Alex Hon­nold scales moun­tain cliffs with­out a rope or har­ness. It may seem like mad­ness, but he has sim­ply learned how to tran­scend fear. His meth­ods can help you to con­quer your own up­hill bat­tles



There is a red in­sect crawl­ing up a cliff face. It inches higher, a blem­ish on the vast, grey can­vas of the moun­tain. The tree­tops be­low are re­mote enough to have lost all of their in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ter­is­tics – just a car­pet of green. As the red dot per­sists in its as­cent, we re­alise that it’s a man: Alex Hon­nold, ar­guably the most dar­ing, am­bi­tious climber in the world. Slowly, steadily, he makes his way to the top, us­ing only the nar­row­est fis­sures as holds for his feet and hands. So be­gins Na­tional Ge­o­graphic’s new doc­u­men­tary on Hon­nold, Free Solo.

Hon­nold climbs with­out ropes or sup­port of any kind, and seem­ingly with­out fear. “Here’s what I don’t un­der­stand,” a US talk-show host says in voice-over. “One lit­tle mis­take, one lit­tle slip, and you fall and die.” Cut to Hon­nold, hunched and awk­ward in the TV stu­dio, his eyes peer­ing out from un­der a mop of black hair. “Yeah,” he says, shrug­ging. “You seem to un­der­stand it well.”

Free-solo­ing is a niche sport. Of the few who have at­tempted it, many have fallen to their deaths. At 32, Hon­nold is a vet­eran of hun­dreds of free-solo climbs, and his peers in the climb­ing com­mu­nity com­pare his achieve­ments to the moon land­ing, or the break­ing of the sound bar­rier. One such climb was his 2017 as­cent of el Cap­i­tan, a for­bid­ding rock for­ma­tion in Yosemite Na­tional Park, Cal­i­for­nia. Within the sport, “el Cap” is con­sid­ered climb­ing Val­halla, and it had never been con­quered by a free-soloist. This near-ver­ti­cal, 900m gran­ite rock face has been the scene of nu­mer­ous tragedies. On 2 June this year, two Amer­i­cans died in a failed as­cent, de­spite us­ing ropes and climb­ing equip­ment. To at­tempt it with­out ropes, then, might be con­sid­ered reck­less at best – and sui­ci­dal at worst.

Not con­tent with his mas­tery of el Cap­i­tan, Hon­nold, along with fel­low climber Tommy Cald­well, re­turned this year to break the el Cap­i­tan climb­ing speed record, reach­ing the up­per ridge after one hour, 58 min­utes and seven sec­onds. To push your­self to such lim­its of phys­i­cal and men­tal ex­er­tion re­quires ded­i­ca­tion, skill and, above all, fear­less­ness. How does Hon­nold – who un­til re­cently lived in a van – free him­self from fear? The trick may be that he doesn’t.

Risk As­sess­ment

Fear has al­ways played a cru­cial role in our evo­lu­tion. With­out it, our species may well have fa­tally suc­cumbed to apex preda­tors, rag­ing rivers, poi­sonous fruit, or, worst of all, other Homo sapi­ens. And we still live with the le­gacy of our hunter-gath­erer past: in Over­com­ing Anx­i­ety, clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist He­len Ken­ner­ley ex­plains that we are hard-wired to be born with a fear of snakes, heights, con­fined spa­ces and more. In most cases, this is sen­si­ble. “Fear is im­por­tant,” says Cather­ine Harmer, a pro­fes­sor of cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science at Ox­ford Univer­sity. “It’s what stops us from step­ping in front of a mov­ing car, or fall­ing off a cliff. But it does more than just pro­tect us – it gives us en­ergy in stress­ful sit­u­a­tions. You’ll find you can run faster if you’re be­ing chased.”

You might feel it first in your chest or in your throat, but fear starts in the

thal­a­mus, a small struc­ture in your brain that re­lays mo­tor and sen­sory sig­nals to your cere­bral cor­tex. A re­gion called the amyg­dala then de­cides how you should re­act to a given stim­u­lus – all of which hap­pens be­fore you are con­sciously aware of the dan­ger. Next, the hy­po­thal­a­mus gets in­volved, trig­ger­ing pro­cesses that re­sult in the re­lease of stress hor­mones adrenalin and cor­ti­sol. With these flood­ing your sys­tem, your blood pres­sure will rocket, your pupils will di­late, and your breath­ing will ac­cel­er­ate to send oxy­gen to your mus­cles in prepa­ra­tion for “fight or flight”. How help­ful all this is de­pends on the sit­u­a­tion. A surge of en­ergy is vi­tal when you’re trapped be­neath a fallen tree, but when you’re stuck in an over­crowded Tube car­riage, the same flood of stress hor­mones – the evo­lu­tion­ary re­sponse – can be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. As we en­counter fewer gen­uine life-threat­en­ing dan­gers in con­tem­po­rary life, the thal­a­mus can over­re­act to ev­ery­day hor­rors, from work dead­lines, oblig­a­tory so­cial func­tions and re­la­tion­ship con­flicts to a drop in your In­sta­gram fol­low­ers.

In short, our minds have not yet caught up with our sur­round­ings. More than one in 10 of us will suf­fer from a “dis­abling” fear-re­lated dis­or­der at some point in our lives; ac­cord­ing to Anx­i­ety UK, an es­ti­mated 13% of the adult pop­u­la­tion will de­velop a pho­bia. And it’s getting worse. A 2017 re­view by the UK Coun­cil for Psy­chother­apy found that anx­i­ety lev­els among Bri­tish work­ers had risen by 30.5% since 2013, lead­ing to a num­ber of ad­di­tional con­di­tions in­clud­ing in­som­nia and panic disor­ders. What we need is the abil­ity to tap into the fear re­sponse when we need it, and to pause it when we don’t. The ques­tion is: how?

Scare Tac­tics

Alex Hon­nold has only ever suf­fered two in­juries while climb­ing. In one in­stance, he fell on the first pitch of a climb, sus­tain­ing com­pres­sion frac­tures in two ver­te­brae. The sec­ond in­jury was a sprained an­kle – no triv­ial ail­ment when your ca­reer in­volves sup­port­ing your­self half­way up a cliff face. But nei­ther in­jury, it seems, has caused him to slow down. While he ac­knowl­edges that a fall from a height of 50m or more would cause his body to “ex­plode on im­pact”, fear is not some­thing that rules his climb­ing.

“I like to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween risk and con­se­quence. When I’m free-solo­ing, I think the risk that I’ll fall is quite low, but the con­se­quence is se­ri­ous,” he ex­plains. “That’s one of its ap­peals – tak­ing some­thing that seems dan­ger­ous and mak­ing it feel safe. Some­times, my con­fi­dence comes from feel­ing super fit. Some­times, it comes from re­hearsal.”

Rep­e­ti­tion, then, may be the key to mas­ter­ing fear. No­tably, Hon­nold doesn’t fol­low any spe­cific ex­er­cise reg­i­men. In­stead, since his teenage years, he has used the moun­tains as his gym, prac­tis­ing finger holds and lit­tle else. Phys­i­cally, he can be in no doubt of his abil­i­ties. His train­ing mim­ics his end goal, and he is ac­cus­tomed to work­ing in that en­vi­ron­ment.

Free-solo­ing isn’t the only sport with in­her­ent risks. Free-div­ing also has its fair share of mis­ad­ven­ture. Her­bert Nitsch, 48, is the cur­rent world free-div­ing cham­pion and the holder of 33 records, in­clud­ing the world’s deep­est free-dive of 253.2m in 2012. He agrees that fa­mil­iar­ity is one of the most ef­fec­tive ways of learn­ing to calm the mind when you are un­der ex­treme con­di­tions.

“To be suc­cess­ful in any free-dive, you have to be dead calm. The state you’re look­ing for is sim­i­lar to how you feel after wak­ing up on a lazy Sun­day morn­ing,” he says. “And you need to stay in this sleepy con­di­tion for the du­ra­tion of the dive. By spend­ing a lot of time in the ocean far be­low the sur­face, my fear mor­phed into sim­ple dis­com­fort and then, even­tu­ally, into some­thing closer to joy.”

Hon­nold puts it suc­cinctly: “You’re not try­ing to con­trol your fear. You’re just try­ing to step out­side of it.” The key, he be­lieves, is to “ex­pand your com­fort zone”, so op­er­at­ing in peril be­comes al­most mun­dane. “I do this by prac­tis­ing the moves over and over again, to work through the fear un­til I can’t feel it any more,” he ex­plains. He also uses vi­su­al­i­sa­tion, pic­tur­ing him­self on the moun­tain, see­ing ev­ery hold, ev­ery crevice, ev­ery con­ceiv­able out­come. This puts him in a med­i­ta­tive state. He prac­tises men­tally in this way as of­ten as pos­si­ble – when he’s walk­ing to the shops, when he’s dress­ing, even when he’s do­ing the wash­ing up.

“You don’t beat fear by re­fus­ing to ac­knowl­edge it,” says Nitsch. “You beat it by iden­ti­fy­ing sit­u­a­tions that could cause anx­i­ety and ap­proach­ing them prag­mat­i­cally. Put the sit­u­a­tion into per­spec­tive and dis­sect it to its minu­tiae, un­til you can make sense of your fears. With each sit­u­a­tion, you’ll re­alise there is less to be afraid of than you might think.”

Los­ing Your Nerve

Merel Kindt is a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Am­s­ter­dam who has ex­per­i­mented with the ef­fect of beta block­ers on fear. That beta block­ers – which dis­rupt the dis­tri­bu­tion of adrenalin, low­er­ing your heart rate – can help to keep you calm is not sur­pris­ing. What is cu­ri­ous, how­ever, is that the ben­e­fits can linger long after the pa­tient has stopped tak­ing the drugs. Kindt be­lieves that the body sim­ply grows ac­cus­tomed to ex­pe­ri­enc­ing stress with­out phys­i­cally re­spond­ing to it.

This is a cru­cial point. While our anx­ious thoughts can trig­ger the phys­i­o­log­i­cal ef­fects of fear, it works the other way, too. Our sweaty palms and ham­mer­ing heart are what tell our brain that we’re in peril. In the ab­sence of the symp­toms, we as­sume we’re fine.

Else­where, Ben Sey­mour of Cambridge Univer­sity’s Be­havioural and Clin­i­cal Neu­ro­science In­sti­tute has taken a slightly dif­fer­ent ap­proach. Us­ing a method called “de­coded neuro-feed­back”, Sey­mour and his col­leagues have been look­ing for a way to scan the brain for pat­terns of ac­tiv­ity re­lat­ing to spe­cific fears – and ul­ti­mately over­write the mem­ory.

In one ex­per­i­ment, they cre­ated a “fear mem­ory” in 17 vol­un­teers by shock­ing them with an elec­tric cur­rent each time they were shown a cer­tain im­age, and noted their brain pat­terns. Once this was es­tab­lished, they then pre­sented the sub­jects with a re­ward ev­ery time they dis­played any brain ac­tiv­ity re­lated to that mem­ory. This scram­bled the cir­cuits: the next time the sub­jects were shown the same images, they barely re­acted. “Re­mark­ably, we could no longer see the typ­i­cal skin-sweat­ing re­sponse you as­so­ciate with fear,” says Sey­mour’s col­league Ai Koizumi. “Nor could we iden­tify en­hanced ac­tiv­ity in the amyg­dala, the brain’s fear cen­tre.” They had erased the fear with­out the sub­jects ever be­ing aware of the process.

But while such re­sults show prom­ise for those suf­fer­ing with anx­i­ety or post­trau­matic stress dis­or­der, re­mov­ing fear from our emo­tional reper­toire is not the end goal. The dose makes the poi­son,


and a lit­tle anx­i­ety can be good for us, ar­gues Jeremy Snape, psy­chol­o­gist at Sport­ing Edge. “We’ve in­ter­viewed over 100 world-class per­form­ers, and the vast ma­jor­ity have a strong fear of fail­ure,” he ex­plains. “For them, it’s a mo­ti­va­tor. The cham­pi­ons use it to strengthen their at­ten­tion to de­tail in prepa­ra­tion… With­out a healthy dose of fear, we can get com­pla­cent.”

Again, the fo­cus is on un­der­stand­ing, rather than sup­press­ing, our anx­i­eties. It’s a les­son that holds a lot of mean­ing for free-diver Nitsch. After a world record at­tempt in 2012, he suf­fered from de­com­pres­sion sick­ness. Doc­tors feared that he would be par­tially paral­ysed for life. The news was so crush­ing that Nitsch briefly con­tem­plated “a wing­less flight” out of his hos­pi­tal room win­dow. In­stead, with long, empty days to fill in hos­pi­tal, he de­cided to ex­am­ine his fears, break­ing them down one by one to for­mu­late a spe­cific plan of ac­tion.

“My fear got me go­ing,” he says. “It took me six whole months to be fully up­right, walk­ing and talk­ing again. Two years after the ac­ci­dent, I tested my lim­its in the deep ocean. It was fan­tas­tic. I felt like a kid.” He went on to equal many of his pre­vi­ous records.

Pur­su­ing Per­fec­tion

Nitsch’s re­cov­ery re­lied on sim­i­lar meth­ods to those out­lined by au­thor Tim Fer­riss in a Ted Talk last year. Fer­riss ar­gues that it’s not our goals that we should de­fine but our fears. He ad­vises sep­a­rat­ing the fears that you can con­trol from those you can’t, while mak­ing notes on the former un­der three head­ings: de­fine, pre­vent, re­pair. In the first col­umn, you should write down the

worst even­tu­al­ity; in the sec­ond, what you can do to de­crease the like­li­hood this fear com­ing true; and in the third, how you could rec­tify the sit­u­a­tion, should it all go wrong. By think­ing more about our fears, he ar­gues, you may find that they lose their power.

In Alex Hon­nold’s mind, too, the way to co­ex­ist with fear is to over­ex­pose your­self to it. He has been climb­ing since he was 11 years old, grad­u­ally sub­ject­ing him­self to greater risks each time. The cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of this was to al­low him, after 21 years, to do what many had thought im­pos­si­ble. Asked why he climbed el Cap­i­tan four times with ropes be­fore free-solo­ing it, he replied: “Look at it… It’s fuck­ing scary!”

Hon­nold re­cently un­der­went a func­tional mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing scan (see page 87). The scan found that his brain – though struc­turally healthy – de­mands a higher level of stim­u­la­tion than the av­er­age per­son’s. Hence, per­haps, his abil­ity to scale dizzy­ing heights unas­sisted. It isn’t that Hon­nold is in­ca­pable of feel­ing fear; it just takes a lot more to make him afraid. He main­tains that the only dif­fer­ence be­tween him and other climbers is his pas­sion. The likes of Tommy Cald­well, he ex­plains, could eas­ily free-solo el Cap­i­tan – they just don’t feel im­pelled to do so, whereas he does. He al­ways has.

“I don’t want to fall off and die, but there’s a sat­is­fac­tion in chal­leng­ing your­self and do­ing some­thing well,” Hon­nold ex­plains. “That feel­ing is height­ened when you’re fac­ing cer­tain death. You can’t make a mis­take. If you’re after per­fec­tion, free-solo­ing is as close as you can get.”


The amyg­dala is re­spon­si­ble for trig­ger­ing our “threat re­sponse”. Hon­nold’s should light up when pre­sented with dis­turb­ing images – but it doesn’t.


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