Poor Readers, Bad Mystics: Alex Honnold and the Heights of Masculinity

Image from Free Solo – National Geographic

by Maru Pabón

Depending on how you see it, Alex Honnold has two ways to die: by falling off a mountain, or falling out of the frame. The difference between them is one of causation––perhaps the surprising appearance of, say, a flock of birds, or the distraction of prying lenses at the hands of directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. The first would confirm the mortality of the most gifted climber in the world; the second makes amends for its voyeuristic sins by making him immortal. Recognition, however, has always seemed far from Honnold’s true concerns. The ‘solo’ in Free Solo, the Oscar-winning documentary about Honnold’s successful ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan, refers as much to the featured style of climbing––ropeless, solitary––as it does to the climber’s ethos of self-sufficiency. It’s easy to believe, after hearing him speak for just a few minutes, that he’s uninterested in eternal fame, and mostly unperturbed by the idea of falling to his death in front of his girlfriend and peers. Men are always dying to prove something to themselves, and Honnold is no exception. My question is why he leaves hyperbole on the ground.

Halfway through my second year of grad school, I started sending YouTube clips of Honnold climbing impossible heights without a rope to random friends. Their responses were invariably an amalgam of confusion and disgust: “I can’t watch him, too stressful. “Lol, why are you watching climbing videos?” It wasn’t schadenfreude, I tried to explain in vain. Quite the opposite: in moments of stress, I found it more soothing to play his North Face- or National Geographic-sponsored videos than to talk to my mom, have a beer, or go for a walk. The vertiginous shots of him in free ascent, letting out small, beatific smiles while turning to look at the 2,000-foot drop below him, put my own concerns into perspective. If under those conditions he could remain calm—and not only calm, but more unfeeling than the rock under his chalky palms—then I didn’t have any excuse!

I realized that I had been taught to be ordinary, as Andrea Dworkin puts it, “the way most of us are: taught to be bad readers of men.”

Could I be as unfeeling as that rock? Probably not; I didn’t even meditate, much less aspire to the ontological status of the object. But watching Honnold was an effective balm against my neuroses that at times threatened to spiral into mania. That was certainly part of it. But there was also something catching about his personality. Perhaps it was the mismatch between his self-effacement and the aggressively masculine nature of his ambitions, or the way he refuted accusations of being a daredevil by soberly distinguishing between “risk” and “consequence.” He enthralled me, and I kind of hated myself for it. Still, I still found myself going back to Honnold’s climbing videos to think about attachments: his to climbing, the lack of one to the wall, my own to his endeavors. With the coolness of a self-appointed publicist, I started telling my friends: “Alex Honnold may not be the mystic we want, but he’s the mystic America deserves.”

Everyone hates themselves, but most men hate themselves for the wrong reasons. The few who kind of get it still think of reparations in the most egocentric of ways––self-punishment in the form of self-improvement. In my life, for reasons not worth going into, the recurring obsessive figure has been the musician. (Their personal failures, as some of them have had trouble accepting, did not equal certain death). Attraction can be borne of misreading, and I’ve repeatedly mistaken musicians’ attachments to their instruments for appealing intensities that could be transplanted onto me, or at least grow to encompass me, before realizing that I was ordinary, as Andrea Dworkin puts it, “the way most of us are: taught to be bad readers of men.”

Sanni McCandless, best supporting female person of Free Solo, is one of many such bad readers. In more ways than one––she met Honnold at a signing for his book. That is perhaps her most obvious flaw, and the only one that can really be held against her: not that’s she’s an unsupportive partner or a psychopathic leech, as many viewers have claimed, or a presence who hinders his climbing––something Honnold himself suggests at least twice during the film. When the documentary begins, Honnold is doing two things: training to free-solo El Cap, the most difficult and dangerous wall on Earth, and “trending towards a relationship.” By the time he’s suffered two compression fractures in his spine (Sanni accidentally dropped the rope while belaying him), and twisted one of his ankles (he got distracted and slipped while they were climbing together), he’s threatened to walk away from the relationship, and she’s convinced him to stay put. You can have it all, she says, “a steady girlfriend and climb.”

She sounds like she’s talking to herself. (Sitting in a studio to record narration for the film, she sometimes literally is). I can have it all, she repeats after a chorus of midcentury women: a Schrödinger’s boyfriend who’s constantly risking death while always staying alive. The fact that Honnold’s brand of climbing endangers the meaning of ‘steady’¬, if we take the word to mean reliably alive, is central to what Sanni found attractive about him in the first place, but not the thing itself. Not the climbing, but the intense irrationality of his desire. And isn’t love what happens when you switch objects but keep the structure of relation intact? If free-soloing is just one of many possible vessels for Honnold’s intensity, why should Sanni stop herself from fantasizing about being the next one? He’s weird, she says, and brutally honest, which she really likes. What she also likes, but doesn’t say, is thinking that her boyfriend’s intensity is interchangeable with romantic love, when it is not. His desire is hooked—by nails, teeth, and thumbs—to steady climbing, to the steady denial of oblivion, even at its most proximate point.

What makes Alex Honnold an exemplary specimen is that as far as men who hate themselves go, he keeps the void very much in view.

It’s not that he doesn’t reciprocate her nice feelings. She pretty much makes life better in every way, Honnold says to the camera. But is life better than death? He’s never seemed very sure. When pushed by critics to address the threat of falling, his only real companion during three- or four-hour ascents, the most he admits is that it would suck to die. But people die every day. In a conversation with Sanni the day before his first attempt to solo El Cap, she asks if taking her into the equation would ever affect his decision to climb ropeless (a reasonable inquiry!)—¬to which he responds that if he felt like he had some obligation to maximize his lifespan on Earth, then he’d have to give it up. To her follow-up question, “What is me asking, do you see that as an obligation?” he delivers a resolute, “No.”

It’s difficult to know what would. The heart wants what it wants, but the libido wants whatever will protect the ego from facing the possibility of annihilation. The cameras do a good job of capturing the power struggle between them—does he buy a house in Vegas to please Sanni or steal away in the middle of the night to climb?—but mostly turn towards their handlers. Indeed, at times it almost seems as if Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin keep the project going only to convince Honnold that filming will affect his focus, and to dissuade him from his obsession. Everyone involved in the documentary expresses discomfort with the morbid turn their job may take—except for Honnold, who seems intent on cancelling the difference between climbing with cameras on him and without. Whether his failure results in trauma or profound guilt for the survivors doesn’t have much to do with him. In any case, he wouldn’t have much time to think about it, since it only takes 11 seconds to fall 2,000 feet.

What makes Alex Honnold an exemplary specimen is that as far as men who hate themselves go, he keeps the void very much in view. In fact, he’s attached himself directly to it while simultaneously denying its pull: the film’s only convincing portrayal of having it all, and an illustrative reminder of the refrain’s patriarchal ethos. “No matter how well I ever do at anything, it’s not that good,” he says, echoing many a man I’ve known. “The bottomless pit of self-loathing. I mean, that’s definitely the motivation for some soloing.” I wonder if most of his go-to metaphors have to do with heights, and if his motivation is more related to self-hatred than he’s able to admit. His mother seems to think so. A French teacher who only ever said je t’aime to Honnold and his sister, never “I love you,” she explains that no one in the family developed an emotional bond with her husband. His obsession, “monomania,” as she puts it, was travel. “He lived to travel like Alex lives to climb.” According to her he also chastised his son relentlessly, something Honnold has fully repressed. The only thing he remembers is how much his father nurtured his climbing before his early death. It’s a convenient fiction, and he’s willing to admit it. It constitutes a key component of what he calls his armor, the mind-helmet he puts on when he climbs.

There is still the matter of what happens underneath that helmet. If he’s not communing with God or disassociating into the rock, where does he go? It’s too easy to consider him a mystic, and far less interesting than seeing him as someone harnessed more perilously than most to a common bad object—masculinity. Perhaps because the object of his attachment is so extreme and the consequence, as he likes to distinguish, so severe, that the synthesis of his self-loathing and self-satisfaction results in something greater than mania––though I’d be a fool to call it transcendence. At best, Honnold is a reluctant mystic, as mystical as a straight, white man can be. He doesn’t derive pleasure from abandon, but from denying himself the last step towards it, over and over again until the task is done.

“So delighted,” he says in a small voice once he’s reached the top of El Cap––a previously unimaginable achievement that surely makes him one of the most gifted athletes alive. He says it again, and that’s the extent of his celebration of life. Then he gets a crying Sanni on the phone. He says he loves her, casually, and I believe him. But I still wonder if she’d rather be loved like the wall.


Maru Pabón is a Puerto Rican writer and translator currently based in Amman, Jordan. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Yale University. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Momus, The Brooklyn Rail, ArabLit Quarterly, and Barricade: A Journal of Antifascism & Translation.