On Saturday morning, 31-year-old Alex Honnold stunned the climbing world when he became the first person to free solo Yosemite’s mighty El Capitan, climbing the 3,000-foot granite monolith using only a pair of climbing shoes and a bag of chalk. No ropes. No safety equipment. Just his otherworldly ability to push down any fear and continually put one hand in front of the other.

Honnold completed the climb up the Freerider route (rated 5.13a) in 3 hours and 56 minutes. While most of us in California were peacefully slumbering at 5:32 a.m. on Saturday morning, Honnold calmly took position at the foot of El Cap then began scampering up the smooth granite wall. Just short of 9:30 a.m., he hauled himself over the summit, took his shoes off, and admired the view.

Honnold had spent the past year practicing for his El Cap push by completing big free solos around the world. He reportedly made a similar attempt to free solo the route last November, but turned back when faced with poor weather.

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“This is the moonlanding of free soloing,” climber Tommy Caldwell told National Geographic of Honnold’s history-making effort. While Honnold had already astonished climbers and casual outdoors observers with free solos of other famous granite slabs like Half Dome, El Capitan is on another planet of difficulty, both physical and mental.

According to National Geographic, it was newsworthy in recent years for a climber to ascend El Cap’s Freerider route even while roped in for safety, so treacherous and demanding are its more than 30 pitches. But Honnold is known for his scholarly approach to climbing, and devotes hours to practicing and memorizing the holds necessary to complete his planned routes. He’d recently climbed Freerider and rappelled down from above to be sure that his route was safe. As safe as it could be, anyway.

But all his focused preparation depended on Honnold being able to keep his mind clear and fresh while shutting out any thoughts of falling, for nearly four hours, with no available help, and no plan for retreat. Any mistake meant certain death. All the pull-ups in the world can’t strengthen the mind enough to endure the psychological pressure that comes from swinging by your fingertips 2,000-feet up a vertical rock face.

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The mind reels.

Photos by theilr/Flickr, Jimmy Chin.

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