The other day I came across a National Geographic article describing Alex Honnold’s “free soloing” career. I had never heard of free soloing, but it is what one does when they climb sheer mountain faces without ropes or safety equipment of any type. Just the climber, the mountain, and a bag of chalk. In 2007, Honnold soloed a sheer 1,200-foot sandstone wall in Zion National Park and in 2009, he free soloed the northwest face of Half Dome, a 2,000-foot vertical granite wall. This ascent was featured in the short film “Along on the Wall.”
Each time I watch the 4 ½ minute video embedded in this article I get nauseous. The magnitude of the heights is convincingly captured to the extent that the induced vertigo is visceral. I have never experienced that before, but feel free to watch the video for yourself and observe your own reaction. I was brought up short when I read that he was honored as a National Geographic Adventurer of the year in 2010. I wondered if that type of honor would encourage him to continue to free solo, which he did in 2014 and again in June 2017, when he completed the first free solo ascent of El Capitan. I can’t say if the honor did or did not motivate him to tackle these other climbs, but it evidently did not dissuade him.
I wondered if National Geographic would classify someone building a skyscraper without fall protection as an adventurer when OSHA has stipulated fall protection requirements starting at four feet.
In 2007, I was responsible for lineman training, and we experienced a series of falls in the poleyard. I had never been a lineman but was reasonably familiar with line work because of my utility experience as an operator and station chief. While we were trying to solve the falling problem, I was introduced to the notion that free climbing was safer than belt climbing. This also brought me up short, because, while I understood the freedom of movement aspect, I couldn’t comprehend the lack of a “do over” if one kicked out.
Over the course of a year, the lineman training team partnered with the field and investigated and discussed the different aspects of free climbing, belt climbing, double belt climbing and tethering with a lanyard while learning to climb. They eventually settled on implementing two weeks of practice on the lanyard and one additional week of belt climbing, expanding the core climbing program from two weeks to three weeks. Early objections included the notion that training while tethered would ultimately transfer the risk of falling to the field. We did not see that happen and, in fact, it appears that the extra week of tethered practice actually allowed new climbers to perfect their technique.
I started thinking that I would not classify Alex’s climbs as adventurous; rather, I would classify them as reckless and extraordinarily ill-advised, similar to walking on a wire strung between two tall buildings. But the impulse to free climb seems to be comparable between lineman and mountain climbers; there is something personally gratifying and rewarding, a sense of pride even, about doing work that others either can’t or won’t do. Climbing makes us uniquely qualified with specialized skills. Topping out as a journeyman lineman – and often working from an elevated position – gives us a firm place in the world, and I was reminded of that at each graduating class. These are all generally good things.
However, it is also a slippery mindset that must be mitigated through an expanded perspective. Most people wouldn’t suddenly decide that they could or should be linemen simply because fall protection is a part of the work process. It strikes me as darned dangerous either way. If Alex was my son, I wouldn’t want him to climb 1,200 feet without fall protection, nor would I want him to climb 40 feet without fall protection. In the event of accident, one scenario leads necessarily to death and the other leads automatically to severe injury, if not death. For all practical purposes, the climbs are the same. If you wouldn’t climb El Capitan without fall protection, then you shouldn’t climb a 40-foot pole without fall protection either.
We need to expand our “Even Firemen Need Heroes” mindset to incorporate the notion that “Especially Linemen Need Courage and Character.” There is nothing heroic about climbing a cliff without fall protection. Doing so merely adds an unnecessary level of danger. Some have identified virtuous behavior as an important guide to completing difficult tasks (setting a pole in mountainous terrain), when some temptation needs to be resisted (taking shortcuts) or when some motivation that needs to be checked (being in a hurry because the game is about to start).
Psychologists have pointed out that completing a difficult job the right way, every time, requires strength of character – in the form of persistence and perseverance. It does not have the notoriety of heroism, but it means we can work safely through boredom, tedium, frustration and difficulty, as well as resist the ever-present temptation to take an easier path. Perfect performance takes great courage, a carefully developed character and a profound sense of craftsmanship.
What we actually desire to be is competent and professional – and to be regarded as such. We need to be known as someone who has the character and stature to overcome our own worst impulses when we’re tired, confused or intimidated. We must also be able to reject and mitigate the worst impulses of all others, including peers, bosses and clients. Confronting an active shooter at great personal risk would be heroic; changing a crossarm with perfect form would be courageous.