THE IMPOSSIBLE CLIMB
Alex Honnold, El Capitan and the Climbing Life
By Mark Synnott
When he was 10, Mark Synnott asked his father what happens when you die. “You’re worm food,” his dad replied. The horror of nothingness! The absence of anything! Cue an adolescent obsession with what Synnott calls “risk-taking as an existential salve.” As a teenager in New Hampshire, he organized his ski-racing buddies and led them up cliffs and into half-frozen water, assigning prizes and ranks as motivation in his own invented game of institutionalized chicken. He’s compelled less by death itself, it seems, than by taunting the moment when death becomes inevitable: after you’ve fallen, before you hit the ground.
Fast forward, and it’s no surprise that the daredevil teenager became a full-time rock climber. Climbing allows him to enter “the now” — what Buddhists might call mindfulness — not just while clinging to rocks in midair but while “strolling down a fairway or looking out the window at a birch tree swaying in the breeze. That’s … when I knew I had found my calling, the reason I was alive — to seek out and climb the great big walls of the world.”
Synnott’s new book, “The Impossible Climb” — part memoir, part exploration of the climbing culture — gives context for Alex Honnold’s historic unroped ascent of El Capitan, Yosemite’s 3,000-foot slab of “glacier-polished granite” (a climb that was recently documented in the film “Free Solo”). Synnott lays out a series of generational portraits of climbing communities, chronicling the rise and fall of progressive dirtbag cultures along with the waves of ethical debate that have characterized each generation. Is it cool to put bolts in walls? What about, like, a lot of bolts? How about “spraying” — a climber’s term for gossiping about private accomplishments — or climbing in vulnerable ecosystems? If you fall while climbing and get caught by a rope, do you have to start over at the bottom?
If Synnott’s own generation has an enduring question, it’s how to balance the solitary ethos of climbing with the demands of an audience hungry for coverage, particularly in the first years of internet storytelling. After Synnott’s 1999 ascent of Trango in northern Pakistan, heavily documented by the now-defunct sports website Quokka, a climbing purist wrote in The American Alpine Journal that the ascent was “business climbing” — a sick burn if there ever was one. “Were their accomplishments equitable with the amount of publicity it garnered?” the critic asks. They were not. But do they need to be? Synnott grapples with these questions even as he takes sponsorships that place him in the cross hairs of the discussion. When the North Face hires its first team of professional climbers in 1994 — a heretofore unheard-of position that introduces the politics of corporate alignment to daredevils on the fringes — Synnott isn’t among them, but he does make the team in a subsequent year, further enabling both his quest for adventure and his corporate allegiance. “Sellout” is an insult, sure, but it’s also a code word for success, and money makes adventures happen.
Enter Alex Honnold, wunderkind and weirdo, another North Face athlete who’s assigned to a trek in Borneo with Synnott. Honnold is a self-proclaimed “total loser,” a World of Warcraft aficionado who sometimes goes months without talking to other people — and his climbs are so extraordinary that when he posts one to a climbing chat room on April 1, 2008, people think it’s a hoax.
Honnold is volatile, dorky and self-absorbed; he eschews helmets, reads New Yorker articles while driving and harasses climbing partners about how much salt they put on their food. He falls into crevasses and crawls out giggling. He’s selfish, a mutual friend reports, “in the way that a psychopath is selfish” — but as he grows famous, as “close to being a household name in America as any climber had ever been,” he starts an eponymous foundation for renewable energy, funneling a third of his income into it each year. Being broke, living in his van, isn’t risky to Honnold. It’s not like falling off a cliff, or perhaps going through life without finding a community where misfits can shine and excel.
The tensions and friendship between the two men propel the latter half of “The Impossible Climb,” both in and between the lines. A chapter about studies of Honnold’s brain (his amygdala, which regulates psychological response to fear, seems less active than other people’s) is loaded with Synnott’s implicit question: Why can’t I be like that? Can I be like that?
“The Impossible Climb” is an accomplished portrait of two remarkable lives — but its major weakness, of both style and imagination, lies in Synnott’s depictions of women. Professional climbing is largely a man’s world, but rather than examine this dynamic as he does countless others, Synnott uses descriptions that further diminish and objectify the women he encounters. Consider one whom the men meet in Borneo: She has a name, but we don’t know it, because the men dub her Hello Kitty. What do we learn about Hello Kitty? She’s petite, she has big breasts and — in a moment that clearly looms large in Synnott’s memory — she goes braless at breakfast one morning. Other women are “feisty,” “effervescent,” “sexy,” “voluptuous” or have a “smile that would make most men melt.” The top-ranked climber Emily Harrington is “spunky and quite attractive.” These lazy descriptions are startling given Synnott’s nuanced treatment of even incidental male characters, but the contrast is no coincidence. Like a jazz record or a dog-eared book by Dostoyevsky, the women here are simply another tool for characterizing the men around them — as well as vehicles for Synnott’s fascination with the younger Honnold’s sex life.
This fascination is shameless and enduring, fitting into themes of aging that build throughout the book. Aging is, after all, what happens if you don’t die, and after decades of risk-taking, Synnott is finally forced to grapple with the consequences of survival. Nearing 40, he begins to out of his calling. Many of his friends have died in the field. He has been frequently apart from his four children (in the acknowledgments, he writes that he hopes the book will help them understand the sport that has drawn him away from the “responsibilities of being a husband and a father”). Perhaps this is why, in later chapters, Synnott’s descriptions of Honnold seem saturated with longing and insecurity. Synnott wants what Honnold has: acclaim, sex, relative youth, apparent fearlessness, long lines for autographs at public events. Honnold — in an evaluation that would horrify Synnott’s younger self — calls his older friend, who grows ever more square, “Mr. Safety.”
The book concludes with a white-knuckle account of its titular climb, Honnold’s groundbreaking ascent of El Capitan. Before his first attempt, surrounded by media who see Honnold as a superhero, Synnott wants to ask him, “Do you feel trapped by who you have become?” But he bites his tongue. Maybe he doesn’t want to know the answer. Maybe he’s afraid that the answer is no.
The famous climb, when it happens, isn’t just a triumph over gravity; it’s a triumph over the author. If Honnold is peaking as an athlete, it means that Synnott’s time of climbing glory, like those of so many before him, is finally coming to an end.