Climb to the Top!

To call Yosemite’s El Capitan a “cliff” is an understatement; it is an almost incomprehensible behemoth, a 3,200-foot wall of granite that rises vertically from a valley.

So begins an article on reviewing the National Geographic film documentary Free Solo. I happened upon the film the other evening as I was watching a movie about Yosemite National Park on the National Geographic channel. An ad came on, promoting Free Solo, and it was coming up next. I was intrigued because, not only does the film feature El Capitan (the cliff on the left side of the photo above), but it chronicles the efforts of Alex Honnold to scale the cliff without ropes, harnesses, or any safety gear at all.

“Wait a minute,” I said to myself, “Do what??”

Chris and I have been to Yosemite, stood at the base of El Capitan, and craned our necks to look straight up the granite wall. Looking from below, we could see a couple specks against the cliff wall about a third of the way up—climbers using ropes and harnesses making their way to the top, which to us seemed completely out of reach. I understand that El Capitan is “the climber’s Mecca,” and dozens of people scale the cliff every year, but for my part, I’m awed that anyone can do so, even with all kinds of safety gear, ropes, harnesses, and so on. It’s straight up! For 3,200 feet!

And Honnold was going to attempt this without any climbing gear at all?! That sounded insane. The teaser hooked me; I had to see this. I must tell you, there were times in the film when I could hardly stand to watch—and that was when he was practicing with ropes and all! On a couple occasions while practicing, he slipped and “fell,” saved by the ropes. What if there were no ropes? Well, there would’ve been a funeral.

So the last twenty minutes of the film covered the morning of his free solo attempt. As viewers, we’re on the edge of our seats, hearts pounding. Even some of the film crew couldn’t bear watching, especially on the most dangerous segments. But incredibly, Alex made it—all 3,200 feet—in just under four hours! Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief and felt a sense of elation for this one-of-a-kind accomplishment. No one had ever scaled El Capitan free solo before.

Now while all of this was most exciting, I was intrigued by this man’s thought processes, his motivations, his life background that brought him to the base of the cliff for this attempt. Much of what the film revealed gave some helpful perspective. For one thing, he had always been a loner, considered a “geek” in school, and didn’t have many close friends. He enjoyed solitude, preferring it to being in social settings. Additionally, he lacked “emotional intelligence,” as some would call it. Growing up, he admitted, he never heard his parents tell him they loved him. “The word just wasn’t in our vocabulary,” he said. So the thought that others might be scared to death about his “succeed or die trying” free solo climbing didn’t affect him at all. And then there was his mother’s incessant push to perfection. She demanded nothing less, and Alex’s sense of self-worth was tied to how closely he came to achieving his mother’s standard.

These factors and more drove him throughout his professional climbing career and brought him to the base El Cap. Incidentally, how does one become a professional climber? Who pays people to do this? Anyway, much of the film is taken up with Alex’s practicing with safety gear, over and over again climbing the route he intended to do free solo. As he put it, he had to be perfect; there is no margin for error.

Now, there were a number of thoughts that struck me throughout the documentary, but as I reflected, my mind kept going back to Alex’s passionate desire to reach his goal and his relentless pursuit of perfection. Pondering this led to a measure of introspection, of self-critique. What am I really passionate about? Should I be? What are the goals I’m reaching toward? Are they truly important? What is the “one thing” that I have my sights set on, that I’m almost obsessed with achieving? Is there anything in my life that I’m determined to do with perfection, that I’m willing to work on over and over again until I get it right?

Then I was reminded of the Apostle Paul’s example. As he looked back on all his accomplishments in life, he wrote:

But whatever gain I had, I counted loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.…

But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

[Philippians 3:7-14 ESV]

So I ask myself, what’s the one thing for which I would be willing to relinquish all of life’s accomplishments to attain? Would it be worth it? Would there be lasting glory attached to it? At one point in the documentary, Alex reflected on the significance of his achievement, should he succeed. I’m paraphrasing, but he said, in effect, that the perfection enabling a successful climb would be incredibly satisfying—for a while, at least. I believe he was acknowledging that, in time, the glory of this feat would fade—for himself, if not for everyone else.

In contrast, attaining the resurrection from the dead, achieving the “prize of the upward call,” brings with it a glory that never fades! Speaking of this “prize,” the Apostle Peter wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you….” [1 Peter 1:3–4 (ESV)]

Also, in contrast to the demand on Alex that he achieve perfection in order to reach his “prize,” neither Paul, nor Peter, nor I have to—or indeed can—achieve the perfection needed to gain the unfading glory of an eternal inheritance! So how do we attain it? We don’t, because Christ Jesus did! That’s why Paul said, “I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” Being “in him” means that what he achieved, you achieved! His perfect righteousness is credited to the account of every unrighteous person who comes to him by faith, repents of his or her sin, and trusts him for eternal salvation.

So there are many good, worthwhile goals to pursue in life. Alex’s example challenged me to be more diligent and committed in some areas of my vocation. But one goal must be desired and “strained forward” after above all else: the prize of the upward call—not to the top of El Cap, but to the eternal inheritance in Christ Jesus!