About 30 meters from the top of Half Dome, on his free solo climb to the top, Alex Honnold paused.
Given, his life lay in the balance. He didn’t really know if his next move would result in
- a long fall to certain death, or
- the last realistically successful but dangerous move he would make to the top of the mountain side.
He would need to rely solely on his feet. Hand grips disappeared, at this point. If his foot slid through that last granite slab, he would perish.
I might have looked down. I would have soiled my shorts. But then again, I wouldn’t have tried to free solo Half Dome, anyway!
* * * * *
As part of my effort to write a novel about life in Tanzania, the main character’s self-developed skill of climbing the sides of buildings likely elicits a reader’s response of, “Oh really? Not sure I find this credible.”
Multiple sources describe the art of bouldering, buildering, night climbing and roof climbing. They describe experiences of people who actually do these things. Read about certain crazy individuals, generally young men who apparently had nothing better to do than to climb rock faces or buildings. All very dangerous! All very crazy, in my mind!
One particular hour-long You Tube speech replayed Alex Honnold’s speech to the “Cloud Summit X” about a year ago. In his speech, Alex described his preparation and journey towards climbing two of the most challenging rock faces in the world.
One web site listed the four most incredible free solo climbs (no ropes or ancillary equipment of any kind) of all time. It described Alex Honnold’s climb of El Capitan as the most incredible and dangerous. His climb of Half Dome constituted “practice”. His subsequent climb of El Capitan teased death.
* * * * *
As Alex described his Half Dome climb, he admitted that “things were not going right.” Small things. With potentially big consequences. From 30 meters below its summit, Alex made that last move to the top, in Yosemite National Park. As he pondered his last challenging move, he heard the laughing and chatter of tourists above him, but could not see them. They could not see him, either. In fact they remained oblivious to his death-defying experiment in free-soloing this majestic monster.
His foothold held. He then scampered the rest of the way to the top. He pulled himself over the edge of the cliff, silently gave a shout-out to his vanquished opponent (the mountain), and walked casually through the throng of tourists. He proceeded to take his shoes off.
The tourists, probably thinking that this kid simply appeared from the closeness to the cliff where he shouldn’t have gone, paid little respect. They hosted no idea that he had just climbed Half Dome without the help of equipment. Such would have comprised one of the rare feats that few people ever attempted, and lived to tell about. Most climbers at this point would have hauled up a bunch of rope and other gear, making it obvious that they had just summited the rock face, but with the help of essential equipment. That would have made obvious his accomplishment. Nevertheless, his historic climb remained unnoticed by these tourists.
He proceeded to begin his walk down the mountain with his shoes off. A few tourists commented, “Oh look how that young man is walking on gravel, without shoes! That’s incredible!” They had no idea that he had just scaled the mountain the hard way.
* * * * *
For the next nine years, Alex dreamed of, and then trained to, free solo El Capitan. He estimated that he climbed El Capitan fifty or sixty times with rope. He marked out every hand hold and foot hold that he would later use to free solo this monster of all monsters. He spent one whole day, somewhere along the face of the wall, cleaning out the loose rock and debris in a crack about the length of one human body.
When asked whether the physical or mental preparation was the hardest, he responded that, “It is tough to say.” Obviously, “essential” categorized the physical preparation. He performed finger pull-ups almost daily. He maintained a rigorous healthy diet, because he could not allow even the most minor opportunity for failure. He trained until he felt comfortable being able to do it. He dedicated himself to training, to practicing rock climbing, to ultimate execution.
On the day of his scheduled climb, it rained. He called it off.
Two days later, when the weather turned perfect, he calmly decided, “This is the day.”
* * * * *
As he spoke at the conference of computer techies, a sense of wonder forced my thoughts about both his preparation and his faith (in his ability to do it). At age 32, his free solo of El Capitan represented what he had dedicated his life to accomplish.
The film maker who chronicled his preparation and climbs, commented about his hope that the movie that documented the preparation and ultimate ascents would culminate with a happy ending. Later, the Academy that handed out awards for “Best Movies” awarded “Free Solo” the Oscar for best documentary of 2018.
Those who climbed it with gear generally took multiple days to accomplish it. Alex completed his summit of El Capitan in slightly under four hours.
* * * * *
It seems that preparation followed by faith might represent critical elements to summiting the rock walls of life. Some walls slope more steeply than others. Some walls we never climb. But we all climb walls, obstacles to our accomplishments in life. But are they really obstacles? Perhaps, in different light, they simply represent challenges. Perhaps opportunities, both great and small, intimidate us from even trying.
Since my visit to Tanzania in 2017, followed by the start of two businesses in 2018, my Tanzanian partners and I have tried to exercise these two principles to successful business climbs. We began with our preparation of business plans. After careful preparation, we incorporated our businesses and began our ascents to business success. We’re still climbing. Hopefully, none of us will look down, because the heights we have climbed could easily scare any of us. Furthermore, considering the loose footholds that we experienced could weaken our faith that we can actually do it. But our faith will only weaken if we let the loose gravel cause us to relax our grip. Looking down could immobilize us.
Despite our efforts to prepare ourselves adequately, looking back, we undoubtedly could have prepared better. We’ve encountered some soft footholds and have slipped from time to time. Each time, we have looked at our mistakes, thanked God that we didn’t come crashing down slopes, and learned from experience what we previously hoped to have learned during the business planning process.
Our life’s climbs parallel this process, it seems. As children, we generally recall our parents weening us, teaching us, disciplining us, sending us to school, and letting us fail from time to time, all to learn how to summit life’s walls.
Paths to failure seem to follow either of two roads. If we do not adequately prepare, we likely fail. If we look down or allow the loose gravel beneath our feet to intimidate us, we likely fail. The path to success involves good preparation and steadfast faith.
It makes me wonder about our faith in other paths of life. Do we dedicate ourselves to proper preparation? Do we rely upon our preparation to inspire and underpin our faith?
I have to confess, I doubt the strength of my Christian faith all the time. That is, when I think about it. That is, when I look down. I thank God for the preparation that my Christian upbringing gave me. I thank God for the confidence that my investments in worthy Tanzanian individuals will enable my partners and I to climb mountains. Now, when the gravel seems to slip and slide, I resolve to not look down. Rather, I resolve to understand the dangers of loose gravel and the lessons of loose gravel navigation. So, experience keeps enhancing our mutual education.
Perhaps, when we finally roll ourselves over our metaphoric Half Domes, nobody will notice. Perhaps, we’ll let out our own silent screams, “We did it!” Then we’ll take off our shoes and saunter over the small rocks in our jubilant descent to our day’s resting place.
* * * * *
For some strange reason, I find it difficult to ignore the rock walls that my Black brothers and Sisters continue to face.
In the United States, a movement rose up several years ago. The organizers called it, “Black Lives Matter.” For some strange reason, many people whose inherited opportunities and economic wealth have made them believe that they, as a class of humans, were, are and will always be somehow better than those without such advantages.
The recent video of the police killing of a Black man, George Floyd, sparked protests around the United States. The “Black Lives Matter” movement suddenly grew legs. World-wide, people took notice. World-wide, people escalated outrage to the unfair treatment of Black folks by those who somehow consider themselves superior.
But the lack of proper preparation for life by many Black folk, whose education and more wealthy-class upbringing has consistently left these individuals with less than adequate preparation, has also caused the rock walls of life to become more daunting and formidable. When I consider my brothers and sisters in Tanzania, I see similar deficiencies in education, training and family wealth, leading to deficiencies in economic opportunity.
The George Floyd murder leaves me heart-sick! The awareness of other racially motivated killings that this killing exposed, leaves me even more depressed. Where is our brotherly love? Where did our arrogance and sense of superiority come from?
As I consider my own smug lack of awareness of racial oppression, I can only wonder, AM I A RACIST, also?
No, I don’t hate people of other nationalities or ethnic origins. But my ambivalence, lack of awareness, and general lack of active participation in causes that seek equal racial opportunity, constitute sins of omission. Sins of omission create as much harm as sins of commission. Therefore, as I stand to the side of the causes of racial prejudice, and ignore the sins of my peers without raising a finger to counter their hate, I enable their hate. I give it traction. I give it its sense of validity. Through my inattention and lack of appreciation for what’s going on around me, I may have allowed myself to become a racist!
Nevertheless, as Matilda and I become more and more successful, and as Eric and I do the same, I hope my participation in these crazy (and some would say, insane) economic ventures leads to scaled walls that might not have been climbed, had this “nut case” not ventured outside of his comfort zone.
I want my partners, equal to me in worthiness of opportunity, to climb walls. I want them to brush themselves off, walk off with their calloused feet sauntering over rocks too course for my fellow “tourists”. And as they walk to their days’ resting places, they might just begin their planning and preparation to climb their own El Capitan! They might just free solo it, and rank among the world’s greatest economic climbers. And, the character of their spirit will help their brothers and sisters to similarly transcend vertically walled mountains.
They will have prepared and exercised faith.
And, they may even pass along that same set of disciplines to their brothers and sisters, as well as their following generations. Thirty feet from the top, they might pause to consider their next foothold. Will they doubt? Will trepidation cause their progress to stall? Without looking down, they will prudently find their last foothold, leverage unflinching faith, and emerge to the top of their mountains, quietly knowing that their unappreciated summit will represent the pattern for later summits, not only theirs, but their fellow disadvantaged and endemic-ly under-prepared siblings.
Black Lives Matter!
All lives matter.