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.