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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Triumphs of tenacity

A climber’s stunning feat illustrates the presence of expert skill all around us.

Alex Honnold atop El Capitan in Yosemite National

Alex Honnold atop El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, Calif. Earlier this month, Hannold became the first person to climb alone to the top of the massive granite wall without ropes or safety gear. Credit: AP / Jimmy Chin

When I was in high school, some friends and I had a rock band. We called it Minas Tirith.

We had a pretty standard lineup, as best as I can remember — guitar, bass, a drummer, me on keyboards, and a 6-foot-8 lead singer who was trying to channel Jim Morrison.

We thought we were pretty good. We probably were terrible. But we didn’t stay together long enough or practice hard enough to find out.

Many of us have something in our lives that poses that question: What would have happened if we had stuck with it?

Often, we stay the course on something else and that brings us satisfaction and reward.

Tales of tenacity are always inspiring, and I heard one the other day that blew me away.

Rock climber Alex Honnold recently made a free solo ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

Now let’s break that down.

El Capitan is a 3,000-foot more-or-less-vertical granite wall, one of the tallest and most imposing monoliths in the world.

And free soloing means to climb without any aids. No ropes, no equipment, no nothing. Just your own hands and feet searching for slivery lips and ripples of rock and cracks as narrow as a pencil, trying to propel yourself up more than a half-mile of vertigo-inducing stone.

True, Honnold is one of the best climbers in the world.

True, he has pioneered several other insanely difficult free solo ascents.

But El Capitan is different. Climbers call it the “moon landing” of free soloing. Honnold was first. And he did it in less than four hours, when average climbers spend three or four days on the wall.

I’ve stood on the floor of Yosemite Valley, gazing up at El Capitan, mesmerized by the thought of people climbing that rock in any fashion, never mind without safety equipment.

Honnold’s feat was the epitome of controlling one’s fear and remaining calm in the face of constant danger; my palms literally got sweaty just watching video of part of the climb. Neuroscientists have studied Honnold’s brain to see whether it’s different from the norm, according to National Geographic.

But his success also was a parable about preparation and perseverance.

Honnold, 31, started thinking about free soloing on El Capitan about eight years ago. He climbed the wall dozens of times for practice, using ropes. He would rappel down from the top to work on particularly difficult segments, memorizing the moves he needed to traverse the route. He’d mark some holds with chalk, as a reminder.

On the ground, he was just as obsessive. His training included long sessions of hanging from his fingertips and one- and two-armed pullups, and a strict diet.

“The bigger thing, though, was probably the psychological side of it, like, somehow feeling like you’re ready to climb a wall like that,” Honnold told NPR.

And when he felt ready, he walked alone to the base of El Capitan. Shortly after dawn on June 3, he put his fingers on the wall and started up, with a small bag of chalk to keep his hands dry and eight years of work as his guide.

Some things just can’t be done quickly. Some things are impossible on Day One. The best things, the most rewarding things, seem to take the most time.

We notice the physical feats, like Honnold’s climb. But we’re surrounded every day by many other triumphs of the long run.

The doctors who save lives. The artists who change lives. The teachers who mold lives. The activists who improve lives. The scientists who study life and ways to preserve it and make it longer.

All of them put in the years that the rest of us notice in a moment.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.


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