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The Mindset of Alex Honnold and His Death Defying Climb of El Capitan

Photo by: Jimmy Chin, National Geographic

Sometimes a feat is accomplished that is so unbelievable, so outlandish, that is causes you to stop and wonder why anyone would even attempt such a thing, let alone how it could be done.

A few days ago, one of these moments arrived.

After less than four hours of effort, Alex Honnold completed a rope-less ascent of one most coveted big climbing walls in the world, El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Serious climbers take 5-7 days to make the climb (using ropes!).

It’s being called the “moon landing” of free-soloing. Free-soloing being the act of climbing things without a safety net, rope or assistive gear of any kind.

“This is the ‘moon landing’ of free soloing,” said Tommy Caldwell, speaking of Alex Honnold’s free solo of El Capitan.

For the full fear + awe-inducing effect, see the video and images of the climb on National Geographic.

What’s interesting about Honnold’s achievement, to me at least, is less about the achievement itself and more about how he achieved it and how he relates to such an audacious goal. While few of us would ever desire to climb anything higher than a boulder or small tree without a rope, we all climb the mountain of our personal goals and dreams.

In reading the public accounts of Honnold’s feat, there are more than a few lessons that we can glean when it comes to how his goal was accomplished.

  • He has been honing his skill of climbing for over 20 years.
  • He sets goals, often audacious ones, and trains hard to achieve them. His climb of El Capitan took a year of dedicated training, on top of his lifelong dedication to climbing.
  • He doesn’t let setbacks derail his vision. For example, he attempted this climb several months earlier but aborted the effort when it didn’t feel right.
  • Expert climbers comment on his capability to remain calm and logical in exceedingly dangerous situations. Neuroscientists have studied his brain to understand how he handles fear so well.
  • He is obsessive about his physical training, spending hours building his grip strength and exercising out of the van he lives in, on top of the time spends climbing outdoors.
  • He is equally obsessive about his mental training, spending hours “perfecting, rehearsing, and memorizing exact sequences of hand and foot placements for every key pitch.”
  • He is an avid note-taker, tracking his workouts and evaluating his performance on every climb in a detailed journal.

All of these elements don’t come as a surprise. We should expect a world-class athlete to have this level of dedication to their craft.

What stood out most from reading Honnold’s account of his recent free solo climb, was his mindset. I’ll highlight a few mental strategies he seems to apply, using excerpts from his full interview with climber Mark Synott to illustrate the points This interview took place immediately after Honnold completed his free-solo climb of El Capitan.

Create the right mental state

Q: What’d you do yesterday?

I went bouldering in the morning a little bit because I wanted to break in my shoes a little, and then I went hiking with my mom and some of her friends. Then I watched the last Hobbit movie and just vegged.

Q: You didn’t even take a rest day before you free-soloed El Cap?

That’s part of the plan. You don’t want to be coming off bed rest. You want to be coming off light exercise. Because physically (the climb) is not that hard to execute. It’s more you have to be in exactly the right (mental) place, so I was trying to create the right place.

Look beyond the goal

Q: Did you think about anything other than rock climbing while you were going up the wall?

During all the easy terrain, in the middle, through the Monster and up to the Spire, I was thinking about random stuff—the whole village of people who have supported me on this. I got an email from (friend and climbing partner Conrad Anker) this morning. So I was thinking about Conrad and his whole ethos of ‘be kind, be good, be happy’.

And I was also thinking in terms of life goals. This has been my biggest life goal for years. And the other one is to climb 9a—to sport climb real hard. (Editor’s note: 9a refers to one of the highest rated, most physically demanding levels of sport climbing.) So I’m halfway up the wall and thinking it’s time to focus on 9a. It’s so exciting to work on something hard.

Q: So you already have a new goal?

It’s been a strategy the whole time I’ve worked on El Cap is to look past it, so that it’s not just all this one moment. To think about what’s beyond, what other stuff I’m excited about. So this just feels like a semi-normal day.

Q: Otherwise, you’re kind of setting yourself up for a major letdown?

You don’t want to put that much pressure on yourself where everything in my life focuses on this one moment. This has been my big focus for years and my big dream for years, but I would like to climb at my physical limits and step away from adventure for a little while.

Always be the best version of yourself

Q: What are you going to do this afternoon?

I’m probably going to hang board.

Q: You’re going to go do a hang board workout?

The whole pursuit of this dream has allowed me to live my best life, that makes me hopefully the best version of me. Just because I’ve achieved a dream doesn’t mean that I just give up on the best version of me. I want to be the guy that trains and stays fit and motivated. Just because you finish a big route doesn’t mean that you just quit.

Q: A normal person would probably take the afternoon off after they free-soloed El Cap.

But I’ve been trying to hang board every other day, and it’s the other day.

Conclusion

I have no desire to climb a big wall of rock, with or without ropes! I do, however, have the desire to achieve big goals in my business and personal life.

Most importantly, I care about being the best version of myself that I can be. Honnold’s actions and mindset leave a few clues that we can all use to climb the inner walls of our personal achievements and goals.

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