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
“A DROP FROM 50M OR MORE WOULD CAUSE A BODY TO EXPLODE ON IMPACT”
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.
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?
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,
“DISSECT YOUR FEARS – THERE IS LESS TO BE AFRAID OF THAN YOU MIGHT THINK”
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.
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.”
FOR FREE-SOLOISTS LIKE HONNOLD, A FATAL FALL IS ALWAYS A POSSIBILITY
The amygdala is responsible for triggering our “threat response”. Honnold’s should light up when presented with disturbing images – but it doesn’t.
HONNOLD HAS SPENT TWO DECADES CONFRONTING EVER GREATER RISKS