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Rock star – ‘The Impossible Climb’

March 6, 2019
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Alex Honnold has been having a bit of a moment.

The legendary rock climber made history in July of 2017 when he became the first to ever free solo climb – that is, climb without ropes or other aid – El Capitan, a notorious 3,000-foot cliff located in the Yosemite Valley in California.

Honnold’s historic ascent – years in the making – was the subject of “Free Solo,” a documentary by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin that just won the Oscar for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards.

But film is just one medium through which the story of Honnold’s climb can be told.

Mark Synnott’s “The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan, and the Climbing Life” (Dutton, $28) is a longform literary exploration of Honnold’s feat. It lends texture and context to the climb, connecting it to the history of climbing in general and climbing in Yosemite specifically. By checking in with the sport’s forebears – among whom Synnott can include himself – the book allows for a depth of understanding in how climbing has evolved, as well as how that evolution has resulted in an athlete such as Alex Honnold.

Rock climbing’s success as an endeavor has come in fits and starts over the past half-century. Pioneering athletes using primitive equipment were accomplishing staggering feats in the 1950s, with great leaps forward happening in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The sport gained acceptance over time, though even the true elites were only known to a small group of hardcore fans. Even now, in a world where gyms all over the country have climbing walls, it remains a niche sport.

But Alex Honnold brought the eyes of the mainstream to the rock in a way that no one ever had. Specifically, to El Capitan, when in just four hours, he accomplished something that had never been done before. Through an ironclad will, a preternatural ability to control fear, a single-minded attention bordering on obsession and a specifically honed set of athletic skills, Honnold threw himself into a climb that, if anything were to go wrong, would almost certainly result in his death.

That climb is the climax of “The Impossible Climb,” the book’s titular event. However, this book is as much about journey as it is about destination.

That journey serves as a sort of evolutionary ladder, tracing the countercultural origins of the climbing scene in Yosemite. It’s an introduction to pioneers of the sport – guys like Royal Robbins and Warren Harding and John Bachar. It’s a look at the various groups that devoted their efforts to climbing all over the Yosemite Valley – the Stonemasters and the Stone Monkeys foremost among them. It’s also Synnott’s journey, from young transient dirtbag to sponsored climber to respected elder statesman (with a stop or two along the way).

And of course, it’s Alex Honnold’s journey. Despite the looming significance and potentially fatal risk of the feat, Honnold never seems to blink. Even when doubt creeps in, it is handled and harnessed and pressed into service of his ultimate goal.

We’re flies on the wall as some of the most imposing, difficult climbs in the entire world are tackled and conquered, all in the name of preparing Alex Honnold to do something that has never been done before.

Mark Synnott is uniquely qualified to write this book. He’s got three decades of elite climbing experience; he never ascended to the pinnacle achieved by some of his peers, but Synnott has the chops to hang with the best of the best. That perspective is writ large on every page of this book, capturing the details with an insider’s eye. Synnott KNOWS what’s important and what isn’t when it comes to climb – and he does an exceptional job bringing that knowledge to bear.

Perhaps the best example of Synnott’s talents in that arena is his ability to utilize the highly technical and precise terminology of rock climbing without getting bogged down in jargon. With the nuanced and complicated difficulty ratings and the assortment of specialized equipment, it would be easy for someone unversed in the climbing world (someone such as myself, for instance) to quickly get lost in a sea of decimal points. Instead, Synnott provides needed context without seeming to dumb it down. It strikes a nice balance; one imagines that experienced climbers would also be compelled by the story while applauding its technical accuracy.

“The Impossible Climb” tells the fascinating story behind an unprecedented feat. Mark Synnott has built something thoughtful and tense by leaning on his keenly observant presence in the moment and his decades of high-level experience. It’s a compelling narrative confidently told, one that will resonate no matter whether you’re a hardcore climber or someone who climbs nothing but stairs.

It’s an unconventional read, but hey – Alex Honnold is an unconventional dude. And without the unconventional, we’d have a much harder time discovering the extraordinary.

Last modified on Wednesday, 06 March 2019 13:06

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