Pursuit of Perfection
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
- Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900–1944), French writer, poet, journalist, pioneering aviator
It was still dark when he approached the monolith.
He had gazed it many times, but usually in daytime. Regardless of the way the rays of sun bathed its surface, it was always awe-inspiring, something to stop one’s breath, if only momentarily.
He had climbed it before, but always with ropes.
This time all he had was a bag of chalk, which he wore at his waist, and into which he dipped his hands from time to time to keep them dry.
A red T-shirt, cutoffs, and hiking shoes.
He would travel light this day.
He approached El Cap (as he nicknamed it) with reverence. It could so easily take his life.
He knew where he had to place his hands, or sometimes only a portion thereof, and where the footholds were.
Some were small, barely perceptible — a bump here, a divot there. A slight irregularity of surface that could bear the weight of at least part of his body.
There would be no room for errors.
Not even one.
The penalty for an error was severe. And ignorance was no excuse.
The rock was unforgiving, and no respecter of persons.
So he ascended the vertical. It would have been taxing for most humans had there been a ladder, but there was none. He had to find the invisible ladder himself as he ascended.
The sun rose while he was not yet halfway toward his goal.
With time, he got so high on the granite he startled some birds from their perch, where they had alit. He steeled himself against regarding their flight.
Reminded himself never to look down. Only up. Ever upward.
Every major segment (there were several) was different. Not necessarily easier or harder, but different. He was intimately familiar with all of them, had traversed them in his mind, had mulled them.
Now was the time to put thought into action.
It is Saturday, June 3, 2017.
Some of you may not have heard of Alex Honnold.
He is a vegetarian.
He donates a third of his earnings to charity.
He has a charitable foundation, because he believes in giving back.
He doesn’t seem to suffer fools gladly.
But what he is most known for is he is the only person to have climbed the 3200-foot monolith, El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park by hand — without the help of ropes, pitons, or anything else.
He is the subject of a recent (2018) well received, highly regarded National Geographic film, FREE SOLO, featuring spectacular footage.
Alex climbed El Capitan in a little under 4 hours.
Knowledge of a number of other fatalities of climbers who died before their time was insufficient to dissuade him.
He also had climbed Half Dome, a smaller monolith in Yosemite, but El Capitan always beckoned to be climbed in the manner in which he ultimately succeeded.
He knew the risks, and mapped out his destination in excruciating detail in a notebook in the van in which he lived. One reason for his obsession is he felt his moves had to be perfect in order to complete the climb. Those moments of achieved perfection were what made the whole endeavor worthwhile.
Even knowing the outcome, that he would succeed in his effort, I had to avert my eyes at times during his ascent, so precarious were his moves.
This was also true of one of the cameramen who, with large professional camera mounted on tripod, documented Honnold’s climb.
We simply could not watch.
You can watch a trailer of the film here:
And a TED talk Alex delivered here:
He also appeared on 60 MINUTES.
Alex did the climb for himself. It probably enriched his life in ways he did not foresee. And it may have brought enlightenment.
Climb completed, he spoke by cell phone with his girlfriend, Sanni, who was not there to watch the climb. She had left the area before he drove to El Capitan.
Both she and the photographing team were determined not to be a hindrance in any way. It could have proved fatal. But the team very much wanted to capture the climb, and were determined to be there, as unobtrusive as possible.
“I am so delighted,” Alex grinned from atop the summit. Then added, “I love you.”
Verbal intimacy was not part of his upbringing. His awkwardness in expressing such was somewhat of an issue between him and Sanni.
It seems as if his climb of El Capitan free solo, a monumental achievement, was accompanied by a breakthrough of another sort.
Another accomplishment of perfection occurred close to two millennia ago.
Like Honnold’s climb, there was no room for error.
And He could have slipped, fallen, failed on any of numerous occasions.
It would have been understandable if He had.
For, after all, He was only human.
He was also divine.
Like the cameraman who averted his eyes during parts of Alex’s climb, onlookers here and elsewhere had to avert their gaze as He hung between heaven and earth at a place called Golgotha.
It was too much to bear.
But His was a mission unlike that of Alex.
Unlike any other.
He was not doing it for Himself, but for others.
And we can only be grateful He succeeded.
To achieve perfection is only a dream of most mortals.
To bowl 300.
To sink consecutive basketball free throws without end.
To achieve 1600 on the SAT examination.
The closest I’ve come (once, and it was only the once) was one night, decades ago, on a tennis court where, in the blackness of night interrupted by lights of the court, I served 4 consecutive aces in a tennis match.
It is notable because it happened at all. It had never happened before, and has never happened since.
I think it quite possible that, like the perfect winning season of the NFL 1972 Miami Dolphins, who won 17 games in a row, Alex Honnold’s climb of El Capitan will be sui generis and stand in the record books as a one-time achievement that will not be repeated.
Others may try and may even die trying. Or they may succeed, but their climb time may be longer.
Some climbers are doubtless stronger than Alex. Some may be more supple. But somehow he has been gifted with the right combination of size (5’11”, 155–161#), strength, flexibility and good judgment (perhaps this most of all) to be an excellent climber.
Alex Honnold, in the paraphrased words of Jimmy Chin, one of the filmmakers of FREE SOLO and a fine climber in his own right, just may be the best climber in the world.
It is a privilege to encounter the shadow of greatness of any kind.
How much more so for a metaphor of a matter of ultimate concern.