“Once you encounter risk, you are into the basic questions of what life is all about.”1
Stardate 8454.1. Yosemite National Park, Planet Earth.
Through hi-tech binoculars Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy nervously monitors far above his head a speck ascending a huge slab of rock. Captain James T. Kirk is free solo climbing2 the infamous vertical formation known as El Capitan:
Bones (to himself): ‘“You’ll have a great time Bones. You’ll enjoy your shore leave. You’ll be able to relax.” You call this relaxing, I’m a nervous wreck…. If I’m not careful I’ll start talking to myself.’
Meanwhile, up above and with sun shining and birds calling, Kirk surveys the grandeur of the scene. Suddenly, from nowhere, Mr Spock appears hovering in, what I’m going to call, white ‘astro-boots’:
Spock: ‘Greetings Captain. I have been monitoring your progress. I regret to inform you that the record for free climbing El Capitan is in no danger of being broken.’
Kirk: ‘Who’s trying to break any records. I’m doing this because I enjoy it. Not to mention the most important reason for climbing a mountain.’
Spock: ‘And that is?’
Kirk: ‘Because it’s there.’
Spock: ‘Captain, I do not think you realise the gravity of your situation.’
Kirk (slipping): ‘On the contrary, gravity is foremost on my mind.… Look I’m trying to make an ascent here. Why don’t you go and pester Dr McCoy for a while.’
Spock: ‘I believe that Dr McCoy is not in the best of moods.’
(cut to Bones on the ground) Bones: “Goddam irresponsible … playing games with life.’
Spock (to Kirk): “Concentration is vital. You must be one with the rock.”
Kirk: “Spock, I appreciate your concern, but if you don’t stop distracting me, I’m liable to be one….”
Suddenly Kirk slips and falls, hurtling towards the ground. Spock somersaults and descends in hot pursuit, white astro-boots turbo flaring. After several moments of Kirk flailing and Spock rocketing, Spock reaches out and grabs Kirk’s ankle just as the Captain is about to dash himself at the bottom. They both hover for a moment:
Spock: ‘Perhaps because “it is there” is not a sufficient reason for climbing a mountain.’
Kirk: ‘I’m hardly in a position to disagree.’
Kirk: (cheerfully upside-down as a concerned Bones runs towards them): “Hi Bones … mind if we drop in for dinner.’
Thus begin the opening scenes of the 1989 feature: Star-Trek V: The Final Frontier.3 Now, I’m not a ‘Trekker’ (although perhaps I am a nerd in knowing that the more commonly used name ‘Trekkie’ is seen by some fans as a derogatory term), but I know enough to appreciate some vintage elements. There is the ridiculous fantastical improbability of it all: those white astro-boots on Spock, the decidedly dodgy 1989 CGI as Kirk descends in front of the green screen. The biggest give away, after lots of shots of the real Yosemite and the real El Capitan, is Kirk obviously holding onto the fibre-glass (or plastic?) mountain in his dialogue with Spock. Indeed, the very idea that anyone would and could free solo climb El Capitan (and certainly not a decidedly middle-aged Kirk) – it’s pure fiction, surely? What is real and authentic is the long-standing relationships and juxtaposition of the characters: the reckless Kirk, the responsible ‘Bones’ and, of course, the rational ‘Spock’. It’s a lovely little comedic human interplay of love, care, and dependence that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the film, the plot of which I have no memory.
But wait…. Fast-forward (or back?) to Stardate 2019. Fantastical science fiction is now fact: Mr Spock, please update your records. National Geographic’s BAFTA and Academy Award-winning documentary Free Solo charts the remarkable feat of legendary climber Alex Honnold in his successful bid on June 3rd 2017 to free solo the Freerider route of the 3,000 feet of El Capitan in 3 hours 56 minutes.4 Truly a final frontier. As director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi ended her Oscar acceptance speech, ‘This film is for everyone who believes in the impossible.’ Rarely do I go and see something twice when it’s released, and no matter how comfy the sofas and surroundings from your average multiplex, rarely do I hunt out and pay the extortionate ticket price for the independent London cinema where the film had a limited release. But I did, and let’s be clear: I’m not a climber, and until now was unaware of the climbing sub-culture with its history, language, ‘celebrities’, media, and ‘in-knowledge’. Quite simply, this film has captured my imagination and sparked all kind of half-formed inter-related reflections, associations, and juxtapositions. As is often the case, an instance of extremeness can be a clarifying pedagogical foil for more mundane considerations.
Alex Honnold himself is a fascinating jumble of the super-human, the sub-human and the simply-human. A mortal who has achieved climbing immortality at the age of thirty-three. Viewing a sample of the numerous blogs and articles in the days following Honnold’s achievement, and then subsequently in reviews of the film itself, one just reads a string of superlative superlatives and a colourful array of analogies and metaphors as to the measure of his achievement: ‘The single greatest achievement by any individual human being ever’ is not untypical.5 As a physical specimen, think the choreographed balletic grace of a dancer and raw power of a martial arts master (please don’t think William Shatner with slight paunch). Honnold is the body beautiful – fearfully and wonderfully made. But it’s an ugly beauty, seen most clearly in his hands: ‘When you shake Honnold’s hand, what stands out is not its strength but its suppleness, capped by pillowy fingertips swollen wide from doing pull-ups on a fingerboard. In that sense, it feels more like gorilla than man.’6 Marvel at the mental capacity needed to research (Honnold is an obsessive note-taker), memorise and practice endlessly every single move, every single body position – thousands of them. Then think of the imagination needed. The imagination to contort the human body in order to crack the fiendish puzzles that El Capitain sets its ascender. ‘Freeblast’ is the section of the climb that is almost vertical and is akin to walking up glass. It can only climbed by ‘smearing’ as much of your rubber shoe onto the surface to create friction. Balance must be perfect and it has to be done at speed before one starts to slip. The most notorious ‘pitch’ of Honnold’s climb is the beautifully understated ‘Boulder Problem’. You really just need to watch it but it involves Honnold grabbing a pea-size nub of rock with his left thumb, stepping his feet over onto a similarly small nub beneath him, then switching from his left thumb to his right thumb, and ‘karate kicking’ one of his feet onto another vertical wall with only friction holding him up. If you want a go you can try it at your local climbing centre (the only difference being you get a crashmat and are not 1,500 feet up).7 The imagination to create and conjure what we mortals would see only as microscopic dents and cracks in that rock into steps, handholds and fat gaps for wedging hands and feet. Yes, Mr Spock is onto something about being one with the rock. What divine imagination to create an indentation in a rock, thousands of feet above ground, but that suddenly becomes a ledge of life for a Honnold.
Think perfection. Think not only perfection, but think the absolute necessity of perfection, a perfection of body and mind. As we are told by Honnold and his free solo fraternity, free-soloing is the closest thing to perfection there is. You must be perfect in each move. ‘There’s no margin for error. Imagine an Olympic-gold-medal-level athletic achievement that if you don’t get that gold medal, you’re going to die.’
Is Honnold even human? The film, in somewhat clichéd fashion, attempts to answer this by handing him over to ‘science’ and the ‘scientists’. What we see is that his amygdala, the part of the brain that reacts to fear is pretty dormant:
Medically, it would seem, Honnold does not experience fear. At least not in the way that you or I would. Or, if he does experience it, he requires a lot more to set it off than anyone this team of neuroscientists at least has ever studied. What Honnold does have in spades, from a neurological perspective, is a tendency to seek out sensations, a drive nearly double that of your average brain based on their study. This pushes him, of course, but it also hints at something darker, something addictive.8
But, of course, Honnold is human, and arguably, it’s his humanity, which makes this study so engaging and watchable. He comes across as a funny, intelligent, not completely un-self-aware kind of cool geek. Indeed, his humanity seems to magnify his achievement because we realise he is indeed one of us. After an abortive first attempt at the climb, the co-director of the film notes (somewhat ironically given our opening), ‘In some ways it’s kind of reassuring that Spock has nerves’. Years of the most meticulous planning and preparation are accompanied by a serendipitous spontaneity that means only Honnold knows when it ‘feels’ right to make the attempt, and the camera crew better be ready. Honnold does not appear to have a nihilistic death wish, but quite the reverse: it’s a-life-to-the-full wish. He wants to climb. He needs to climb. He loves to climb. And so, he just climbs.
Certainly, Honnold seems to have lower filters for normal social niceties and cues which current society would lazily label as being ‘on the spectrum’, but both his bluntness and laid back ‘underwhelmedness’ is frankly endearing. For example, on completing the climb, we get a big smile, but only a small, softly spoken, ‘I’m so delighted, I’m so delighted.’ What is more awkward is the subplot that charts Honnold’s parallel ‘journey’ with his girlfriend Sanni McCandless. She acts as a nice foil, as emotionally intelligent and assertive as he isn’t. They make a good team, but his relational clumsiness is in stark contrast to his harmony with the rock. The stuff of normal life does not come naturally to our Alex as we witness him in a variety of domestic settings. Moreover, the film questions whether this intrusion of the ordinary will be a fatal distraction to Honnold’s singular and obsessive quest. For example, with McCandless on the scene, he suddenly experiences two minor falls, rare for Honnold. Then, there is the nurture of his childhood and upbringing. While one doesn’t want to be guilty of a pat over-psychologising, it appears a perfect storm of factors. We learn of a ‘dark soul’; a physically and emotionally isolated child who starts solo climbing because he’s too scared to ask someone to hold a rope for him; a father who dies young; and, a mother who repeatedly tells him that ‘good is not good enough’ and ‘nearly is not there’. Honnold is frank that he is driven by a ‘bottomless pit of self-loathing’. So, we’re back to perfection:
I don’t want to fall off and die … but there’s a satisfaction in challenging yourself and doing something well. That feeling is heightened when you’re for sure facing death. You can’t make a mistake. If you’re seeking perfection, free soloing is as close as you can get. And it does feel good to feel perfect. Like for a brief moment.
Yes, he struggles with the stuff we all struggle with. Honnold is human, all too human.
Thematically, Free Solo offers us several lines of enquiry, some of which the film touches on obliquely. There are the ethical questions concerning voyeurism: Should a camera crew be filming Honnold? Should we be watching a camera crew filming Honnold? Are Honnold and the film-makers irresponsible in encouraging viewers to emulate Honnold? What difference does it make that we know Honnold succeeds? What would have changed in terms of the release of the film, let alone the appropriateness of us watching it, if it had recorded Honnold falling to his death?
One area upon which I’ve meditated since watching Free Solo concerns the concept of risk. Like most things, I thought I had a rough idea of what we mean by risk until I start digging a little deeper. It’s a vast area of study and as a concept is as slippery as ‘Freeblast’.9 While there has always been danger, the concept of risk is relatively recent. In terms of the history of the concept, the seminal study remains economist Peter Bernstein’s, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk.10 Philosopher P. B. Thompson delineates five different ways of defining risk:
- Subjective risk: the mental state of an individual who experiences uncertainty or doubt or worry as to the outcome of a given event.
- Objective risk: the variation that occurs when actual losses differ from expected losses.
- Real risk: the combination of probability and negative consequence that exists in the real world.
- Observed risk: the measurement of that combination obtained by constructing a model of the real world.
- Perceived risk: the rough estimate of real risk made by an untrained member of the general public.11
Honnold himself makes a distinction between risk and consequence.12 For him, the ‘real’ and ‘objective’ risk can only be calculated by the climber himself, rather than a public ‘perceived’ risk which sees him in a photo without safety gear, thousands of feet above the ground and where – if he falls – the consequences are obvious. Given Honnold’s own perception of his own ability, skill, training, as well as knowledge of the environment (e.g. the route, the rock itself, the weather, etc.), he believes there is a low risk in his free soloing, but a high consequence (i.e. certain death) if it goes wrong. Phew. Honnold’s safe then? The directors of Free Solo appear to put forward a slightly different take. Tommy Caldwell, another lauded free solo climber, is Honnold’s inspiration, friend, and training partner. He is also the viewer’s voice of sanity: People who know a little bit about climbing are like, ‘Oh, he’s totally safe’, says an emotional Caldwell. ‘People who know exactly what he’s doing are freaked out.’ Later on, Caldwell observes, ‘Everybody who has made soloing a big part of their lives … is dead now.’
This is brought home during filming with the news that another climbing legend, Ueli Steck, has died from a fall in Nepal: cue a montage of the smiling faces of the great and good of the free solo world with the date of their birth and death captioned at the bottom of the screen. The film captures Honnold’s reaction to Steck’s death in reference to his now widow: ‘What did she expect to happen?’ Free Solo climbing is very, very dangerous, but Honnold believes that making the danger safe is the sweetness of the experience in adventure climbing. It’s interesting to put these comments in the context of a recent study (which refers to Honnold’s achievement) exploring the relationship between climbing, risk and recognition. Relying on qualitative interviews and autoethnography, and utilising the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Tommy Langseth and Øyvind Salvesen ‘explore to what extent risk-taking is built into the value system of climbing, and to what degree risktaking leads to peer-recognition and credibility within rock climbing communities.’ They argue that in being immersed in a climbing community, ‘climbers develop a risk libido, a drive toward risktaking.’ Credibility leading to ‘consecration’ within the community can only be established in a delicate balance of skill, risk and recognition.13
There is something liberating and counter-culturally ‘freeing’ about Honnold in the context of our Western juridified and mollycoddled society. We’ve never been so safe but never been so scared. Ulrich Beck famously called this a Risk Society14 and I recognise my place in it. It’s pathetically ironic that leading up to my son and I being exhilarated by Free Solo from the comfort of our North London sofas, we had had a ‘difference of opinion’ over my decision to take public transport rather than the short drive to a cinema I had not attended before. I don’t like driving in London, don’t like not knowing where I’m going, anxious about parking our van and the possibility of getting stuck or pranging something – that’s the pioneer spirit of adventure for you. Compare that to Honnold in talking about his girlfriend:
For Sanni, the point of life is happiness and to have a good time. For me it’s all about performance. Nothing good happens in the world by being happy and cosy. Nobody achieves anything great because they’re happy and cosy…. This is your path and you will pursue it with excellence. You face your fear because your goal demands it, that is the goddamn warrior spirit. You give something 100 per cent focus because your life depends on it.
The late and celebrated French psychoanalyst and philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle, was known for her work on risk, in particular her 2011 Éloge du Risque15 (In Praise of Risk). In an interview for La Liberation in 2015, Duformantelle notes that, ‘The idea of absolute security – like ‘zero risk’ – is a fantasy.’ ‘When there really is a danger that must be faced in order to survive, as for example during the Blitz in London, there is a strong incentive for action, dedication, and surpassing oneself.’ For Duformantelle, to refuse to risk is to refuse to live:
It is said in French, ‘risking one’s life’, but perhaps one should say ‘risk’ ‘life’. Being fully alive is a risk. Few are. There are many zombies, undead, lives mitigated by the ‘disease of death’ as Kierkegaard called it. This risk is one that another philosopher who died under torture, Jan Patocka, called ‘life in amplitude.’16
In an earlier lecture, she notes,
The spell of risk is really about what is being in life. Is being in life just being born? Probably not. To me, risking your life is not dying yet, it’s integrating that you could be dying in your own life. Being completely alive is a task, it’s not at all a given thing. It’s not just about being present to the world, it’s being present to yourself, reaching an intensity that is in itself a way of being reborn.17
On July 21, 2017, at age 53, Duformantelle died attempting to rescue two children struggling to swim off the coast of Pampelonne near St-Tropez. The author Tatiana de Rosnay quoted from In Praise of Risk at the time: ‘“Risking one’s life” is one of the most beautiful expressions of our language. Is it necessary to face death – and to survive … or is there, housed in life itself, a secret device, a music alone capable of moving existence on this front line, we call desire?’18
Moving from French philosophical self-actualisation theorists and back onto more familiar soil, Themelios readers may well have only encountered ‘risk’ in Paul Helm’s widely read introduction to the doctrine of God’s providence in which treatments of the doctrine are put into two categories, ‘risky’ or ‘risk free’.19 Tim Keller has addressed the topic of risk in a recent address to Christian entrepreneurs but admits not being able to find much evangelical material from which to draw.20 There has been some popular work on the theology of risk albeit coming out of somewhat ‘different’ evangelical stables. Michael Frost and Allen Hirsch’s The Faith of Leap21 and John Piper’s Risk is Right22 are strange bedfellows, but both (in very different ways) attempt to tackle our risk-averse culture, and more particularly, church culture. Notwithstanding these works, a much more significant and sophisticated theological and cross-disciplinary conversation is needed both within the classical evangelical community but also as an apologetic to the wider Christian community and beyond. The murder of John Allen Chau in November 2018 and the global public furore that followed has put discussions of risk within missiology front and centre, making for a poignant juxtaposition with the release of Free Solo.23
In conclusion, I would like to ask a perverse and definitely provocative question: Could it be that Alex Honnold is, after all, risk-averse? The more I have reflected on the film and tried to distil its meaning, the more I have come back to one theme: not risk, but control. Free Solo is a study in control and Honnold is a ‘control freak’, but not in the way we might usually use that expression. Honnold’s extra-ordinariness is that he appears to have complete control of his body and his faculties. Honnold is not an adrenaline junkie, ‘there is no adrenaline rush. If I get an adrenaline rush, something’s gone wrong. The whole thing should be slow and controlled. I mean … it’s mellow!’24 Not only is there control of body and mind, but Honnold appears to have mastery over his environment. Years of painstaking study means that he knows every nook and cranny in that slab of rock and so has rehearsed all variables, and yes there are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, but that’s why Honnold has prepared all his life for this ultimate challenge. He will only climb when he is ready, in his own time. Control of yourself is one thing, control over your environment is another. However, control in relationship with other ‘someones’ is something else again. This seems a little trickier for Honnold. Are relationships too much of a risk for Honnold because he fears a loss of control? Relationships are messy and bring with them entanglements and responsibilities that constrain freedom. Compare and contrast this to the example of Duformantelle who was seemingly willing to relinquish control in order to save. Who takes the greater risk?
The film starts with Honnold living in a van, something he’s done for nine years (six in a car park). He notes that he is ‘trending’ toward having a girlfriend, but that ‘he will always choose climbing over a lady’. Later on in the film, there is poignant exchange in the van between McCandless and Honnold:
McCandless: ‘Would putting me into the equation ever actually change anything? Would you actually make decisions differently?’
Honnold: ‘If I had some kind of obligation to maximize my lifespan, then yeah, obviously I’d have to give up soloing.’
McCandless: ‘Is me asking you – do you see that as an obligation?’
Honnold: ‘No, no, but I appreciate your concerns…. I respect that, but I in no way feel obligated, no.’
McCandless: ‘To maximize lifetime?’
Honnold: ‘No, no. But you saying, “Be safer.” I’m kind of like, “Well, I’m already doing my best.” So, I could just not do certain things, but then you have weird simmering resentment because the things you love most in life have now been squashed. Do you know what I mean?’
On the thought of him dying, Honnold states matter of factly, ‘If I perish, you’ll find someone else. Not a big deal.’ Tommy Caldwell worries that you need mental armour to climb El Cap without a rope: ‘romantic relationship is detrimental to that armour. You can’t have both at the same time.’
Yes, I can see that Honnold’s relationship with McCandless is as stable as anything he’s known and it appears genuine. Yes, I know that there is the close-knit climbing fraternity and filming team providing ‘family’ to Alex for many years. Yes, I know the brief mention in the film of the Honnold Foundation, which ‘reduces environmental impact and addresses inequality by supporting solar energy initiatives worldwide’25 and in Honnold’s words exists to ‘balance the cosmic scales.’ I know all this, and yet, the overriding picture I get of Honnold is someone alone, someone solo. It’s all in the title.
And so, over time, the lingering feeling I have is one of sadness. Sadness of Alex being solo. Sadness because we’re not meant to be alone. We are built for relationship. Sadness for the intrinsic self-ishness of his quest. Sadness that I don’t believe Alex is free. The passion and performance drive for perfection is no doubt intoxicating, but at what cost physically and relationally? Is this not an extreme but textbook example of a deep control idolatry, ‘Life only has meaning / I only have worth if – I am able to get mastery over my life in the area of _________.’26 (The blank is filled here with ‘free soloing very high rocks.’) And it will kill him.
In recent interviews, Honnold has described himself as ‘quite the atheist’.27
…. I’m very anti-religion. I think it’s all just medieval superstition. Religion relies on some desire for a spiritual connection and I do get that from just being out in Yosemite. I get that feeling of grandeur and awe in the world sitting on a cliff at sunset, watching the mountains glow pink, that a lot of people get through religious faith… I’ve certainly thought about my mortality more than most. I think some people turn to faith as a crutch, to avoid thinking about mortality — you know, ‘Well, I’ll carry on forever in some eternal kingdom.’ But the harder thing is to stare into the abyss and understand that when it’s over, it’s over.28
But wait a minute, Alex, is this really the ‘harder thing’? Might it actually be easier and more convenient for you that ‘The Captain’ doesn’t speak or talk back to you? Might you be ‘happier and cosier’ not to open yourself up to the possibility that you are in a relationship with the One who created both you and El Capitan, the One who has given you such amazing gifts and yes, other human relationships? The One to whom you are accountable and should rightly fear? The One who will show you that in comparison you are finite and can never be perfect? The One who reveals that you are responsible, but not in control? The One who is in control but who loves his creation so much that he enters into the mess of our world and sacrifices himself for it. The One in whom you no longer have to be driven by the need to be in control or have the gnawing fear of failure. A relationship with One that will mean loving constraint but will lead to flourishing and true freedom. A relationship with One that means when you do fall metaphorically and literally, that you don’t face oblivion, or the fantasy of a Vulcan in white astro-boots holding you up, but the reality and security of falling into the everlasting arms.
In Free Solo, Honnold’s mother states, ‘I think when he’s free-soloing, he feels the most alive, the most everything. How could you even think about taking that away from somebody?’ I can, if there’s something better. Jean Danielou puts it beautifully:
I recall a meeting where once upon a time an eminent professor of the Sorbonne told us: ‘What puts me off about the faith is a certain comfortableness, something a thought middle-class, something a shade like having arrived as regards one’s thinking.’ Is it absolutely sure that what kept the man from being a Christian was the fear of comfort? Is it an absolutely sure thing that it is more comfortable to be a Christian than to be not Christian? As for me, I am not persuaded of that at all. What I am convinced of, in contrast, is that the condition of a Christian, to the extent that being a Christian means agreeing to be at the disposition of someone else, is something extraordinarily uncomfortable! And you know it very well. When it comes right down to it, what puts you off is that once you set the wheels rolling you don’t know how far you’re liable to go. No, this, we know very well is what keeps those without faith from having more faith. We know as Riviere put it so well, that ‘love involves staggering complications’. We are always taking something upon ourselves when we introduce somebody else into our life, even from the human point of view. We know that no longer shall we be together our own man. Therein lies the adventuresomeness of human love as well as the self-sacrifice involved in it. When it comes down to it, if a man wished to be undisturbed, he just has to give up the notion of marrying. Well, then! To allow Christ to enter our life is a terrible, terrible risk. What will it lead to? And faith - is precisely that. So, no one will ever bring me to believe that faith is some kind of comfort. To take Christ seriously means allowing the irruption into one’s life of Absolute Love, and allowing one’s self to be led on to heaven knows what point. And this very risk is at the same time a deliverance, for, when all is said and done, we know very well that we ultimately desire just one thing – absolute love – and in the final tally, if it despoils us of ourselves, it leads us to what is better than ourselves…. Faith is not an end. It is a beginning. It introduces our intelligence into the most marvellous of adventures, into what is its real destiny, namely, one day to contemplate the Trinity. It is a magnificent act in which, sensing the limits of our own understanding, we allow the uncreated Word of God to seize our intelligence and elevate itself to enable it to breast its highest hills.29
Now that’s what I call an adventure! Alex, how do you fancy a climb?