Two years ago, in January no less (brrr), Tommy Caldwell (then 36) and Kevin Jorgesen (30) free climbed El Cap's Dawn Wall (5.14d—even more impossible)—32 pitches, but much harder climbing overall: it took them nineteen days (after seven years of preparation and practice runs), and toward the end there was concern whether they would succeed. But succeed they did, and the whole climbing world—which had been watching rapt for most of those two-plus weeks—cheered. It was breathtaking to watch their feat day after day as it was covered in such newspapers as the San Jose Mercury News and New York Times.
Here's pitch 15 (5.14c). Looks like fun, doesn't it?
A "free climb" is different from a "free solo." The first involves the use of ropes and static protection (pitons, cams, chocks—or as for much of El Cap, bolts and quickdraws) simply to back the climbers up—catch them—in the event of a fall. The second involves . . . no protection at all. Zilch. It's just you and the rock, sticky rubber and grit, baby. It is, in a word, absolutely crazy.
But Alex Honnold, god love him, is beautifully crazy, and thankfully, crazy skilled and strong and confident and, yes, fearless, in a way most people aren't. Though as they do say about solo climbers—as was said about the legendary Ueli Steck (40) just over a month ago when he fell to his death on Everest—the only old free soloer is a retired one. I seriously hope Alex doesn't follow in Steck's path.
My favorite El Cap story is and always will be Lynn Hill's freeing of the Nose in twenty-four hours. When she reached the top, she proclaimed, "It goes, boys"—speaking directly to all those male climbers whom she'd just beat. Famous words and beautiful courage, persistence, and strength.
That said, I kinda think I should start dreaming just a bit bigger . . . Maybe it's time to start back at the rock gym, for example? Get past the 5.8s into the 5.9s? Anything's possible.