The Impossible Climb by Mark Synnott – Book Review – The inside story behind Alex Honnold’s El Cap Free Solo

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Alex Honnold climbed El Cap without a rope and lived for Mark Synnott to tell the tale.

If you’re like us you’ve probably watched “Free Solo” and still want to know more about Honnold, or to be exact, you want to know what type of person would do anything like this. Even when his climbing career is at it’s peak, he has any number of expeditions and climbing partners to choose from, yet he still chooses to try the most dangerous free solo climb ever attempted.

We’ve written much about this before and the film “Free Solo” is the documentary that shows us not just the climb but the build up to it – you can watch it now on Amazon. The climb is ground breaking for the difficulty and length, and will most likely never be repeated or bested in our lifetime as Honnold is a complete outlier in terms of skill in this area of climbing. As well as this, Alex is an odd character in that he seems so introverted and awkward while being incredibly good at climbing – a sport that can be very “manly” and brash, especially so with big walls and free soloing. Mark Synnott’s “The Impossible Climb” is a brilliant book that manages to bring great insight into Alex as a person and as a climber.

Synnott does this in a curious but brilliant way – by tracking his own start and further career in climbing alongside Alex’s. This method of story-telling is a novel one but works as a way of showing the reader how two high-level climbers can be so very different while loving the same discipline.

As a partner of Alex’s in a few expeditions as well as a friend, Synnott is one of the best people to write about the free solo, or ropeless, ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. With full access to Alex’s mother Dierdre (recently the oldest woman to climb El Capitan), girlfriend Sanni McCandless, “Free Solo” directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and countless other climbing partners, as well as the film crew following Alex daily on and off the wall, Synnott manages to pull in a huge amount of deep cut material on Alex.

The chapters of this book weave back and forth between documenting Alex’s life and Mark’s, as well as bringing some quality chapters that bring us up to date on recent climbing history. Non-climbers get a good introduction to some terms are the difficulty gradings, and will not be brought out of the experience by them. Free solo history and Yosemite’s outlaw climbers are included – essential reading for the background of this particular event.

The sections of this book that cover Alex’s childhood are very enlightening. Alex’s mother Dierdre seems to be a large influence on the “warrior” mindset Alex holds as important – prominently in the voice-overs in “Free Solo” and shown in how he conducts some of his personal relationships at a distance. His father dying at a young age is explored further that it has been, as well as Alex’s near death experience climbing solo as a kid, his awkward college years, and some revelations on his love life.

While the book is ostensibly about Honnold and El Cap, a large portion of the book is about Mark Synnott himself and covers enough to be a full biography. Through his childhood hijinks comes the story of his first climb – a near death adventure with a rope tied between him and his friends waists, “Everything I knew about rock climbing had been gleaned from a poster my dad had hung on the wall in my bedroom”. Mark’s climbing career from then on is a long and storied one.

Everything I knew about rock climbing had been gleaned from a poster my dad had hung on the wall in my bedroom

In the style of big wall climbing in remote locations, the relationships between the climbers is almost everything. Before the dawn of smartphones and non-stop connectivity, this one-on-one interaction became even more important, and “The Impossible Climb” does great justice to many of these relationships. His expeditions to un-climbed and un-mapped areas are gripping to read and go into a lot of personal detail. Alex Lowe was possibly the greatest climber of his day, and Mark climbed with him on some of the toughest unknown walls out there. Their own tangled friendship as well as some of the more friendly – like with Jared Ogden, John Climaco, Jeff Chapman, and Jimmy Chin – makes for deep and rewarding reading. It is in these partnerships on expeditions with Alex Honnold that we get to know the most about the two.

The book also features chapters on the history of El Capitan and Yosemite. For such a historic area very little is said about it’s actual history and I applaud Mark for telling it how it is and actually bringing up it’s sad past and it’s bloody appropriation from the Ahwahneechee people. The original climbing of Yosemite is well covered and moves into chapters on the Stone Masters and the Stone Monkeys, the two big groups or “ages” of the climbers in the area. Dean Potter, Peter Croft and John Bachar are heavily covered as free solo legends of very different manners – with their own strong moral stances on what they did and why they did it. Other chapters go into the Alex Honnold foundation, the namesakes own way of giving much of his earnings to help give power to families and communities in developing countries.

Some may see this book as an odd one as it covers so much – Alex’s Life, Mark’s Life, El Capitan’s history and the biggest names in free solo climbing. The jamming together of the two’s lives with so much other information could be used as it’s main criticism – however, this exact manner of writing is how we are able to understand Honnold and his El Capitan triumph. Doing something like Honnold did is – to quote the book quoting the New York Times – “…one of the great athletic feats of any kind ever.”

To truly understand the “Why?” we are all asking, we need to compare Alex’s feat next to Mark’s own outstanding career. We need to know why El Capitan is so important, why the film crew has such a great impact, why Alex thinks and acts in the way he does, eschews the doubtless millions of dollars he earns to live in his van, and to understand the people around Alex and how he allows himself to communicate with them. Only with what is presented in “The Impossible Climb” can we begin to see beneath the face and into the core of Alex Honnnold. For the casual reader you’ll get a lot of climbing knowledge and great stories, two biographies for the price of one, and some gnarly climbing gossip to boot. For the person looking for the same “Why?” as I am, you need to read this book.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our “The Impossible Climb” by Mark Synnott book review. You can purchase the book now on Amazon on paper and soon to be in ebook format, see more about Mark Synnott at his instagram, or read more of our coverage of Alex Honnold and Free Solo.

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