Photo: Alex Honnold scales El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
A few weeks ago rock climber Alex Honnold climbed the 3000 foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in just under four hours. What makes Honnold’s attempt from this past week so impressive is not simply the short amount of time it took him to climb something that used to take days or weeks, but the way he did it, traversing the entire 3,000 feet up without using any ropes or climbing equipment.
The route Honnold chose to reach the top of El Capitan is known as Freerider. It is one of the most prized big wall climbs in Yosemite. The route has 30 sections—or pitches—and is so difficult that even in the last few years, it was newsworthy when a climber was able to summit using equipment and ropes for safety. One of Alex’s fellow climbers compared his feat to the moon landing, explaining that until it was done, few people would have ever believed it was possible.
I reached out to climbing friends to hear their perspective. My friend John responded by saying, “This is the single most awe-inspiring achievement by any athlete in any sport ever.”
My friend Ieva remembered her own climbing experience on El Capitan. She shared with me that Alex is an example of what humans can do when incredible talent, extremely hard work and a close community come together. “It’s an iconic piece of rock, and free soloing it was the last great challenge. There’s sadness and delight and wistfulness and profound satisfaction mixed together.”
Somehow Alex Honnold found a way to be perfect.
In our personal lives, striving to be perfect often means we end up feeling far more lost. Striving for perfection can sometimes lead to paralysis when we don’t feel like we have the capability or capacity to obtain that goal.
We also have deep fears connected to striving for perfection. If we fall short, does that mean we’ve failed? If we are unable to be perfect, does that mean we have less value or worth as a human being?
At first glance, Alex’s choice to practice a sport without safety measures means that perfection is absolutely crucial–not just for success, but for his life. One mistake and he falls to his death. In so in many ways, he must be absolutely perfect in order to find success.
Is faith like that? Do we really need to be perfect in the same way? And are the results of our faith seen in real-time success as we walk through our perfect lives?
As I looked more at Alex Honnold, the more I learned about what goes into his climbing experiences. For this recent climb, he estimates that he has been planning this for several years. Each section of the route had been analyzed, repetitively climbed, climbed with friends, and yes, even inspected.
I watched one video of him preparing for another daunting climb–this one in the Mexican desert. He and a friend were scaling a rock surface with picks and brushes, clearing the surface of any object that might crumble, as well as any plant life that might hold water or break free in the midst of a climb. Every hand and foothold on the route has been selected ahead of time, often marked with chalk to improve grip and to make an environment that tries to remove decision-making from the equation and simply rely on prepared knowledge and going through a checklist. Each movement of the climb is part of a pre-determined and practiced journey.
We know that we stand on the shoulders of generations of people of faith who have come before us, all striving to live out a faithful life, yet failing time and time again. And yet God’s spirit continues to move and shape communities of faith.
Alex is obsessive about his process. His training includes hour-long sessions every other day hanging by his fingertips and doing pull-ups on a specially-made apparatus that is bolted in the doorway of his van, an apparatus that he also uses as his home so that he can always be close to the climbs. He spends hours memorizing exact sequences of hand and foot placements for every key pitch. Friends call him an obsessive note-taker, logging his workouts and evaluating his performance on every climb in his journal.
Regarding his recent accomplishment, Alex explained to a reporter, “I could see how for a non-climber [this] might seem completely insane. But I’ve devoted 20 years to climbing and probably six or seven years to this particular project so it’s not like I’m just some crazy kid who in the spur of the moment decided to do this crazy thing. It took years of effort. It’s all about slowly expanding your comfort zone. You start with what you’re comfortable with, and you look out at something that seems horribly impossible, and you work, bit by bit, until that impossible thing is now within the bubble of your comfort zone.”
If at first we look at accomplishments like Alex’s as examples of unattainable perfection, we’re missing the example of leaning into the process and uncovering how we may be more fully alive through practice and preparation.
I think our Mennonite tradition has a strong history of putting our faith into practice.
Another climbing friend, Tim, shared with me that as a climber his joy comes when a climb is completed and the danger is in the past. In the midst of the climb everything comes into focus and all other noise is blocked out. In the moment it’s not thrilling. It may be scary, but at a deeper level it is a chance to hone skill and control emotions. Tim expressed that there are parallels for peace church people. For Christians and for climbers, Tim explained that it’s not the fear of death that should scare us, it’s the fear of not having fully lived.
Perhaps we must also pursue our faith knowing that being perfect is less about perfection and more about leaning fully into our quest to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
Ben Wideman is Campus Pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State University.