Off rootLuke Mehall - 03/12/2020
I wasn’t sure if I should start this piece with being 3,000 feet off the ground on El Capitan, or at the dentist’s chair. But, there I was in Farmington, in a place I’m all too comfortable and familiar with: the dentist’s chair.
Over the last few years, I probably could have bought a Tesla with the money I’ve spend on my mouth. I had braces for two years, a gum graft and six crowns. Luckily, I like my dentist and the whole staff there.
This time I was in need of a root canal, and technically I was actually in an endodontist’s chair, because that’s who performs root canals. The cause of this root canal was a mystery, until he asked me, “Have you had any trauma on this tooth?”
Instantly I was transported back to being near the top of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. We were on day four, and I was climbing an overhanging thin crack with what seemed like an infinite amount of air below me. For perspective if you’ve seen “Free Solo,” I was close to where Alex Honnold neared the end of his historic climb. Except I had a little more baggage than Honnold: we were using ropes, gear and camping supplies; plus we had four days of poop in a pvc pipe that climbers call the “poop tube.” Actually leaving no trace is nearly impossible, but carrying your poop with you is a requirement these days.
As I was climbing and placing gear, I somehow smacked myself right in the face with a carabiner. Immediately I thought I’d knocked my entire tooth out, but I felt around and it was intact, and there was no blood. I figured I was all right. And I was – for eight years, until suddenly that tooth started hurting, and the endodontist informed me I was in need of a root canal.
“Free Solo,” which won an Academy Award for best documentary last year, has changed many things in climbing. As a climber, and one who is very critical of climbing media, I was impressed. I was impressed by the feat and how the story was told. I recall the day I found out about Honnold’s solo. A tingle ran down my spine and I felt a surge of inspiration and pride. He made me smile from ear to ear. The impossible had become the possible.
There’s little debate of whether this is a great film. A quick Google reveals a 97 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and in all the conversations I’ve had, no one has criticized the film itself. The criticism I’ve heard is exposing free soloing – climbing without a rope – to the general public, possibly encouraging others to emulate Honnold.
I’ve done a bit of free soloing myself and I’ve realized – similar to an LSD trip – that it’s not for me. I’ve felt enough terror unroped on a rock that I’ve mostly sworn it off. However, the true reality is that any trad climber does some amount of climbing unroped. Whether it’s an easy route in Joshua Tree or scrambling to reach the objective, climbing without a rope is something almost all climbers do at some point.
We are living in a day and age where people die for selfies. It took me a few years, and many headlines, to digest this, but sadly it is true. People do dangerous things for social media. It’s symptomatic of our culture, but here’s the thing: Honnold didn’t free solo for any other reason than it was his lifelong goal. His intentions were pure, and luckily for us, this historic process was captured on film.
Honnold’s climb was an extension of his own free solos, and he also proverbially stood on the shoulders of other soloists. Sadly, the two contemporaries that were considered his peers – Brad Gobright and Dean Potter – both died in the last few years. Neither died free soling though. Gobright died this winter in El Potrero Chico, Mexico, in a rappelling accident, and Potter died in a wingsuit flying accident in Yosemite in 2015. The man who is perhaps the most prolific free soloist of all time, Peter Croft, is still living and breathing, and in his 60s, he still climbs harder than most 25-year-olds.
I am happy that Alex Honnold is still with us. He’s a good guy, and he’s seemingly unaffected by fame. He still lives modestly, and he’s created the Honnold Foundation, which funds renewable energy projects, often for those that don’t have electricity. And, I recently saw on Instagram that he got engaged, something that makes me extra happy for him, because I also got engaged recently!
In a cancel culture and society quick to judge, as a writer I feel the need to write that hindsight is 20-20. I’ve done several stupid things in life and climbing that should have gotten me killed. When someone purposely dances so close to the edge, it’s easy to judge them. But it’s seemingly harder to just watch them dance and realize that human potential is infinite. If you’re dancing close to the edge with a selfie stick, that may be your end.
While Honnold danced so close to the edge, he completed in four hours a feat that took me and my partner Dave four plus days. Honnold escaped unphased, but Mehall ended up needing a root canal; I’ll let you be the judge of which man was more reckless.