The Economic Lessons Of A Free Solo Climb

In 2017, American rock climber Alex Honnold ascended Yosemite National Park’s vertical rock formation, El Capitan, in under four hours. Honnold’s extraordinary journey to the top was captured in the documentary Free Solo, named after the method of climbing without ropes or equipment which Honnold used.
While audiences largely reacted to the movie with nail-biting, dizzying fascination, economist John Cochrane thought to himself, “Why wasn’t this done 150 years ago?” On today’s show, the three economic lessons that prompted his question, and the surprising links between rock climbing and economics.


Maybe we should celebrate communities that give rise to accomplishments.

El Capitan, My El Capitan

Alpine climbing demands perverse cardiovascular endurance coupled to a lust for suffering

.. whose 2015 climb of the Dawn Wall on El Capitan, with Kevin Jorgeson, is considered the hardest long free climb ever done.

.. Nobody keeps reliable records of these things, but Honnold’s best guess as to the number of prior ascents with zero falls and zero resting on ropes was perhaps one or two

.. Honnold climbs more than anyone alive — endless thousands of feet, roped and unroped, all over the world

.. In the final weeks, Honnold told me, he climbed a particularly smooth stretch about 500 feet up, on rope, five times in a row with only his feet, no hands.

.. What if the presence of cameras encouraged Honnold to do something he would not otherwise have done?

.. Last year, fMRI testing at the Medical University of South Carolina tilted the scales toward precisely that explanation — an underactive amygdala, not a negligent mother — by confirming that Honnold’s fear circuitry really does fire with less vigor than most.

.. His brain is so powerful that if a thought or feeling is not serving him he can put it away.”

.. Allow your mind to relax into the possibility that Honnold’s climb was not reckless at all — that he really was born with unique neural architecture and physical gifts, and that his years of dedication really did develop those gifts to the point that he could not only make every move on El Capitan without rest, he could do so with a tolerably minuscule chance of falling. Viewed in that light, Honnold’s free-solo of El Capitan represents a miraculous opportunity for the rest of us to experience what you might call the human sublime