NOWHERE BUT UP
Fearless. Crazy. Invincible. For those who watched Alex Hannold cheat death on the big screen, these are the words that come to mind.
—By Braydon Holmyard
He climbed 1,000 metres up a treacherous rock wall in Yosemite Valley without a rope or any protection. Just him and his thoughts – desperate for perfection, as if his life depended on it. The only people to witness the unfathomable feat in real-time were his friends, who doubled as an exceptionally talented production crew lead by Jimmy Chin. They all watched anxiously as Hannold scaled the Freerider route on El Capitan in three hours and 56 minutes.
Even those who’ve encountered him would have a hard time disagreeing with the traits portrayed in the documentary.
“I think they do a good job of depicting the personality in the film,” said Philip Quade, a rock climber and photographer from Calgary, Alberta. “He’s a quirky guy. He’s a bit strange, but he’s a super nice dude.”
Quade developed a climbing interest while spending time in Australia and has been chasing and shooting summits for about seven years. He met Hannold at the Banff Mountain Film Festival in 2015. Already a renowned free solo climber at the time, Hannold was a main attraction at the event, and Quade had looked forward to meeting him.
“I feel like anything I had preconceived about him was pretty accurate,” Quade said of the introduction. “He was a bit of an awkward guy. He even admitted that he felt a bit out of place there. At that time, he was still really trying to get used to the media attention; it wasn’t really his thing.”
Since then, the attention surrounding Hannold has increased exponentially. The film, Free Solo, won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in February. He’s appeared on just about every talk show in America and has surpassed 1.4 million followers on Instagram.
The danger that comes with free soloing is what has captivated such a wide audience. Rock climbing thousands of feet up granite walls in Yosemite with proper equipment can challenge even the world’s most talented climbers. Free solo climbers like Hannold tackle these mountains without any safety gear. No harnesses. No ropes. No lifelines. It is quite literally an activity with two outcomes: live or die.
Hannold’s hard-to-believe endeavour has catapulted rock climbing into the global spotlight. While rock climbing in general has been around for ages, the free solo concept is something only a few brave souls dare to dabble with, especially in Canada.
“To be fair, nobody else is pushing the limits in climbing quite the way he is.”
“Even on a global scale, it’s definitely a pretty niche concept,” said Quade, who has climbed coast-to-coast across Canada and through the United States. “In Canada, it’s not a common thing. I know a lot of the free soloing in North America happens in Yosemite Valley. It’s just more popular in the States right now.”
On the other hand, indoor climbing has quickly swept across the northern nation. Sport climbing will make its Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games in 2020 and feature three disciplines: lead climbing, speed climbing, and bouldering. The invitation to the world’s premier sporting spectacle has only added to rock-climbing’s increasing popularity.
“That kind of kicked the doors down and shot climbing front and centre,” said Quade. “You’re seeing this whole new wave of purely gym climbers. The community of new people getting interested has definitely shot way up.”
Rock climbing gyms have been popping up all across the country to help feed its growing fanbase. Twenty-five million people climb regularly, and it’s estimated that between 100 and 150 people are trying climbing for the first time each and every day in Canada. Most major cities are home to at least one climbing gym, where anyone from beginners to experts can become members for a monthly fee. Films like Free Solo (2018), Meru (2015), and Valley Uprising (2014) have all had a hand in inspiring new climbers. None have had the reach that the former has, and the Oscar win is evidence of that.
It’s not just those without climbing experience who were blown away by the Honnold’s accomplishment and mesmerized by the risk. “A lot of people in the climbing community know the name Alex Honnold, and a lot of people think he’s insane,” Quade said, reflecting on how he and his peers view the king of free soloing. “To be fair, nobody else is pushing the limits in climbing quite the way he is.”
And, perhaps that quirky, sometimes awkward but still “super nice” vibe Hannold gives off allows him to be perfect when he needs to be: when his life is hanging in the balance and there’s nowhere to go but up.
Quade sums it up perfectly: “He just connects with rocks better than people sometimes.”