It’s 4:54 a.m. on a chilly November morning in 2016 in Yosemite National Park.
A full moon casts an eerie glow onto the southwest face of El Capitan, where Alex Honnold clings to the side of the granite wall with nothing more than the tips of his fingers and two thin edges of shoe rubber. He’s attempting to do something that professional rock climbers have long thought was impossible—a “free solo” ascent of the world’s most iconic cliff. That means he is alone and climbing without a rope as he inches his way up more than half a mile of sheer rock.
A light breeze rustles his hair as he shines his headlamp on the cold, smooth patch of granite where he must next place his foot. Above him, for several feet, the stone is blank, devoid of any holds. Unlike parts of the climb higher up, which feature shallow divots, pebble-size nubs, and tiny cracks that Alex can claw himself up with his freakishly strong fingers, this part—a barely less than vertical slab on a section called the Freeblast—must be mastered with a delicate balance of finesse and poise. Climbers call it friction climbing. “It’s like walking up glass,” Alex once said.