Jay Meehan: Alex Honnold’s legacy climbs
“We are apes – we should be climbing.”
~ Alex Honnold
When I attempt to reach back into memory for what originally fascinated me about iconic mountains and those who climb them as sport, I most always confront a crux move wherein I become stalled. I seldom summit when memory is my rope.
It may have been when I first heard the story about how Glenn Exum, the iconic Jackson Hole climbing school pioneer, had, at 18, leaped across a chasm on Grand Teton wearing borrowed, two-sizes-too-large, high-top football cleats on the first ascent of what became known as “Exum Ridge.”
His friend, the even more legendary Paul Petzoldt, was busy guiding others that day but from the base and, employing his forefinger, had traced a possible route. It’s the old story of how Exum came to the end of “Wall Street” and, with no other route-plan with which to continue, configured a method whereby he could fly across.
A bold move to be sure, but one Exum easily surpassed later in life when he, in his off-climbing-season career as music director of my hometown school district, agreed to instruct me in the care and feeding of a clarinet. Oh how, during uncountable moments of exasperation, he must have wondered where he stashed those old football cleats.
Or it might have been when, on our family’s move from the panhandle of Idaho to the quaint seaside village of Los Angeles when I was 16 and excitably at the wheel of our relatively new 1958 nine-passenger station wagon, I missed a turn on a horizontal pitch between Reno and Las Vegas.
It wasn’t my first or last blunder but one of the more fortuitous. We would spend that night camped high in the Tuolumne Meadows of Yosemite National Park. And it would be there that my brother McGee and I would opt to ascend, in late afternoon and wearing street shoes of the time, the largest granite dome in the neighborhood.
In the dark and through little fault of our own, we survived, however, and returned to camp with no one the wiser. It would be the following morning while descending into Yosemite Valley that the family would get its initial glimpse of that piece of granite by which all others are judged: El Capitan.
It would be from across the street in the El Cap Meadow that I first became smitten, however. Something in the way she slouched, I suppose. That cute asymmetrical nose may have also played a role, or the huge heart to its left.
She had become my Anna Karenina. “He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking” is how Tolstoy put it.
I became consumed, obsessed. Later I would come across the climbing exploits of the “Camp 4” crowd during the ‘60s, some of whom may have been already present that summer of ’59 day the Meehans, like a contemporary Joad family, rumbled through on their way to the south coast.
The names of Warren Harding, Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, Yvon Chouinard, Chuck Pratt and many others who arrived before and after them during what many refer to as the golden age of Yosemite rock climbing were added to my ever growing pantheon. And in the ensuing years till now, others clipped-on as the envelope kept getting pushed.
Of course, exploits elsewhere in mountain landscapes would grab my attention and off my mind would go with the likes of Reinhold Messner, Ed Viesturs, Alex Lowe, Conrad Anker, Park City’s Andrew McLean and, as I mentioned previous, a litany of others.
Tragedies on Everest in 1996 and Shishapangma in 1999 each brought unneeded reminders of the inherent risk involved. And then came legendary climber Dean Potter’s wingsuit crash during a flight that began off Taft Point across valley from El Cap.
And now, with the release of “Free Solo,” the name on everyone’s lips is that of the already quite famous Alex Honnold. Smokey, my son and road manger, actually sat through the film a second time in order that his logistically challenged father could bag his first viewing. If you haven’t caught it, do so prior to it leaving big screen venues.
During free-solo climbing, ropes are not used in support of the climber. It’s all about toeholds and fingerholds and, angles-of-repose being what they are, friction management. In the main, Alex’s support came from filmmaker Jimmy Chin, fellow climber and cheerleader Tommy Caldwell, and his own inner grace-under-pressure. As if I had a clue…
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.
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