Free Solo

Casen posed a question on The Dihedral, a climbing blog I follow (see “Blogroll”). It is based on the film “Free Solo” so, if you haven’t seen it, you might want to look here or here first, and/or go see the film, now playing at a theatre near you.

I went to the movie thinking I was seeing a film about free soloing; rock climbing alone and without ropes. The film is about Alex Honnold, considered by many to be the greatest free climber alive. “Alive” is an´important distinction.

Alex speaks of free soloing as a “high reward/low risk” occupation. By this, he means he gets great rewards (he loves it) and he minimizes the risk by his care in preparation, as well as his ever-present awareness that a mistake means death (ed: or badly-broken survival and wishing he were dead).  It could equally be seen through another lens: low risk/high consequence. By that, I mean that, while the risk may be low (and that is debatable), the consequence of  failure is high (death).

What constitutes high risk? I think it is relative. When I worked in Nicaragua, I realized that most people in the US thought of Central America as a war zone. In Central America, Nicaragua was seen as a war zone. In Nicaragua, the Matagalpa Region was seen as a war zone. In Matagalpa, the area around Muy Muy and Matiguás was seen as a war zone. Where I worked (between Muy Muy and Matiguás), the war was always over the next ridge. We were not in the war zone, but close. We were safe, but it didn’t look that way to folks in the US. In a similar vein, what Alex does is not nearly as high a risk as it would be for you or me. Sure, he could die. You or I could die crossing the street tomorrow morning. 

While I thought it was a film about climbing, it is at least as much a film about relationship. Early on you meet his girlfriend Sanni. She approaches him at a book signing and gives him her phone number. He calls, they go out, they become involved. Mind you, this is a guy who lives in his van and makes a living traveling the world to climb rocks. His quest is to climb El Capitán in Yosemite National Park, considered the pinnacle of free climbing by those who think about such things. It had never been done.

As their relationship develops, she fears that he could die in the attempt, leaving her.  My initial reaction was “you get what you pay for”. She went into this relationship knowing that this is what he does. She is attracted to him as a free climber – that’s how/why they met. To try to get him to stop is a recipe for relationship disaster. Can you say “resentment”?

On the other hand, these are feelings she has a right to, and a right to express. They are likely feelings she didn’t know would develop as she became closer to him. Now here they are: what does one do? The film becomes at least as much about dealing with this as about climbing El Capitán. Does relationship change acceptable risk?

It also becomes a film about physics and metaphysics. Free soloing is, by definition, a solitary endeavor. Does the observation of a phenomenon change it? Will he climb differently when he is being watched, being filmed? Does a solitary endeavor become a performance? The filmmakers grapple with this and question whether they should even make the film. If he dies, will they be responsible? Did their presence and interference lead to his death? What do they do with the film footage if he does not survive the attempt? How do they make a great film without interfering? And how do they live with what they have witnessed, burned into their retinas and their brains, as well as their film stock?

The questions Casen asks include: What constitutes success? and What is the balance between performance and happiness? I realized I had more to say than I felt comfortable saying in the comment section of someone else’s blog. I read another blog in which someone does take over via the comments. My internal response is “get your own blog”. Since I have my own, I won’t usurp The Dihedral. I’ll invite them to come over here.

PS: Even if the only thing you ever climb are the stairs to your room, I recommend this film. A co-worker (and climber, who hasn’t seen the film) asked if I thought the film would encourage others to try this and die in the attempt. I doubted it. The cinematography is so amazing that it is clear that this is not something for mere mortals to try. You see Alex squeezing a handhold the size of a pencil. You see him doing pullups with his fingertips. You see him standing on footholds that you wouldn’t have seen if the narrator hadn’t pointed them out. It seems pretty clear that this is an elite athlete and this is not something to try at home.

PPS: Don’t try this at home (or on El Capitán).

PPPS: No mention of bikes here.

Curtis

My first supported bike tour was Cycle Oregon IV. This year is #31 (or is that XXXI?). I CycleOregonjpgwas talked into the ride by my friend Curtis Chock. Curtis was my roommate during my first ill-fated attempt at being a college student. It was the fall of 1971 and I enrolled at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood. The college is long gone and the campus is now the home of the American Film Institute. I quickly discovered that I didn’t really want to be a college student. One semester of college netted me two lifelong friends, so it was a good investment after all.

Curtis was an art major and later became a chiropractor. He never let work get in the way of having a good time and frequently tried to enlist me in various trips. Even after I had kids he would call me up and ask me to go somewhere next week. Canyon de Chelly was the destination on a number of the trips I didn’t make. He never seemed to understand that I did not have a life conducive to jumping on an airplane to join him somewhere.

Luckily I had the sense to say yes a few times. Cycle Oregon was one of those times. We rode an average of 85 miles/day for a week.  We rode over the Cascades and around Mt Hood. We rode through the high desert country. Every morning I arose early and they fed me breakfast. I would return to the campsite just as Curtis was getting up. We’d pack up and I would schlep the gear to a truck while he had breakfast. I’d hit the road, arriving in a new camp mid-afternoon. The trucks with our gear would be waiting. I’d pitch the tent and go take a shower. There was a portable shower truck that traveled with us. Curtis would roll in in time for us to have dinner together and talk over the day. At the end of the week we were told they fed us 7500 calories/day. I lost weight even though I had seconds a few times.  That trip made me realize letting someone carry my gear was not necessarily a bad thing.

When Al (my first touring partner when I was 21) and I toured, we carried everything on our bikes except the fresh food we would buy for dinner. The ride into town with an unladen bike felt like flying.  That ride seemed like the reward for riding all day like a pack mule.  Preparing enough food every day to keep us fueled was a lot of work. Letting someone else prepare meals and carry gear seems awfully civilized now.

Curtis also convinced me to stay in a tent cabin in Yosemite National Park. We had lunch in the

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Ahwahnee dining room

white linen tablecloth Awahnee Hotel. (I made up for that with a solo winter trip there in my own tent. That’s a story for another time. For now, we’ll just say that it snowed 3 feet overnight and a bear stole all my food. How it got to it that high off the ground I’ll never know.) Before I knew Curtis I never understood why one would pay to go cross-country skiing. To me, the point of cross-country skiing was that you could go anywhere (hence the name cross-country). Paying to ski on groomed trails seemed silly – until he took me to Royal Gorge. Looking at the website now, it looks much fancier than it

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Ahwahnee Hotel

was then. We drove to a parking lot that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere (and it was dark). We were met by a Sno-Cat pulling sleds. We piled into the sleds and were given lap robes for a trip into the woods. We arrived at a small lodge and were told to leave our skis outside. Each morning our skis would be freshly waxed (though it was this trip that helped me see the wisdom of waxless skis for California ski conditions).  We could ski all day and be fed at night, with our skis ready to go the next morning.

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Curtis skiing in the Sierra Nevada

As a child I remember seeing photos of Hollywood stars skiing in California. The starlets would be in bikinis. Being from Wisconsin I associated snow with cold and the pictures were unfathomable. On our weekend at Royal Gorge (at the end of ski season) it got warm enough that as the sun rose higher in the sky I took off more clothes. I finally skied nude, just to say that I did. Mostly I skied in gym shorts and gaiters.

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and relaxing after a day of skiing

Curtis had a knack for finding just the right gift for no particular occasion. I bought a new car and noticed that it came with a lighted hole for a cigarette lighter (all cars once came with cigarette lighters). I mentioned it off-handedly to Curtis when he was riding with me; how the light shined out of the hole in the dashboard. As soon as he got home he bought a cigarette lighter and mailed it to me to fill the hole. When he went to China to visit family he brought back a cashmere sweater which became my favorite cross-country ski sweater. He found out I didn’t have tights for cool weather riding, so he sent me a pair.

He was always buying new bikes. I remember his Jack Taylor (an old English frame

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Jack Taylor

builder), his Merlin (a 1990s era titanium bike builder in New England), and his Bike Friday (a folding bike from Oregon).  I got to ride the Bike Friday on a trip down the beach from Santa Monica to Newport Beach, with Curtis on the Merlin. We had dinner at a sidewalk café in Santa Monica afterward and froze. Southern California gets chilly when the sun goes down. That was my last trip with Curtis.  He died on Christmas Day 2010.

 

Daylight Day! Wednesday, March 7 marked the first day of the season it was light enough to ride to and from work without lights. With luck there will be three more of those days before Daylight Savings Time plunges me back into morning darkness.