Inside the mind’s of the world’s elite mountaineers

Mark Synott’s The Impossible Climb is a testament to what a human being can achieve if he’s willing to allow his own vision, develop his natural talents and skills, and challenge himself to life-or-death risk. It’s about the small but focused group of people who rock climb the towering, seemingly impossible walls of rock that pepper this beautiful planet of ours. Specifically, the book tells the story of rock climbing as a sport, culminating in the now famous free climb (ropeless and without any mechanical or safety aids of any kind) up the Freerider route of El Capitan in Yosemite by Alex Hannond.

The route, laid down in the past few decades and achievable by only a handful of human beings with safety and climbing aids, had never been free climbed. Immortalized in the film Free Solo, the climb epitomizes the way that some human beings are able to perform extraordinary (almost otherworldly) physical and mental achievements. Unlike the film, Synott’s book is not solely focused on what people in the tight-knit climbing community call the greatest physical achievement of any human being ever - Hannond’s El Capitan free solo. The book instead pulls at multiple threads to help the reader fully understand Hannond’s accomplishment.

Synott, a long-time member of North Face’s elite climbing team and contributor to National Geographic magazine opens the book by bringing us along as he discovers climbing at a young age. He helps us understand some of the technical terms, such as the way a climbs difficulty is measured and rated. He teaches us the difference between top-roping (climbing with the protection of a rope in place), leading (climbing ahead of the rope and placing it into bolts [hooks] drilled into the rock by prior climbers along the way), on-sight climbing (leading a climb successfully without ever having seen it before), and free climbing (climbing with no aid). He shares how some of the pitches (most long climbs are broken into the named section about the length of one climbing rope; Freerider, for example, is thirty-five pitches and takes an average of four days to complete forcing climbers to sleep in hanging bivouacs on the side of the mountain).

Synott also carefully builds our understanding of the history of climbing in Yosemite park, from the early pioneers who mapped the first routes, to the scruffy gangs of climbing maniacs who scoured and scored new paths up every massive wall in the valley in the past five decades.

Synott also does an amazing job of bringing the reader inside the dynamics of the ultra-climbing community. We see competition among styles of climbing (European alpine climbing versus the technical free-climbing typical in the Yosemite-bred clans). We learn of the unwritten rules that climbers operate under (when Hannond is on Freerider, for example, there are numerous anchors and bolts he could have used to make his climb easier and safer, but he eschews them all for the noble pursuit of actually pitting his human self against the natural features of the mountain).

We also learn the risks. The book describes numerous accidents and death; friends and colleagues lost to the sport. The book also takes us inside the risk, reward, safety, and purity arguments climbers have. All this groundwork lays down a foundation of respect and tension for the challenge Hannond took on for himself.

The book is a great read. Peering into the minds of this group of exceptional human beings is a humbling experience for an average person like myself. And even though the ending (Synott’s witness of Hannond’s great climb and Hannond’s ultimate triumph) is no surprise, the journey the book takes you on to fully appreciate what you witness at the end is well worth it.

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