'If he slips, he falls. If he falls, he dies' -- Climbing 3,000 feet without ropes

Alex Honnold was the first man to ever scale El Capitan without ropes. Now, his achievement is featured in the 2019 Oscar-winning documentary, "Free Solo."

Posted: Feb 25, 2019 11:00 AM
Updated: Feb 25, 2019 11:00 AM

Any doubts as to whether Alex Honnold was the greatest rock climber of all time were doused when the American did something that no one thought was humanly possible.

In June 2017, the 33-year-old became the first person to climb Californian granite monolith El Capitan without any ropes -- a skill known as free soloing.

Situated in Yosemite National Park, USA, the gargantuan rock face soars 3,200 feet into the air, standing almost 500 feet taller than the Burj Khalifa -- the world's tallest building.

There is simply no room for error. If he slips, he falls. If he falls, he dies.

"When I know what I'm doing and I'm climbing well, then it feels meditative, kind of relaxing and beautiful," Honnold told CNN Sport.

His achievement has since been immortalized in a breathtaking BAFTA-winning National Geographic documentary "Free Solo," which won Best Documentary at this year's Oscars.

READ: Ross Edgley -- 'It was goosebumps upon tears, upon smiles'

Death or perfection

Free solo climbing is a high-stakes game. It's either death or perfection.

But in moments of such risk, adrenaline is often the enemy.

"The important part of being able to climb El Cap was for it to feel slightly normal, for it to feel slightly business as usual," he said, remembering the moments he began the climb.

"For me to look up at the wall and to think I'm just going to climb this like I usually climb this, even though I don't have a rope on."

Honnold's seemingly blase approach to such death-defying challenges can be disconcerting at first but scratch under the surface and you understand it's an attitude built on a foundation of hard-work and preparation.

"If I don't know what I'm doing and I hesitate then it can be a nightmare," he warned.

The truth is that every move is choreographed. Each foot hold has been mapped out months in advance, every thumb grip visualized hundreds of times.

The trick to not falling, is not leaving anything to chance and training your mind for every possible outcome.

"It's definitely a bigger mental challenge than it is physical," he said, explaining that he and many others have climbed the rock face multiple times with harnesses attached.

"But the idea of doing it without a rope is a step further it seems."

Boulder problem

Honnold chose to climb the southwest face of the wall, a familiar route known as Freerider, which is split into 30 different pitches.

But this particular route included a perilous sequence which spooked the seemingly unflappable Honnold -- the Boulder Problem.

The section involves a number of intricate movements with Honnold clinging onto pea-sized ledges 2,000 feet above the meadow below.

It culminates in a vertigo-inducing karate kick to an opposing wall, where his life depends on whether he makes contact with a toe-sized ledge.

READ: Kilian Jornet -- 'It's like meditation. It's beautiful to feel that small."

"I think if that section of the route hadn't existed [...], I probably would have soloed El Cap several years sooner," said Honnold, who had practiced that particular section 60 times with ropes -- falling on a number of occasions.

However, the very thing that made this section so daunting turned out to be an advantage because by the time Honnold had reached it he had found his rhythm. He was confident.

"I had done so much climbing, I was so deeply in the zone," he said, talking through the delicate sequence of moves.

"I was performing so well that by the time I got there I felt incredible and I just executed it perfectly."

Sprint finish

After successfully navigating the near impossible Boulder Problem, Honnold started to breathe a little easier but he still had a long way to go.

The final stretch represented one of the hardest climbs Honnold had ever attempted, but nothing was going to stop him now.

"My confidence was soaring, I felt great," he said. "Conditions were perfect and I kind of knew I had it."

As he approached the summit, the realization of what he was about to achieve started to break through his steely-eyed focus.

The final stages of El Cap got easier and easier. What to many would seem terrifying became a "beautiful experience" for Honnold, who sprinted toward the finish, lifting himself over the summit after just three hours and 56 minutes of climbing.

"It was incredible," he laughed.

Why without ropes?

The unfathomable climb was nearly 20 years in the making.

Growing up in the Californian suburbs, Honnold had started scaling indoor climbing walls at a local gym as a child. In many ways, it was a sanctuary.

Honnold struggled with socializing as a youngster but was able to express himself through climbing, gradually transitioning to outdoor climbing as he sought out new challenges. Moving on to free soloing -- climbing without ropes -- was a natural progression.

"It was an important part of rock climbing for me," he said. "It wasn't all of climbing and never has been to me. It's just one part of climbing but it's free soloing, it's awesome, it's fun."

READ: Anna Gasser -- 'As I took off I knew there was no way back,' says snowboarder

Living and traveling in a small van, Honnold spent his days climbing -- getting better and more confident with each step.

He started completing increasingly impressive feats but El Cap was always at the back of his mind.

Ascending the monolith is regarded as the pinnacle of rock climbing, so making history by becoming the first person to scale it without ropes certainly appealed, but he also simply wanted to experience it.

"I'm sure every astronaut wants the opportunity to walk on the moon but if you're the first human to ever go to the moon, it's an incredible thing," he said.

"But I'm sure the tenth astronaut is just as excited in their own way." Some of Honnold's friends have died tackling lesser challenges.

It's a stark reality that doesn't sit well with his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, who left Honnold alone in the days running up to the climb.

"It just seemed like the right call for both of us. We never really had to talk about it," he said.

"It was useful for me to have empty time to just lay around by myself and visualize or imagine and just emotionally process what was to come."

Mind and body

When you consider the mental fortitude required, it's easy to ignore the physical strain such a climb puts on a body.

On one section of the wall, the Monster Offwidth, Honnold squeezes his body into a vertical crack and wriggles his way up a 200-foot-tall crevice. No flashy gym or high-tech equipment can ever prepare you for such a task.

Instead, Honnold's physique has been etched by thousands of hours of climbing and his hands strengthened by days clinging onto rock faces.

Standing at a little under 6 feet tall, and powered by a mainly vegetarian diet, Honnold's body is conditioned solely for climbing.

His mind has also adapted accordingly.

During the documentary, Honnold undergoes an MRI scan which shows his amygdala -- the part of the brain which processes fear -- is not stimulated in the usual way.

Honnold believes he's become desensitized after so many years of climbing but is open to the suggestion that he's innately less susceptible to fear.

"I found free soloing scary when I first started but I also found it exhilarating in the right way," he said.

"Possibly, other people find it way scarier and less satisfying so they are never really willing to put the time and effort into it because the ratio is not right."

He likens it to his previous fear of public speaking. As a young man, Honnold struggled in front of large groups and the thought of doing a media tour would have previously "horrified" him.

But just like climbing El Cap, Honnold found a way to overcome negative thoughts.

"Free Solo" -- The documentary

Directed by award-winning film-makers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, "Free Solo" follows Honnold for more than two years as he prepares for the climb of his life.

However, keeping the cameras at a distance was imperative in order to keep Honnold safe and allow him to have the experience he was craving.

"When I passed the cameramen on the wall, it was just really nice to be able to see my friends up there and celebrate with them," he said.

"Most of the filming is up high on the route so I had already finished most of the harder sections. It really did feel like a celebration."

Despite the global success of the film, the achievement will always be a personal one.

"When I'm an old man and I sit in El Cap meadow, below the wall and I look up at the wall, I'm going to feel the same satisfaction knowing that I've had a dream for so many years, put a tonne of work into it and eventually was able to accomplish it," he said.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 479326

Reported Deaths: 9353
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison32779484
Hinds30924582
DeSoto30319353
Jackson23542341
Rankin21235366
Lee14803219
Madison14120271
Jones13327223
Forrest13078236
Lauderdale11501303
Lowndes10377176
Lamar10163130
Pearl River9008217
Lafayette8193137
Hancock7404111
Oktibbeha6909122
Washington6900150
Monroe6459159
Neshoba6441201
Warren6387163
Pontotoc623093
Panola6203125
Bolivar6072144
Marshall6068121
Union571386
Pike5574135
Alcorn533289
Lincoln5283131
George466072
Scott454796
Leflore4444140
Prentiss443377
Tippah442180
Itawamba441599
Adams4376116
Tate4327101
Simpson4313112
Wayne430766
Copiah429587
Yazoo419686
Covington413292
Sunflower4123104
Marion4073104
Leake395486
Coahoma391098
Newton367274
Grenada3543104
Stone350359
Tishomingo333288
Attala324286
Jasper313162
Winston303091
Clay294173
Chickasaw286265
Clarke279890
Calhoun263940
Holmes261387
Smith248048
Yalobusha219647
Tallahatchie217550
Walthall209958
Greene206845
Lawrence205732
Perry198553
Amite197651
Webster195042
Noxubee177739
Montgomery171654
Jefferson Davis167442
Carroll161437
Tunica150834
Benton141533
Kemper138039
Claiborne126134
Choctaw126026
Humphreys125937
Franklin116328
Quitman103426
Wilkinson101536
Jefferson87333
Sharkey62320
Issaquena1926
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 778549

Reported Deaths: 13665
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1105871747
Mobile704651206
Madison49152610
Baldwin35946479
Shelby35796302
Tuscaloosa33410532
Montgomery32906672
Lee22231216
Calhoun20791397
Morgan19605326
Etowah18837449
Marshall17465272
Houston16452368
St. Clair15233293
Limestone14376182
Cullman14348246
Elmore14241256
Lauderdale13298278
Talladega12699230
DeKalb12036233
Walker10430323
Autauga9568133
Blount9555152
Jackson9235146
Coffee8728169
Colbert8426179
Dale8410170
Escambia6526114
Tallapoosa6501172
Covington6396163
Chilton6293141
Russell598555
Franklin5719100
Chambers5315133
Marion4734115
Dallas4665182
Clarke457076
Pike456294
Geneva4315116
Winston417192
Lawrence4086108
Bibb401680
Barbour341968
Marengo323183
Butler314988
Monroe314652
Pickens300470
Randolph299955
Henry298356
Hale289383
Cherokee284652
Fayette275672
Washington244848
Crenshaw235168
Clay225163
Macon217657
Cleburne217149
Lamar192140
Conecuh179646
Lowndes170158
Coosa166432
Wilcox155736
Bullock147742
Perry136036
Sumter124136
Greene120142
Choctaw72826
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Partly Cloudy
70° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 52°
Feels Like: 70°
Columbus
Partly Cloudy
72° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 51°
Feels Like: 72°
Oxford
Clear
70° wxIcon
Hi: 73° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 70°
Starkville
Clear
70° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 52°
Feels Like: 70°
Canadian high pressure will continue to build into our area over the next few days. This will bring into our area some of the coolest air of the season so far. Some folks will see overnight lows down into the middle to upper 40s.
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather