That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind. – Neil Armstrong
This is the moon landing of free soloing. – Tommy Caldwell
Driving around a corner, you go through a tunnel. Coming out, it is all you can do to stay focused on the road. In front of you is one of the most awe inspiring views on the planet: Yosemite Valley.
Dominating the left side of the valley is El Capitan. Its vast bulk with sheer cliffs stretch a half-mile above the valley floor. Standing and looking up, the top is just as remote as the moon. And yet, at any time, there are dozens of climbers on half a hundred different routes.
The film Free Solo follows Alex Honnold as he prepares to make the first ascent of El Capitan without any sort of aid, either tools or human, other than his shoes and a bag of chalk. Spoiler alert, he successfully makes the climb, which does little to lessen the tension one feels while watching him work his way up the cliff. The slightest error would have meant certain death. While I am not a climber, I have watched them from the safety of the valley floor, and am in awe of the immensity of the sheer wall rising so far above. Images barely convey the physical magnitude of El Capitan, or the challenge it presents.
After seeing Free Solo, I compared it to another recent film that portrayed another first. First Man followed Neil Armstrong through the years leading up to the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, when he, along with Buzz Aldrin stepped out of their vehicle to explore the lunar surface. In some ways I find Alex Honnold’s feat more amazing than that of the crew of Apollo 11. The lunar landing required the efforts of a great many people, and any of the astronauts could have been the first person to step on to the Moon. Neil Armstrong certainly had a set of skills and a temperament well suited to allow him to take the lead for the mission, but it wasn’t really an individual accomplishment. Climbing El Capitan solo without ropes, or any hardware truly was an individual accomplishment, and succeeded due to Alex Honnold’s preparation and his mental and physical attributes. So, I am conflicted in deciding which was the greater feat.
Both the Moon and El Capitan require you to raise your eyes above the horizon, to turn your gaze upwards. To most people, both are equally remote and unattainable, and we watch with amazement as more adventuresome humans dangle from ropes with little to connect them to the rock wall, or blast off from Earth at the top of a rocket on their way into space. Both are inherently dangerous feats, and both defy gravity in their own unique ways.