Healthcare Practitioners and the Ultimate Climb

By Bonnie Hutchinson

Saturday, June 3, 2017, 9:28 a.m.
Alex Honnold climbs up and over the top ledge of El Capitan.

A few hikers arrive at the summit, following paths up a valley slope. They smile a greeting, thinking Honnold is a fellow hiker.

They don’t realize he took a different route – the vertical route.


We’ll get to what this has to do with healthcare practitioners.
But first, more about the climb.

El Capitan is a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park in California.

Several things are notable about Alex Honnold’s climb.

El Capitan is a granite monolith, about 975 metres (3,000 feet) from base to summit. “El Cap” isn’t just high. It’s a brutal technically challenging climb. Much is almost totally vertical, with no toeholds. After the first 150 metres, the climb back down becomes impossible. Climbers say parts are “like walking up glass.”

Climbing the El Capitan rock face at all is an amazing feat.

But here’s what’s most notable.
Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan from base to summit free soloing.
In the climbing world, “free soloing” means climbing alone – nobody with you – with no ropes, no harness, no safety net, no safety gear of any kind.
Just you, fingers and toes, and the rock.
And of course, the drop.

Though sections of El Capitan have been free-soloed, a no-rope climb of the entire base to summit was deemed impossible by the world’s most experienced climbers. Alex Honnold is the first and only person ever to attempt it. says, “Honnold, now 33, is widely acknowledged as the greatest free-solo climber in the world. In a sport that demands absolute perfection — death is the only alternative — Honnold’s feat on El Cap is his masterpiece…The New York Times called it ‘one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind, ever.’”[1]

In 2018, National Geographic released Free Solo, a documentary about the climb. The film won this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary. The February 2019 issue of National Geographic has a story about the climb.[2]

If you want a mind-bending vertigo-inducing experience, check out the film – or even just the magazine photos.

What does this have to do with healthcare practitioners?

You may have no desire to climb rock faces – or do any life-threatening activity! You might not be interested in extreme sports or man-and-nature adventures.

But as a healthcare practitioner, you probably have great interest in how to become super-skilled, so you can perform at your best when it really matters.

Alex Honnold’s preparation for the no-rope climb is a classic example of how to become super-skilled so you can perform at your best when it really matters.

Many-years lead-up

Honnold was five years old when he started experimenting with heights at a climbing gym. By the time he was ten, he was climbing several times a week. During his teens, he took part in many national youth climbing championships. At university, he often skipped classes to hone his climbing skills. At 19 he quit to become a professional rock climber.[3]

Though he began climbing early, he wasn’t gifted. “I was never, like, a bad climber [as a kid], but I had never been a great climber, either,” he says. “There were a lot of other climbers who were much, much stronger than me, who started as kids and were, like, instantly freakishly strong – like they just have a natural gift. And that was never me. I just loved climbing, and I’ve been climbing all the time ever since, so I’ve naturally gotten better at it, but I’ve never been gifted.”[4]

Okay, he loves climbing, but free solo? A whole different dimension.

One reason he started free solo climbing was shyness. “As a teenager, my parents, who also drove me to climbing, were mostly the ones belaying me.”[5]

(Belaying refers to techniques to secure a climbing rope to a rock or other object, so that a falling climber does not fall very far.)

When he was out and about alone, he was too shy to ask other climbers to climb with him. “I preferred going on a different wall and attempting it free solo,” he says.[6]

Fast forward. By 2008, after several spectacular climbing feats, he was recognized as one of the world’s best climbers. He’d climbed in locations around the world, but his favourite was Yosemite National Park. And at Yosemite, he says, “In the climbing world, El Capitan is the centre of the Universe.”

Ten years before the world heard of his 2017 achievement, he knew he wanted to climb El Capitan, and knew he wanted someday to do it free solo.


As a healthcare professional, you too may have known for a long time that you wanted to be in the healthcare world.  As you find out how Honnold prepared for his climb, you may see some similarities in the pattern of how you’ve arrived where you are now, with planning, physical and mental preparation.

Planning the route

Honnold researched several El Capitan routes and eventually settled on Freerider. The route’s pitches (rope lengths) require strength of fingers, forearms, shoulders, calves, toes, back and abdomen, plus balance, flexibility, problem solving and emotional stamina.

Some sections are excruciatingly demanding. For example, about 185 meters (600 feet) up is the Freeblast, a glassy slab that has tormented Honnold for nearly a decade. About 700 meters (2,300 feet) up, is the Boulder Problem. It’s a blank face that requires some of the most technically challenging moves of the climb.

For over a year, Honnold spent hundreds of hours on Freerider, attached to ropes, working out a precisely rehearsed choreography for each section, memorizing thousands of intricate hand and foot sequences.[7]

Physical preparation

Over the years of professional climbing, Honnold had established a huge base of endurance and fitness. A fellow climber says, “He rarely tires on long routes and thus rarely gets scared on them.” Honnold continued to push his soloing. By the time of his solo of the Freerider, he’d climbed about 2,000 individual pitches ropeless.[8]

Honnold had attempted to climb El Capitan free solo at the end of the 2016 season, but aborted the attempt. To be sure everything would run smoothly with the next attempt, he trained even more intensely. He climbed very long routes and had hardly any breaks in training.[9]

Besides phenomenal hours of climbing, Honnold did other exercises. One was “hangboarding.” Finger strength can mean the difference between life and death. In the months before his climb, he performed 90-minute hangboarding routines in which he hung from a board using only two fingers to support his weight.[10]

Honnold also adjusted his diet. He was sugarless for two months before the climb. In preparation for the Freerider, he went almost completely vegan.[11]

Mental preparation

A big part of Honnold’s mental preparation is being ruthless about eliminating distractions.

He took a sabbatical from social media, to sit in his van and visualize soloing the route.[12]

While Honnold’s plans to solo big routes are often known, he tries to minimize any nervous energy around him.

He didn’t tell friends about his training goal of climbing El Capitan free solo. “I mean, honestly, none of my friends were ever like, ‘So when are you soloing El Cap?’” Honnold said. “Because it was just like, ‘That’s completely outrageous.’”[13]

By mutual agreement, he doesn’t tell his mother when he’s making a solo climb. She says, “It would be harder for him if he knew that I knew. His mind has to be clear, and if he knew I was sitting home worrying about him, it would muddy the waters.”[14]

He’s rigorous about who is allowed to be around him as he prepares. For example, also by mutual agreement, his girlfriend left Yosemite about a week before the climb. The only people left were the film crew.

Speaking of mental preparation, what about fear?

Outdoor says, “If you ask Alex Honnold if he’s ever been scared of death, he’ll tell you that yes, he was scared of dying when he was 19 years old and he slipped on his first snow shoe tour. ‘And then a few other times climbing,’ he says and quickly adds to that, ‘but never free solo.’”[15]

National Geographic quotes him: “There is no adrenaline rush. If I get an adrenaline rush, it means that something has gone horribly wrong.”[16]

Absence of fear is almost certainly a bi-product of his extensive preparation.

Time out…

The news of the El Capitan free solo spread like wildfire worldwide in summer 2017. The whole climbing scene was taken by surprise. By then Honnold was looking for solitude again.

Instead of celebrating, he went to Alaska. He was happy to relax in his camping van. While the world from USA to Greece was talking about his unbelievable free solo, he was sitting in his bus reading.[17]

…and continued mastery

After you’ve done the impossible, what next? Another challenge, of course.

On June 6, 2018, Honnold teamed up with fellow climber Tommy Caldwell to break the speed record for the Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite. They completed the route in 1:58:07, the first climbers to complete the route in less than two hours.[18]

Honnold and healthcare practitioners: What’s the common theme?

If you’ve been following Hone Virtual Education’s blog posts, you know that deliberate practice, mastery learning and peak performance are recurring themes.

You can see these principles operating as Alex Honnold prepared for his free solo climb of El Capitan.

Alex Honnold’s goal was to experience a pinnacle achievement in the world of climbing, and the physical, mental and emotional rewards that would bring. (Yes, it also brought financial rewards, but that was never his driver. His driver was the experience.)

Hone Virtual Education’s goal is to save lives by helping practitioners perform at peak levels, enabling correct clinical decisions.

What Honnold and Hone have in common is using the principles of deliberate practice, mastery learning and peak performance to be at your best when it really matters.

(And – something previous blogs haven’t talked about – we also admire Honnold’s taking time out, and then moving on to new areas of mastery.)

Hone Virtual Education will soon be releasing virtual simulation training modules that use principles of mastery learning and peak performance applied to practitioner skills – so you can be at your best when it really matters.

Check out

  • Learn more about Hone Cue Recognition simulation training;
  • Be notified of updates and launch dates;
  • Apply to be a beta tester as new modules are developed for healthcare practitioners in high-pressure environments.



Bonnie Hutchinson is a writer and lifelong learner with degrees in Education and Whole Systems Design as well as extensive training and experience in adult learning and teaching. She’s bestselling author of Transitions: Pathways to the Life and World Your Soul Desires.

[1] “Alex Honnold Girlfriend, Wife, Net Worth, Age, Height,” 2018.

[2] Mark Synnott, “Solo: How Alex Honnold made a historic climb up ‘a freaking-big wall’ without ropes – and lived to tell you about it,” National Geographic February 2019

[3], 2018, op. cit.

[4] Wikipedia, “Alex Honnold,”

[5] Claudia Klingelhöfer, “Alex Honnold: 10 unbelievable facts about the free solo climber,” Outdoor February 25, 2019.

[6] Claudia Klingelhöfer, February 2019, op. cit.

[7]  Mark Synnott, National Geographic, February 2019, op. cit.

[8] James Lucas, “Behind the Scenes of Alex Honnold’s Freerider Free Solo,” Climbing, August 8, 2017.

[9] Claudia Klingelhöfer, February 2019, op. cit.

[10] Mark Synnot, February 2019, op. cit.

[11] Claudia Klingelhöfer, February 2019, op. cit.

[12] James Lucas, August 2017, op. cit.

[13] Amy Kaufman, “In ‘Free Solo,’ Alex Honnold is on display as climber and boyfriend,” Los Angeles Times September 27, 2018.

[14] James Lucas, August 2017, op. cit.

[15] Claudia Klingelhöfer, February 2019, op. cit.

[16] Mark Synnott, February 2019, op. cit.

[17] Claudia Klingelhöfer, February 2019, op. cit.

[18] Wikipedia, “Alex Honnold,” op. cit.

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