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  • Hello. I'd like to show you guys 30 seconds of the best day of my life.

  • (Applause)

  • So that was El Capitan in California's Yosemite National Park,

  • and in case you couldn't tell,

  • I was climbing by myself without a rope,

  • a style of a climbing known as free soloing.

  • That was the culmination of a nearly decade-long dream,

  • and in the video I'm over 2,500 feet off the ground.

  • Seems scary? Yeah, it is,

  • which is why I spent so many years dreaming about soloing El Cap

  • and not actually doing it.

  • But on the day that that video was taken,

  • it didn't feel scary at all.

  • It felt as comfortable and natural as a walk in the park,

  • which is what most folks were doing in Yosemite that day.

  • Today I'd like to talk about how I was able to feel so comfortable

  • and how I overcame my fear.

  • I'll start with a very brief version of how I became a climber,

  • and then tell the story of my two most significant free solos.

  • They were both successful, which is why I'm here.

  • (Laughter)

  • But the first felt largely unsatisfying,

  • whereas the second, El Cap, was by far the most fulfilling day of my life.

  • Through these two climbs, you'll see my process for managing fear.

  • So I started climbing in a gym when I was around 10 years old,

  • which means that my life has been centered on climbing

  • for more than 20 years.

  • After nearly a decade of climbing mostly indoors,

  • I made the transition to the outdoors and gradually started free soloing.

  • I built up my comfort over time

  • and slowly took on bigger and more challenging walls.

  • And there have been many free soloists before me,

  • so I had plenty of inspiration to draw from.

  • But by 2008, I'd repeated most of their previous solos in Yosemite

  • and was starting to imagine breaking into new terrain.

  • The obvious first choice was Half Dome,

  • an iconic 2,000-foot wall the lords over the east end of the valley.

  • The problem, though also the allure,

  • was that it was too big.

  • I didn't really know how to prepare for a potential free solo.

  • So I decided to skip the preparations

  • and just go up there and have an adventure.

  • I figured I would rise to the occasion,

  • which, unsurprisingly, was not the best strategy.

  • I did at least climb the route roped up with a friend two days before

  • just to make sure that I knew roughly where to go

  • and that I could physically do it.

  • But when I came back by myself two days later,

  • I decided that I didn't want to go that way.

  • I knew that there was a 300-foot variation

  • that circled around one of the hardest parts of the climb.

  • I suddenly decided to skip the hard part and take the variation,

  • even though I'd never climbed it before,

  • but I immediately began to doubt myself.

  • Imagine being by yourself in the dead center of a 2,000-foot face,

  • wondering if you're lost.

  • (Laughter)

  • Thankfully, it was pretty much the right way

  • and I circled back to the route.

  • I was slightly rattled, I was pretty rattled,

  • but I tried not to let it bother me too much

  • because I knew that all the hardest climbing was up at the top.

  • I needed to stay composed.

  • It was a beautiful September morning, and as I climbed higher,

  • I could hear the sounds of tourists chatting and laughing on the summit.

  • They'd all hiked up the normal trail on the back,

  • which I was planning on using for my descent.

  • But between me and the summit lay a blank slab of granite.

  • There were no cracks or edges to hold on to,

  • just small ripples of texture up a slightly less than vertical wall.

  • I had to trust my life to the friction between my climbing shoes

  • and the smooth granite.

  • I carefully balanced my way upward,

  • shifting my weight back and forth between the small smears.

  • But then I reached a foothold that I didn't quite trust.

  • Two days ago, I'd have just stepped right up on it,

  • but that would have been with a rope on.

  • Now it felt too small and too slippery.

  • I doubted that my foot would stay on if I weighted it.

  • I considered a foot further to the side, which seemed worse.

  • I switched my feet and tried a foot further out.

  • It seemed even worse.

  • I started to panic.

  • I could hear people laughing on the summit just above me.

  • I wanted to be anywhere but on that slab.

  • My mind was racing in every direction.

  • I knew what I had to do, but I was too afraid to do it.

  • I just had to stand up on my right foot.

  • And so after what felt like an eternity, I accepted what I had to do

  • and I stood up on the right foot,

  • and it didn't slip, and so I didn't die,

  • and that move marked the end of the hardest climbing.

  • And so I charged from there towards the summit.

  • And so normally when you summit Half Dome,

  • you have a rope and a bunch of climbing gear on you,

  • and tourists gasp and they flock around you for photos.

  • This time I popped over the edge shirtless, panting, jacked.

  • I was amped, but nobody batted an eye.

  • (Laughter)

  • I looked like a lost hiker that was too close to the edge.

  • I was surrounded by people talking on cell phones and having picnics.

  • I felt like I was in a mall.

  • (Laughter)

  • I took off my tight climbing shoes and started hiking back down,

  • and that's when people stopped me.

  • "You're hiking barefoot? That's so hard-core."

  • (Laughter)

  • I didn't bother to explain,

  • but that night in my climbing journal, I duly noted my free solo of Half Dome,

  • but I included a frowny face and a comment, "Do better?"

  • I'd succeeded in the solo

  • and it was celebrated as a big first in climbing.

  • Some friends later made a film about it.

  • But I was unsatisfied.

  • I was disappointed in my performance,

  • because I knew that I had gotten away with something.

  • I didn't want to be a lucky climber. I wanted to be a great climber.

  • I actually took the next year or so off from free soloing,

  • because I knew that I shouldn't make a habit of relying on luck.

  • But even though I wasn't soloing very much,

  • I'd already started to think about El Cap.

  • It was always in the back of my mind as the obvious crown jewel of solos.

  • It's the most striking wall in the world.

  • Each year, for the next seven years,

  • I'd think, "This is the year that I'm going to solo El Cap."

  • And then I would drive into Yosemite, look up at the wall, and think,

  • "No frickin' way."

  • (Laughter)

  • It's too big and too scary.

  • But eventually I came to accept that I wanted to test myself against El Cap.

  • It represented true mastery,

  • but I needed it to feel different.

  • I didn't want to get away with anything or barely squeak by.

  • This time I wanted to do it right.

  • The thing that makes El Cap so intimidating

  • is the sheer scale of the wall.

  • Most climbers take three to five days

  • to ascend the 3,000 feet of vertical granite.

  • The idea of setting out up a wall of that size

  • with nothing but shoes and a chalk bag seemed impossible.

  • 3,000 feet of climbing represents

  • thousands of distinct hand and foot movements,

  • which is a lot to remember.

  • Many of the moves I knew through sheer repetition.

  • I'd climbed El Cap maybe 50 times over the previous decade with a rope.

  • But this photo shows my preferred method of rehearsing the moves.

  • I'm on the summit,

  • about to repel down the face with over a thousand feet of rope

  • to spend the day practicing.

  • Once I found sequences that felt secure and repeatable,

  • I had to memorize them.

  • I had to make sure that they were so deeply ingrained within me

  • that there was no possibility of error.

  • I didn't want to be wondering if I was going the right way

  • or using the best holds.

  • I needed everything to feel automatic.

  • Climbing with a rope is a largely physical effort.

  • You just have to be strong enough to hold on and make the movements upward.

  • But free soloing plays out more in the mind.

  • The physical effort is largely the same.

  • Your body is still climbing the same wall.

  • But staying calm and performing at your best

  • when you know that any mistake could mean death

  • requires a certain kind of mindset.

  • (Laughter)

  • That's not supposed to be funny, but if it is, it is.

  • (Laughter)

  • I worked to cultivate that mindset through visualization,

  • which basically just means imagining the entire experience of soloing the wall.

  • Partially, that was to help me remember all the holds,

  • but mostly visualization was about feeling the texture

  • of each hold in my hand

  • and imagining the sensation of my leg reaching out and placing my foot just so.

  • I'd imagine it all like a choreographed dance thousands of feet up.

  • The most difficult part of the whole route was called the Boulder Problem.

  • It was about 2,000 feet off the ground

  • and consisted of the hardest physical moves on the whole route:

  • long pulls between poor handholds with very small, slippery feet.

  • This is what I mean by a poor handhold:

  • an edge smaller than the width of a pencil but facing downward

  • that I had to press up into with my thumb.

  • But that wasn't even the hardest part.

  • The crux culminated in a karate kick

  • with my left foot over to the inside of an adjacent corner,

  • a maneuver that required a high degree of precision and flexibility,

  • enough so that I'd been doing a nightly stretching routine

  • for a full year ahead of time

  • to make sure that I could comfortably make the reach with my leg.

  • As I practiced the moves,

  • my visualization turned to the emotional component

  • of a potential solo.

  • Basically, what if I got up there and it was too scary?

  • What if I was too tired?

  • What if I couldn't quite make the kick?

  • I had to consider every possibility while I was safely on the ground,

  • so that when the time came and I was actually making the moves without a rope,

  • there was no room for doubt to creep in.

  • Doubt is the precursor to fear,

  • and I knew that I couldn't experience my perfect moment if I was afraid.

  • I had to visualize and rehearse enough to remove all doubt.

  • But beyond that, I also visualized how it would feel

  • if it never seemed doable.

  • What if, after so much work, I was afraid to try?

  • What if I was wasting my time

  • and I would never feel comfortable in such an exposed position?

  • There were no easy answers,

  • but El Cap meant enough to me that I would put in the work and find out.

  • Some of my preparations were more mundane.

  • This is a photo of my friend Conrad Anker

  • climbing up the bottom of El Cap with an empty backpack.

  • We spent the day climbing together

  • to a specific crack in the middle of the wall

  • that was choked with loose rocks

  • that made that section difficult and potentially dangerous,

  • because any missed step might knock a rock to the ground

  • and kill a passing climber or hiker.

  • So we carefully removed the rocks, loaded them into the pack

  • and rappelled back down.

  • Take a second to imagine how ridiculous it feels

  • to climb 1,500 feet up a wall just to fill a backpack full of rocks.

  • (Laughter)

  • It's never that easy to carry a pack full of rocks around.

  • It's even harder on the side of a cliff.

  • It may have felt silly, but it still had to get done.

  • I needed everything to feel perfect

  • if I was ever going to climb the route without a rope.

  • After two seasons of working specifically toward a potential free solo of El Cap,

  • I finally finished all my preparations.

  • I knew every handhold and foothold on the whole route,

  • and I knew exactly what to do.

  • Basically, I was ready.

  • It was time to solo El Cap.

  • On June 3, 2017,

  • I woke up early, ate my usual breakfast of muesli and fruit

  • and made it to the base of the wall before sunrise.

  • I felt confident as I looked up the wall.

  • I felt even better as I started climbing.

  • About 500 feet up, I reached a slab

  • very similar to the one that had given me so much trouble on Half Dome,

  • but this time was different.

  • I'd scouted every option, including hundreds of feet of wall to either side.

  • I knew exactly what to do and how to do it.

  • I had no doubts. I just climbed right through.