Life in the Death Zone
Alex Honnold has his own verb. “To honnold” is to stand in some high, precarious place with your back to the wall, staring into the abyss. To face fear, literally.
The verb was inspired by mesmerizing photographs of Honnold in precisely that position on Thank God Ledge, 550 metres off the deck in Yosemite National Park. In 2008, Honnold side-shuffled across this narrow sill of stone to become the first rock climber ever to scale the sheer granite face of the park’s iconic Half Dome peak alone and without a rope. Had he lost his balance, he would have fallen for 10 long seconds to his death on the ground below.
Honnold, 31, is history’s greatest free-solo climber, meaning he ascends without rope or protective equipment. Above about 15 metres, any fall would likely be lethal, which means that, on epic days of soloing, he might spend 12 or more hours in the “death zone”—the term used to describe the zone in which a ropeless rock-climbing fall would likely be fatal. On the hardest parts of some climbs, his fingers will have no more contact with the rock than most people have with their phones’ touchscreens, while his toes press down on edges the width of a stick of gum.
All of this has also made Honnold the world’s most famous climber. He has appeared on the cover of National Geographic, on 60 Minutes, in commercials for Citibank and BMW and in a trove of viral videos.
He also inspires no shortage of peanut-gallery commentary that something is wrong with his wiring. In 2014, he was part of an expedition team that gave a presentation at the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C. The audience was there to hear from climbing photographer Jimmy Chin and veteran explorer Mark Synnott, but above all, they had gathered to gasp at tales about Honnold.
Synnott got the biggest response from a story set in Oman, where the men had travelled by sailboat to visit the remote mountains of the Musandam Peninsula. Coming upon an isolated village, they went ashore to mix with the locals. “At one point,” Synnott said, “these guys start yelling and pointing up at the cliff. And we’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ And of course I’m thinking, ‘I’m pretty sure I know.’”
Up came the photograph. There was Honnold, the same casual dude who was sitting onstage in a grey hoodie and khakis, looking like a toy as he scaled a huge, bone-coloured wall behind the town. He was alone and without a rope. Synnott summed up the villagers’ reaction: “Basically, they think Alex is a witch.”
When the presentation ended, the adventurers autographed posters for the crowd. Three lines formed. In one, a neurobiologist waited to share a few words with Synnott about the part of the brain that triggers fear. The scientist leaned in close, shot a glance toward Honnold, and said, “That kid’s amygdala isn’t firing.”