56 minutes of his El Capitan free solo ascent is edited down to approximately 15 minutes. So it probably wasn’t all beautiful, his movements probably weren’t all so elegant, and he may have made some unpleasant grunting sounds that were picked up by that mic that was hidden in his chalk bag. As for Alex and Sanni, since they are still together, I wish them nothing but happiness.

What is ‘Unconscionable’ in a ‘Shark Tank’ Deal?

Tonight on Shark Tank, the first entrepreneur, Meredith Jurica of Makeup Junkie Bags, didn’t need a deal. But she was a bit of an unusual case. She didn’t seem to be on the show just for the promotion. She sincerely wanted a shark partner, even after more than half the panel was out — refusing to dilute her ownership in the company for which she had a knack and a passion.

(It feels demeaning to use the word “knack,” but I can’t think of a more appropriate term. Jurica’s business felt right. It fit her. She seemed to have an intuitive sense of what she was doing. Nothing felt forced, and the numbers seemed to be working in her favor.)

As the pitch unfolded, it brought up a series of questions. Most prominently, should a shark make a deal with an entrepreneur, when that entrepreneur is probably better served by not taking on a shark partner (and the shark knows it)? Jurica was likely on the cusp of a slow build, and could have figured out how to up her manufacturing without a shark’s help. Do the sharks have a responsibility to tell her that, especially when they have something to gain (at her expense) by agreeing to invest on terms that take advantage of her different vision of the future?

Of course, Jurica may have wanted a shark for other, unstated, reasons. She had a small, in-house manufacturing operation that allowed her to perform quality control. The company was debt-free, and profitable. But a business on solid ground does not mean that an entrepreneur does not want to take the business in a new direction, one that they envision may lead to greater profit, less personal sacrifice, or just a different day-to-day routine than they currently have.

That’s to say Shark Tank viewers don’t know why Jurica applied to be on the show (or agreed to be recruited). It was a bit surprising that she seemed set on making a deal that included an equity stake. That’s a detail Sara Blakely honed in on, reminding everyone that she still owns 100 percent of Spanx. But Jurica said she wanted someone who was invested in the company’s success. She didn’t appear to want a shark to be her banker, but rather, to provide her with some insight and advice that maybe she couldn’t get from Google. (Entertainingly, during her pitch, she described turning to the search engine to look up what a potential buyer was asking her about before agreeing to supply product).

In many ways it’s a balance: you can come on to Shark Tank and demonstrate that your company is doing so well it doesn’t need an investment; but then you’re faced with explaining why you want to sacrifice equity in your company in exchange for mere money.

That’s the situation Jurica was in. And it lead to an interesting series of on-camera negotiations, ultimately between Kevin O’Leary, Sara Blakely, and Lori Greiner — who ended up getting the deal.

Things got interesting when Barbara Corcoran weighed in. Corcoran spoke in response to Jurica saying she wanted to increase brand awareness, but PR people wanted to charge her $5,000 a month, which she could not afford. Corcoran said not having money was not a liability — that when she had started her own company, lack of cash made her watch every penny.

Then she went out, using what I know as a legal term, although she may not have meant it in a legal sense: “I would be unconscionable going in with you because I don’t think you need anybody.”

This made my ears perk up even more at what was already a compelling pitch. Frequently on Shark Tank you wonder if the entrepreneur is taken advantage of, their vulnerability exploited. Presumably that’s one reason why due diligence follows any on-air dealmaking.

(In real-life venture capital, due diligence happens before the negotiations and companies only pitch to one investor at a time).

An enforceable contract has to meet many legal elements. That’s because the law is supposed to be fair (although, sometimes, I would argue, that fairness is situation-specific and not about social justice). Here’s one definition of what it means for a contract to be “unconscionable”:

“An unconscionable contract is one that is so one-sided that it is unfair to one party and therefore unenforceable under law. It is a type of contract that leaves one party with no real, meaningful choice, usually due to major differences in bargaining power between the parties.”

It’s easy to read definitions of legal terms and think that a particular situation meets it — but perceptions vary, and legislation and legal precedent decide how decision-makers apply these doctrines. That’s why lawyers and judges have jobs.

But it leads to a question: even with due diligence, can a Shark Tank deal be unconscionable? I have a law degree, but I’ve never practiced — so I will posit what I’ll call a layperson’s assumption that it’s a very high bar to meet to void a contract, in whole or in part. So in all likelihood, armchair analysts of the program might say some deals — especially in the early years — were exploitative, unfair, or unwise on the part of the entrepreneur. That doesn’t mean a deal wouldn’t be enforced. But perhaps the parties wouldn’t make the same deal a second time.

Here’s my impression of Meredith Jurica. First: awesome. I don’t even wear makeup, and I want to buy her bags. Second: smart. Third: gutsy. Fourth: empowered. Overall, I liked her a lot. And her stated rationale for taking the deal with Lori, instead of Sara — she wanted more hands-on attention from a shark, and thought Lori was more likely to provide it because she had an equity stake, which Sara would not — was reasoned and logical. But it’s interesting to note that Sara only came back in on the deal to give Meredith an “out,” by which she could get a deal without having to give up equity.

While a Shark Tank deal may not reach the level of unconscionability, the on-air negotiation with Makeup Junkie Bags perhaps demonstrated something else: the entrepreneur is typically at a severe disadvantage, because the sharks have decades of experience, and have negotiated hundreds of these deals. The entrepreneur is likely new to business, and it’s probably their first negotiation with a potential investor. On a television set. In front of cameras. Where there’s an added pressure to — knowing the pitch will be broadcast — promote the product as much as impress the sharks.

Which says only that, perhaps at the end of the day, it’s a show — with real-life consequences for the parties to the deals that are eventually signed. And I secretly hope Jurica backed out of that deal with Lori.

‘Free Solo’ Shows Alex Honnold’s Extreme Difference

There’s a scene in Free Solo, the documentary about Alex Honnold’s phenomenal feat of scaling El Capitan without the aid of climbing ropes, where the audience gets a telling glimpse of his difference.

It is a scene that seems to have nothing to do with climbing. Honnold and his girlfriend have just bought a new home in Las Vegas. It’s a new kind of permanence for Honnold, who’s been living out of his van for a decade, spending much — if not all — of his time climbing.

In the new home, Honnold calmly tries to figure out how to make coffee. The shot is intercut with a sequence where he uses a screwdriver to patiently unscrew the freezer door from the top half of the fridge. Apparently having heated something on the stove, he proceeds to consume it directly from the pot, without a hint of hesitation or self-consciousness. 

It leaves the impression not that he didn’t bother transfering the dish to a plate or bowl, but that the extra step hadn’t even occured to him. 

There are many ways to read this; if it were a fictional character study, it might signal someone who’s largely dropped out of society, unburdened by the accepted norms of how to handle day-to-day tasks. In the context of Honnold, it says something striking about his physicality, and perhaps his perception of the world. There’s extraordinary attention to dexterity, functionality, and the way matter moves in space.

(Of course, this is Honnold in the context of a documentary, which is a step removed from how he may actually perceive the world as a real-life human being). 

It’s the kind of precise analysis you would have to have if you were a climber whose very life depended on a correct judgment call of where to place your body on a sheer face of rock that offered little to no footholds upon which to climb. El Capitan, when it was created out of the earth, did not make it convenient for creatures of any species to traverse its edges. 

Perhaps I see it as a message about physicality because I’ve never been someone with a talent for dexterity, or for moving with ease and grace through space. I have mild scoliosis, and a childhood knee injury means I sometimes walk with a limp. Watching Free Solo led me to recall, almost reflexively, the number of times I’ve done a slight stumble just walking down the street — with exactly zero gradient. Scaling a rock face is simply out of my range of experience. 

Honnold said in at least one interview he was never a gifted climber. There were those much stronger than he when he was younger, but he just kept doing it and got better. But it’s obvious in the film he has some structural benefits; the bones on his feet, the lanky skeleton. Of course, there’s the vegetarian diet, the constant movement that add to the athleticism. But climbing seems to fit him, and fit his body. 

In one scene, he gets MRI results from researchers studying the amygdala part of the brain. He was analyzed, it appears, by his responses to a series of images. His amygdala showed far less — if any — activity compared to the average person. So what others would normally find stimulating, to him, had no or little effect.

This is what McGill University has to say about the amygdala:

“[T]he amygdala seems to modulate all of our reactions to events that are very important for our survival. Events that warn us of imminent danger are therefore very important stimuli for the amygdala, but so are events that signal the presence of food, sexual partners, rivals, children in distress, and so on.”

It is easy to assume researchers only know so much about the brain, and only so much about how it may work in the case of a professional free solo climber. Alex Honnold has said repeatedly he was afraid of the daunting task of El Capitan. He did not attempt the feat without significant preparation. Much of Free Solo is taken up with his diligent recording of each part of the rock face, and the choreographed movements across challenging sections.

In a TED talk in the Spring of 2018, he discussed the need for his movements to be mechanical. It was crucial that he be very well-rehearsed before doing the climb without ropes. He had already scaled El Capitan more than 50 times, by his own account, before doing so without equipment.

To say he had little activity in the amygdala that one day in the MRI room is not to say he is reckless; he may in fact be just the opposite.

That is if you can put aside the significant risk of the task itself, which spells certain death in the event of an unpredicted move or condition. It’s an unglamorous sport, free solo climbing. You have to perceive the world differently in order to try it. But for some, maybe they are encouraged on their path by the ability to successfully move through space.