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The Impossible Climb

Book Review of: The Impossible Climb

A personal history of Alex Honnold's free solo of El Capitan and a climbing life

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Review of The Impossible Climb, by Mark Synnott (Hardcover, 2018)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


Like Alex's mother, I am a Mensan and an experienced climber. In fact, I run the Mensa Climbing Group in Kansas City. And like Alex (at least in the beginning), I am a gym climber. But unlike Alex, I don't climb 5.14d routes. My maximum is 5.12a, and that's top-roped on a fairly short pitch. He would also smoke me on bouldering problems (V7 is my current max).

This book is very well-written, and Mark Synnott clearly understands climbing. He shared some insights that were new for me, and I appreciate that. Synnott seems to take a long time after Chapter One to get to the actual climb up El Capitan or to much about Alex Honnold at all. For most other kinds of books, I would consider this a defect.

But this book is different. First, all that prelude is just darn good reading. It also has strategic value in understanding Alex Honnold, especially in relation to other elite climbers. The insight you get into other climbers, including the author, allows you to correctly place Alex in the pantheon of climbers. Without that background, it would be hard for most readers to understand just how spectacular this feat was.

Second, I believe the primary audience for this book is climbers. Synnott spends little time explaining climbing, and that's probably a good thing. The book is already long due to all that prelude, no sense in making it tedious too. But isn't the length a problem? I would say not for a climber. A key characteristic of climbing is it is a sport of intense focus and concentration. Another characteristic is it is extremely hard to become proficient in climbing. It takes hundreds of hours of practice to become proficient enough to smoothly send 5.10 routes or V3 problems. Flailing up (and/or across) the wall or muscling your way through the problem does not constitute climbing. It takes dozens or maybe even hundreds more to move from5.10 to 5.11 and from V3 to V4.

I see a huge drop-off at V4. Probably only 20% of the people who can consistently send V4 problems can send a V5, and maybe 20% of those can send V6. I climb V7 now, and though I climb at 4 different gyms I know very few people who climb V9 or above. The last time I top-roped, the hardest problem set at that gym was a 5.12a (there were two of them).

So if you're writing a book whose target demographic is people who are known for intense concentration and for putting in hundreds of hours to develop their climbing skills, you had better not write a thin puff piece.

Now that I have covered what may be a common complaint about this book, let me cover what is the least common complaint about any book. Like the other Mark, I am a professional writer. Who better to judge what other people write? I often cringe at grammatical gaffes, because they are so common. They just don't show up in this book. It seems the other Mark pays as much attention to getting writing right as he does to getting climbing right. As we climbers say when someone does a gnarly move well, "Nice!"

On to some particulars about the book's content.

It runs 403 pages (in the pre-release proof copy I have), including the Prologue (a really good read), Author's Note, and Acknowledgements.

Sometimes movies are structured with an opening scene in which we see the hero in predicament. Then there's some text that says "One week ago" or something like that, and a story unfolds from there. We get back to the opening scene, after which the story picks up where we first came in and the hero solves the dilemma. This book is structured like that. Chapters Two through Five provide an important, and well-told, back story.

Part One, "Youth," consists of four chapters. Chapter One is half a dozen pages long, and it sets the stage for the titular free solo climb that is about to happen. Then Chapter Two takes us back to Synnod's beginning as a climber.

Part Two, "The Professional World," consists of four chapters. In Chapter Five, we read about the elite climber Alex Lowe and Synnott's adventures with him. We also read about Lowe's death. In Chapter Six, we catch up with Alex Honnold again but we're not picking up where we left off with Chapter One (that will come later). An important dynamic here is Honnold chides Synnott for being too cautious, teasingly calling him "Mr. Safety."

Part Three, "Topping Out," consists of four chapters. Now that we have gotten to know Alex better via the previous three chapters, we find in Chapter Nine there is serious exploration into how he controls his fear when climbing. This includes a scan of his amygdala, and an analysis of the results. And Part Three includes the final chapter, in which we read about various moments of the historic climb.

I found this book deeply entertaining and informative. I hope it inspires more people to take up climbing. The sport has come a long way from its renegade days when Synnott got started. With climbing gyms popping up all over the country, there is plenty of opportunity for people to take up this demanding sport and fit their climbing into a normal life and normal schedule.

It isn't necessary to do dangerous climbing to enjoy climbing. The reportable accident rate among USA climbing gyms is 0.07 per 1,000 visitor hours. Compare that to the 2.3 injuries per 1,000 visitor hours of cross-fit gyms. Climbing is almost 3300% safer! In fact, serious accidents in climbing gyms happen less often than falls while hill walking. And of course, climbing is far safer than texting while driving.

People have asked me if I'm content to limit myself to gym climbing, and sometimes say, "Are you going to do real climbing some day?" In answer, I send them to my YouTube channel or tell them to search for my videos by typing in Mark Lamendola climbing. And then visit a gym and try one of those.

New climbers are challenged by a 5.7, breathing hard and finding their arms pumped out after only one climb. That's on a fairly short pitch, maybe 20 or 30 feet. The ceiling for most "weekend warrior" climbers seems to be about 5.10b. Climbing several long pitches back to back when they are as hard as 5.14d is superhuman, and that's what I want people to understand about this achievement. It was so far beyond the abilities of most climbers, it's awe-inspiring.

Thanks, Mark Synnott, for this book.


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