I had an epiphany while listening to Tim Ferriss interview Alex Honnold on The Tim Ferriss Show Podcast. Honnold is the greatest free-solo rock climber in the world. He climbs thousand-foot high sheer cliffs with no ropes to catch him if he falls. It’s fair to say that at any moment on any one of his free-solo climbs, one tiny slip-up and he’d fall to his death.
Quirky Brain Anomaly?
I first heard of Honnold in an Outside Magazine piece in which the writer was documenting a neuro-imaging study on Honnold, the hypothesis being that his brain handles fear and risk differently than the rest of us. Watching him climb in Youtube videos, the validity of such a hypothesis was clear – surely no mere mortal could subject himself to such danger without some quirky brain anomaly that allowed him to tolerate, on a daily basis, what would seem to any sane person a ridiculously high level of risk.
Predicting His Own Death
My epiphany came when Ferriss asked Honnold (tactfully) to predict exactly how he (Honnold) would die. I was shocked by Honnold’s answer and I can’t be the only one. Whenever I hear something like that – radically different than what I was expecting – I try to dive deep rather than dismiss, and in this case I was led to completely rethink the concept of risk.
The answer I expected, and the one I figured most listeners and viewers of his videos also expected, was that one day he would make a mistake on a route and end up falling to his death. But Honnold predicted a somewhat more quotidian, if still dramatic, end to his own life. What astonished me was that Honnold didn’t skip a beat. His delivery was swift and sure and so confidently delivered as if it were a fait accompli – there was obviously not a doubt in his mind.
His answer was that he would probably die as a result of some random backcountry accident, like getting swept away by an avalanche. Let me just reiterate that Honnold sounded uncannily certain of this outcome.
Far From Hubris
Here’s a guy who practically everyone on earth who knows anything about him thinks that he is staring down death every time he climbs a sheer rock face without any protective gear whatsoever, who any sane person would think is cheating death every day he survives a free-solo climb, stating succinctly, matter-of-factly and without a hint of bravado or hesitation that he will probably die in some random backcountry wilderness accident, not by falling off the sheer face of rock cliff the type of which he climbs every day without rope which would challenge some of the world’s most talented climbers even with a rope! Wow!
The other shocking thing about Honnold’s retort is that it wasn’t hubris – far from it. He wasn’t eye-rolling as if he couldn’t imagine how the greatest climber in the world could possibly fall off a rock face. In fact, what came across most prominently was Honnold’s modesty. He wasn’t speaking as the world’s greatest climber, but rather just another guy out there on the rock trying to solve its challenging puzzles.
So What Gives?
So what gives? What’s the deal with this guy acting as if the risk of falling off the rock is practically non-existent? I listened to Hollold carefully, did a deep dive, and it hit me – he had very carefully and methodically, over time, developed an astonishing risk re-engineering system that effectively took the concept of risk and broke it down into component parts that could be carefully analyzed, visualized, practiced and planned out of existence.
Honnold will never free-solo a route that he hasn’t mastered several dozen times with ropes. Mastery of these routes involves intense analysis of every move and its difficulty, where each move occurs in the climb and precisely which moves precede and follow those, and imagining what each one of those move might be like under differing conditions of weather, fatigue, hunger or any other variable he can imagine. This repetitive analysis literally puts him into the position of being able to mentally perform the climb over and over in his mind. I could just imagine him literally feeling the texture and solidity of every foothold and handhold and forming kinesthetic images in his mind of the precise muscle fibers activated and the proprioceptive sensations of his bodyweight suspended in the air in relation to the rock by those muscles.
Honnold noted in the interview that when people watch him climb on Youtube they imagine that he just walks up to a rock wall and starts to scale it. What they don’t see is the hundreds if not thousands of hours of practice on climbs of similar difficulty and the repetition on that particular climb that that lead up to the moment when he decides he is ready to free-solo a climb. For every daring act of free-soloing you see on video, he has spent hundreds of hours mastering each move on that rock with protective gear until every move is practically second nature.
Honnold doesn’t only visualize executing every move of the climb perfectly, he also opens his mind to all the scary negative possibilities. What if a particularly tenuous handhold is damp? What if a toehold that requires a stretch is just out of reach? Preparing in this way allows him to experience the adrenaline-rush from his limbic system while he’s still on the ground, thus dampening its effect and making him much less likely to panic when he’s on the rock. You could hear in his speech that his self-talk while on the rock has a component of mindfulness – he’ll say things like “wow this is scarier than I imagined” – as if he is something of an outside observer of his own thoughts.
I was astonished to hear that the world’s greatest climber is willing to back down off of a rock face if he’s “not feelin’ it”, But I realized that this is a key component of Honnold’s risk re-engineering system. He will put his visualization powers to use at any point in the climb and mentally rehearse the moves that are to come. If he’s not ready mentally and physically to nail every one of those moves perfectly, he will back off, climb down, and go home to his van. Listening to him speak it sounded as if he’s almost constantly adjusting his mental risk assessment dials based on his internal and external sensors. If the conditions in his mind, his body, the weather, and the rock aren’t precisely in tune, he’s willing to back off.
The overarching lesson for me was that I was not listening to a wild action-hero daredevil with a death wish, but rather a calm, rational actor who opened his mind and really listened to his body, his mind, nature and the rock and absorbed and processed every signal and applied that processing to approach the risk of each climb with calm & equanimity. There was not a hint of hubris or bravado in his analysis but rather the rational voice of one who had amazingly re-engineered the concept of risk in a way that few others ever will. I felt a twinge of contrition at having judged him and others who look like they’re taking insane risks in Youtube videos, without considering the immense mental and physical energy that they may have expended putting a similar system into place. I was reminded of the fear of flying paradox. If you panic at a little turbulence, then calm down when you land and head home, your fears are completely irrational and out-of-touch with reality. Turbulence almost never results in a plane crash, and you are far more likely to die on the car ride home than you are on the plane. The same may be true of all of us as we watch Alex Honnold climb sheer rock faces on Youtube. It might be worth considering, just for a moment, that as we gaze up at Honnold slowly morphing into a tiny speck as he spiders his way up the rock face, that the unhealthy, sedentary lives we are living down here are really the risky and dangerous ones.