How do You Disrupt like Alex Honnold of Free Solo?

Alex Honnold was the first to climb El Capitan without ropes. El Cap is considered the most difficult 3000 foot granite face in the entire world. It was not climbed until 1958 and event then took 3 days over a 16 day stretch. How could Honnold climb this in less than 4 hours? How can you do something “impossible” by following the same process?

Those that follow me appreciate that I am passionate about disrupting our own lives and disrupting the world around us. Decision makers recognize that we live in an age of rapid and radical change where they have so many opportunities to do what others consider impossible. But by working with me, they learn to think bigger and reach higher.  

Free Solo tells the story of Alex Honnold and his historic assent up the 3000 foot sheer cliff face of Yosemite’s El Capitan. In his TED Talk, and in the academy award winning documentary, he details the process he used to do what no human had ever done before in climbing the world’s most intimidating granite cliff.

NOTE: I published a post recently about Honnold’s incredible accomplishment but have seen seen the documentary that provides much more detail about is process. I revisit the topic to give more indepth understanding of how he does the impossible.

As an entrepreneur and disruptive leader, you too will tackle ventures that most would consider “impossible.” Which of the following steps are appropriate for your venture?

First, he had a Passionate Dream.

Hannold dreamed about El Capitan for 8 years. Even though no this was considered an “Impossible Climb” and only two others had ever considered it, he dared to dream big. Then, those two who had considered it, died in separate accidents climbing. Even then, he continued to dream big.

What is your dream?

Are you willing to dream big even when others fail?

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Second, he Started Small

He began climbing indoors for ten years before moving outdoors. It would be another ten years of climbing smaller peaks before attempting Moon Buttress in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite. Those early climbs honed his technique and built his confidence. Only then, was he ready to attempt El Cap.

What small ventures will you accomplish before attempting your dream?

Why are those good stepping stones to the larger challenge?

Third, he Built on Those That Had Gone Before Him

One climber had mapped the entire face of El Capitan prior to Honnold’s climb. Even though this climber would never attempt free soloing (only 1% of all mountain climbers do free solo), his work paved the way for Honnold. The map saved Honnold valuable time and allowed him to plot the best route.

Who has gone before you in the venture you want to pursue?

What can you learn from them?

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Fourth, he Made Peace with Failure but Worked for Success

Hannold recognizes the consequences of failure in free climbing – death. He knew that all of those who had gone before him had died and that anyone can die on any given day. But he didn’t let that dissuade him. He had a dream and was determined to achieve it.

As entrepreneurs and disruptive leaders, we know that failure is always an option. Actually, failure, to some degree, is a given for all who attempt the impossible. It is not if but when. The question is whether we can survive, get back up and try again. Innovation is not like Free Soloing in that one slip does not mean death. In many ways, we still are working with the ropes. That isn’t a bad thing. It just feels like we are dangling by the slightest of grips.

Are you at peace with failure?

What will you do to prevent that failure?

Fifth, he Practiced and Practiced and Practiced

The documentary shows how he not only climbed the granite face many times but went to the top and repelled down numerous times. Each time he was practicing every move over and over until he was comfortable and had the moves memorized. In the end, he left nothing to chance. The consequences were too severe.

One thing that amazed me was that the climb took almost 4 hours yet he had every single move memorized. As an entrepreneur and disruptive leader, we cannot predict every single move we can make. However, we can prepare so much that we can move with confidence.

How much practice have you done?

What small moves do you need to practice more?

Sixth, he Controlled his Fear

Hannold says, “You face your fear because your goal demands it. . .  . Doubt is the precursor to fear . . . “I work through fear so it’s just not scary any more. . . I expand my comfort zone by practicing over and over.”

While the fear is real, it doesn’t have to debilitate those desiring to do the impossible.

What fears do you have?

How can you work through fear by practicing more?

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Seventh, he Refused to Compromise with Those that Loved Him Most

His mother didn’t want to know when he was going to climb. He knew the consequences and couldn’t bear the thought. But yet, she knew that climbing was his life and to deny him that quest would kill him in another way. At the same time, his girlfriend wanted him to “be safe.” He responded that he “couldn’t be more safe.” He practiced to be perfect yet he would not give up his dream, even for those he loved the most.

Wilkerson, in The Dream Giver (2003) calls these people, “Boundary Bullies.” They want us to stay in Ordinary to make it easier on them. To pursue the ultimate, we often have to disagree with those that love us most.

Who wants you to play it safe?

Are you listening to them?

How do you push back?

Eighth, he Stepped Back when he Knew he Wasn’t Ready

He actually made an attempt in 2016 but got part way up and bailed. He just didn’t feel right about the climb. He felt like he was rushing to meet a deadline and was putting himself in danger. So he quit, even though he had a film crew wanting to finish their work. That took a lot of wisdom to back away when he knew he wasn’t ready.

Too often great projects fail not because of poor planning but because someone pushed too hard. Granted, finding the perfect timing and being willing to push back against those with a vested interest is difficult, it often is the difference between success and ultimate failure.

What pressures do you face to push ahead?

How willing are you to stop when you know things are not ready?

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Ninth, He Executed Perfectly

When the day came to make the climb, he did it just as he had planned. He had a normal breakfast and climbed as if it was just another climb that he had practiced over and over. He utilized the muscle and mental memory he had developed.

That may not sound all that exciting and, to some degree, it isn’t until we have succeeded and are celebrating. In the moment, we are focused in our normal, perfect execution. But make no mistake, we can dream and practice but never execute. Too many are afraid to pursue their dream because they are afraid to fail. Too many others never execute because they want to keep their dream safe in their imagination. In the end, it all comes down to execution. Honnold executed perfectly because he practiced perfectly.

Great accomplishments don’t just happen. We start by dreaming big and finish by reaching higher.

How do you need to think bigger about doing the impossible?

What can you reach higher to do what others don’t think is possible?



I’m Dr. Loren Murfield and I help decision makers think bigger and reach higher. Sometimes it is with a business venture, other times it is engaging their team and still other times to help them write their story. Email me today to leave a mundane, ordinary existence behind and make the critical difference.


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