If you’ve never heard of Alex Honnold and are looking for a bit of inspiration this morning, I beg you to read a bit about this man and what he’s accomplished. If you keep up with documentary releases or paid attention to the Oscars this year, you may have seen 2018’s “Free Solo” win an Oscar for best documentary feature last Sunday.
Alex Honnold is a free solo rock climber—he climbs without ropes. The documentary is all about catching the first free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, at 3,200 feet. As someone who is terrified of heights and falling…this was both fascinating and stressful.
I had not heard of this film until after the Oscars. I watch tons of documentaries that come out on Netflix, but I don’t watch the news or anything to keep up with new releases online or at festivals, etc. So this was quite an extraordinary surprise.
Around a year ago, I developed a fascination with Mt. Everest. I read books about the epic accomplishment of surviving a climb to the summit and, more importantly, the climb back down. (According to most documentaries and books I’ve read, most of the deaths on Mt. Everest occur on the attempt back down from the summit, not on the way to the top.)
This documentary tapped back into that fascination, and I went immediately to rent it on YouTube for 48 hours. I ended up watching it three times within that rental period.
The first surprise came as Alex’s mother spoke about how he exhibited signs of Asperger’s as a child. And indeed, throughout the film, it is easy to pick up on many Asperger’s traits which are common in men on the spectrum, and this may be an important source of what are, in my opinion, superpowers.
Alex Honnold is, in short, a genius and one of the most impressive human beings I’ve ever heard of. The idea of climbing thousands of feet up the side of a cliff, where there are many areas that feel just like “glass,” is terrifying enough. But Alex is unique in that he shows what appears to be zero fear and anxiety about what he is doing. He never thinks about falling when he is climbing; there is no room in his incredibly focused mind for self-doubt. It almost seems like he’s incapable of it. Similarly, he exhibits emotion in a vastly different way from neurotypical expectations, as demonstrated by his new girlfriend. He must be coached on how to express his love for her in words. She tells him that when she shares his feelings with him, she needs him to tell her that it is ok and that he understands. When he tries, he sounds robotic, as she comments, “I don’t believe you, but I appreciate that you’re trying,” she says with a giggle. He says he had to teach himself “how to hug” when he was in his early 20s because his family just didn’t do things like hug and say, “I love you.”
There are many times as he shares past experiences when it feels like he is suffering a great deal internally, and that he deals with this with a stoic exterior and suppression of emotions. But the more I listened to him and watched him perform, I started to realize that I didn’t believe there was a “personality disorder” going on here. I feel he is simply autistic. And it makes him all the more interesting and fascinating and impressive. (I don’t think he’s taken steps to identify himself as autistic, and it isn’t my place to “diagnose” him, this is just my opinion based on what I’ve learned about Asperger’s over the years.)
The most convincing aspect of Alex that points toward Asperger’s has nothing to do with his expression, or lack thereof, of emotion about his life, his risk-taking and his love life. It is his focus.
Free solo climbing is not something lots of people do. It is not “normal” to attempt something like this, not even for the craziest thrill-seekers. I think the documentary mentioned that less than 1% of the mountain climbing community attempts free solo climbing. And it’s not like he’s been building up to do this one big risky thing, and then he’ll be done. He performs these free solo climbs as often and routinely as he eats breakfast. He lives and breathes it. It is, unapologetically, what he “loves most in life,” as he straightforwardly tells his girlfriend. He will most likely always “choose climbing over a lady.” This question comes up as he discusses that he would never be willing to give up his intensely risky lifestyle, not for anything in the world. Because this is what he loves, and his life is not about being “comfy and happy. Anybody can be comfy and happy. Nobody did anything great because they were comfy and happy.” Instead, his life is about “performance.”
This struck me very hard because I can relate to this one aspect of his life. My life, too, in the absence of human connection, has revolved around performance. When I was a kid and through until I was around 19 or 20, my life revolved around being the best at dancing and color guard and instructing and teaching, and whatever else I was attempting. I wanted to be the best everything. Eventually, this morphed into a poisonous obsession with being society’s idea of a perfect woman as well, but that’s another story for another day.
I am fascinated with Alex for a lot of reasons. For one, I wish I had the gift of being free from fear. He seems to be completely immune to typical sources of anxiety. I think maybe he feels pain from some earlier experiences in life, but if anything, that pain feeds his focus and acceptance of risk. Not because he is suicidal or lives with a death wish, but because he accepts that death is a natural part of life and doesn’t have to be devastating. Perhaps one of the most poignant remarks in the film is when his girlfriend shares with the interviewer that when one of Alex’s friends who also climbed free solo fell to his death and his wife was distraught, Alex simply commented, “what did she expect?”
The difference between Alex and many people who may hold the same perspective on life is that Alex is not drug down by this acceptance of life and death. He doesn’t mourn the fact that he doesn’t live his life pursuing typical human connections and pleasures, he’s chosen this life based on what he feels and loves and believes. And he is uncompromising. Fuck what anyone else thinks or says. The people who love and care for him most get it, and they accept it.
Finally, the film struck a nerve in me because I’ve wasted a great deal of time feeling depression, guilt and anxiety that stems from comparing myself with others, and what I’m supposed to be as a perfect woman. Aspects of human nature make it obvious that there is no such thing as a perfect woman who can give another human being everything he/she needs. In relationships, I’ve always fallen into a pit of jealous possessiveness which inevitably turns into self-directed hatred and feelings of inadequacy because of my perceived failings. Alex’s past girlfriends may have felt like they were simply not enough to satisfy Alex in everything that he needs in life. But “Sanni” decides she is going to try and accept the fact that she is not “everything” to Alex, because she loves him and wants him to be happy. Is there anything braver than that? As someone who struggles a great deal with this, I think it’s pretty amazing.