In the first light of dawn on June 3rd, two rock climbers approached the base of El Capitan, the towering stone heart of Yosemite National Park. They were first overwhelmed—everyone is—by the sweep of golden granite reaching twenty-seven hundred feet into the sky. Then they noticed a lone figure, not far above them, moving swiftly up the wall. Such is the lore of the valley that it could only be one person, could only be one moment. “Oh, my God,” said one to the other. “It’s happening.”
Four hours later, that lone figure, the thirty-one-year-old professional climber Alex Honnold, had completed the first ascent of El Cap in the free-solo style. In other words, he had climbed the cliff alone and without a rope or protective equipment of any kind. Had he fallen, he would have died.
The achievement had long been predicted but never quite accepted as possible. The iconic face of El Capitan—photographed by Ansel Adams, praised by John Muir as “the most sublime feature of the Valley”—has long been the proving ground for American rock climbing. It has been climbed at incredible speeds and via routes of extraordinary difficulty; a ropeless ascent was the last “big psychological breakthrough” that remained, as Peter Croft, who completed groundbreaking free solos in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, put it. There was no real competition to be the first to meet the challenge. Either Honnold would do it, or he would leave it to future generations. Or he would try, fail, and fall.