When Alex Honnold, the celebrated climber and the star of the documentary “Free Solo,” took to the wall at my local rock-climbing gym, Brooklyn Boulders Somerville, in Massachusetts, I was in a room nearby with a dozen or so others, attending a workshop called “Time, Money & Joy.” When the workshop ended, the room filled with people telling us what we had missed. Several of us darted into the gym, hoping to witness a repeat performance. It was not forthcoming: Honnold had left the climbing area altogether. We spent a moment exchanging disappointments before dispersing, some of us to climb, most of us to network. We were there for a special event: “Pinnacle Focus: A Day with Alex Honnold,” an unlikely mashup of climbing and capitalism.
The event was co-hosted by Lexington Wealth Management, and there were about six hundred of us who filtered in and out of climbing classes, business-coaching sessions, and well-being seminars. Some of the sessions had names—“Scaling Up,” “Topping Out,” “Agile Thinking (Bouldering)”—that made it difficult to know precisely what skill you were honing. This blurriness reflected the brands of both organizers: Brooklyn Boulders Somerville advertises itself as a “collaborative workspace” and is a popular venue for company outings, and Lexington Wealth Management promises to give as much attention to its clients’ social and psychological health as it does to their financial fitness.
Honnold’s record-breaking climbs involve him working alone and without safety equipment—or, in the language of climbing, “free solo.” All climbing contains an element of danger, but free soloing is sufficiently dangerous that even most professional climbers avoid it. Honnold’s willingness to scale extremely difficult routes in this way has made him, for the past decade, perhaps the world’s most famous living climber, and he has been a popular public speaker for several years. But “Free Solo,” which records him becoming the first person to free solo a twenty-nine-hundred-foot route up El Capitan, attracted widespread interest beyond the climbing community, making him recognizable even to those who have no interest in the sport. Bret Stephens, writing in the Times shortly after the film’s release, declared that “Free Solo” is “less about climbing than it is about living,” offering its viewers “an extraordinary gift . . . a reminder that utility alone is a poor way to measure the grandeur of one man’s spirit.”
Stephens, like other observers, frames Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan as something that transcends particulars, ranking with the universal and all-time great accomplishments. Perhaps, but, for the organizers and attendees of Pinnacle Focus, Honnold and his achievements seemed to have something to teach entrepreneurs in particular, though exactly what those teachings were was not clear. Neither Honnold’s memoir, “Alone on the Wall,” from 2015, nor “Free Solo” suggest that he has much interest in business or in entrepreneurship. In the former, he writes of his admiration for Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Elon Musk, but primarily of their charitable and environmental work. (Honnold’s own charitable foundation promotes the use of solar energy throughout the world.) In “Free Solo,” when a high-school student asks Honnold how much money he has, the climber replies, “A fair amount. Like, you know, say, like, a moderately successful dentist or something, probably.” Nevertheless, the wealth advisers who led the workshops during Pinnacle Focus mentioned Honnold frequently and reverently, pointing out that he is following his dream, arranging his life to do what he loved best, prioritizing long-term gain over short-term satisfaction.
The idea that there’s a connection between rock climbing and entrepreneurship is one that Brooklyn Boulders Somerville takes very seriously. The graffiti-covered walls, exposed pipes, semi-resident dog, and tables high enough to be used as standing desks place the gym somewhere between a skate park and a WeWork. The Boston area rivals New York as the place that attracts the second-highest venture-capital investment in the United States, after Silicon Valley, and the gym’s location makes it convenient for those working at M.I.T. and at the many startups nearby. As in its other branches, situated in Brooklyn, Long Island, and Chicago, visitors buy a day pass so that, in theory at least, they can climb for a while before dashing off some e-mails in one of the co-working areas, climbing again or taking an exercise class in the afternoon, then wrapping up the day with a meeting. “Brooklyn Boulders knows best in the industry that the skills you’re using on the climbing wall naturally translate to the business world, and vice versa,” Nick Medvescek, the gym’s events coördinator, said over the phone. “Piecing out a sequence on a climb is similar to the iterative process an entrepreneur uses when testing different business strategies or exploring different models.” Even the language of climbing, specific and impenetrable to nonparticipants, sounds vaguely entrepreneurial: a route that’s taking you several attempts to climb successfully is a “problem” you’re “working on”; the information you need to solve that problem is the “beta”; when you finally complete the route, you’ve “sent the project.”
Free soloing is a type of climbing particularly dependent on the iterative process, but Honnold’s popularity, of course, cannot be attributed solely to this ability. More than the grandeur of the one man’s spirit, as Stephens would have it, Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan displays precisely those traits and values celebrated by the worlds of tech and entrepreneurship, and by our cultural moment more broadly: passion, drive, an appetite for risk, an attraction to the kind of success that prioritizes the individual over the group. Honnold is an eccentric and obsessive visionary, oblivious to the protocols and niceties of social interaction. In this, he recalls such figures as Musk, Steve Jobs, and even the disgraced Elizabeth Holmes.
More than anything, extreme climbing displays the quality we’re all now chasing: focus. On or off the wall, Honnold lets nothing distract him from his goal. During the filming of “Free Solo,” he sprained his ankle after falling about thirty feet while climbing, and the documentary shows him in the hospital, a doctor warning him not to do too much too soon. In the next scene, he’s halfway up the wall in a climbing gym, foot in a brace. Elsewhere in the film, we see him making it clear to his new girlfriend that he won’t be taking her concerns into account when he decides when and where to climb. Honnold’s single-mindedness can seem callous, but, when every week brings further reports of dwindling attention spans, and the realization that the same people who helped make digital technology so addictive are now writing books with titles like “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life,” Honnold’s drive is aspirational. Climbing is one of the last activities in which you can (literally) rise above it all. It’s also hard to hold your phone when scaling a rock wall.
In the afternoon, Honnold gave his keynote speech. He had spent the past six months doing publicity for “Free Solo,” and he began by observing how it has become rare for him to speak to a room full of climbers. If he sounded a little wistful about this, he also seemed more fluent and relaxed than he did on camera in “Free Solo,” and comfortable with his new position as a business coach and role model. Before Honnold could get going telling us how to expand our own comfort zones, he was interrupted by a small boy with an urgent question. “Could you free solo the Tongue?” he asked, pointing to the highest climbing wall in the gym, which reached the ceiling and ran along the top of it, so that anyone scaling it would make the last few moves hanging upside down like a sloth. Honnold eyed it. “I definitely could,” he said. “But I prefer to make responsible choices, and not void . . . It’s all about making good choices in life. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, I don’t want to get kicked out of the gym, I don’t want to void the insurance policy.” He’s learning fast.
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