On a bright Saturday morning in September a young man is clinging to the face of Half Dome, a sheer 2,130-foot wall of granite in the heart of Yosemite Valley. He's alone, so high off the ground that perhaps only the eagles take notice. Hanging on by his fingertips to an edge of rock as thin as a dime, shoes smeared on mere ripples in the rock, Eminem blasting on his iPod, Alex Honnold is attempting something no one has ever tried before: to climb the Regular Northwest Face route on Half Dome without a rope. He's less than a hundred feet from the summit when something potentially disastrous occurs—he loses the smallest measure of confidence.
For two hours and 45 minutes Honnold has been in the zone, flawlessly performing hundreds of precise athletic moves one after another, and not once has he hesitated. In the sport of free soloing, which means climbing with only a powdery chalk bag and rock shoes—no rope, no gear, nothing to keep you stuck to the stone but your own belief and ability—doubt is dangerous. If Honnold's fingertips can't hold, or if he merely believes his fingertips can't hold, he will fall to his death. Now, the spell suddenly broken by mental fatigue and the glass-slick slab in front of him, he's paralyzed.
"My foot will never stay on that," Honnold says to himself, staring at a greasy bump on the rock face. "Oh God, I'm screwed."
He hadn't felt that way two days before, when he'd raced up the same route with a rope. That climb had gone so smoothly he was certain he could free solo it, despite the route's legendary difficulty. When Half Dome was first climbed, in 1957, it had taken Californian Royal Robbins and his teammates five days. To get to the top, 4,840 feet above the valley floor, they'd pounded a hundred or so pitons, thin wedges of steel, into the rock, from which they'd hung ropes to climb—a style called aid climbing. A generation later, in 1976, Coloradans Art Higbee and Jim Erickson climbed Half Dome almost completely free—relying only on hands and feet wedged into the cracks, using ropes only to catch a fall—in 34 hours. For Honnold to free solo Half Dome would be to raise the bar almost beyond belief.
Now, clinging to the granite, Honnold vacillates, delicately chalking one hand, then the other, vigilantly adjusting his feet on invisibly small footholds. Then abruptly he's in motion again, stepping up, smearing his shoe on the slick knob. It sticks. He moves his hand to another hold, crimping his fingers on the tiny edge. Within minutes he's at the top.
"I rallied because there was nothing else I could do," Honnold tells me later, releasing a boyish laugh. "I stepped up and trusted that terrible foothold and was freed of the little prison where I'd stood silently for five minutes."
Word of his two-hour-and-50-minute free solo of Half Dome flashes around the world. Climbers are stunned, and bloggers buzz. On this warm fall day in 2008 the nerdy, plays-Scrabble-with-his-mom 23-year-old from the suburbs of Sacramento has just set a new record in climbing's biggest of big leagues.
This is the magic of Yosemite: It forges heroes. No matter where they come from, from the Alps to the Andes, all self-respecting rock climbers yearn to make a pilgrimage to "the valley" to measure themselves against its giants: El Capitan, a shimmering prow of stone so immense it makes the hundred-foot ponderosa pines at its base look miniature; Cathedral Rocks, a dark fortress forever in the shade; and Half Dome, a granite apple cleaved in half, its soaring northwest face an invitation to the boldest climbers in the world. To climb here is a rite of passage.
I made my first journey to the valley in the 1970s, a hungry teenager hitchhiking from Wyoming with a $20 bill and a climbing rope. Having grown up on the High Plains and tested myself in the Rockies, I wanted to believe I was ready. A vacationing family from Iowa in a station wagon, with three kids and a golden retriever, dropped me off in a meadow beneath the shadow of El Capitan, and I must have stood there with my head tilted back, stunned, for 15 minutes.
I stayed in Camp 4, Yosemite's notoriously rowdy campground for climbers. Back then, Camp 4 was all bell-bottoms and beads, torn tents and worn sleeping bags. Climbers were long-haired, hard-partying rebels, addicted to independence and the thrill of scaling big rocks and thus the bane of park rangers, who were known as "the tools."
The feeling was mutual. One midnight, after barely getting up a big wall, my friends and I stumbled back into camp only to discover that the rangers had confiscated our tent because we'd overstayed our permit. We slept in the dirt that night and from then on "stealth bivvied," rolling out our sleeping bags in the forest or among the boulders, sleeping under the stars, and returning to the walls before daybreak (still a common practice). We collected aluminum cans for cash and lived on peanut butter and cheap beer, and we couldn't have been happier.
But I was a Camp 4 tourist, soon to return to Wyoming. The lore of Camp 4 came from those who lived there all summer, every summer, like hobo kings, constantly pushing the limits of their abilities and the park's tolerance. To this day, Camp 4 fables are staples of campfires round the world. Once, a drug smugglers' plane stuffed with bales of weed and wads of cash crashed in the high country. The ragged, sandaled lads of Camp 4 marched back and forth through the snow, absconding with the loot. For a time, T-bone steaks replaced tinned sardines. One climber rolled out of Yosemite in a broken-down DeSoto and returned ten days later in a red convertible Lincoln Continental. A few others lit out for the Alps with dreams of grandeur but didn't make it any farther than a bordello in Bordeaux, returning fat and flat broke the next year.