In the annals of individual achievements, there are few as astounding (and, in my opinion, astoundingly stupid) as rock climber Alex Honnold climbing the 3,000 foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without a rope or any other safety equipment.
Honnold’s climb is captured in the Academy Award winning documentary Free Solo.
Watching the film you can understand why the New York Times says that the climb “should be celebrated as one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever.” While it’s truly an amazing feat of athleticism, I still can’t help but wonder why would anyone risk their life in this way.
Perhaps the more interesting “why” question, though, is the one economist John Cochrane asks: Why wasn’t it done long before?
There has never been a shortage of risk takers, and aside from modern climbing boots the technology involved hasn’t changed all that much. So why was Honnold able to climb a rock in three hours without a rope when the first climb in 1958 took 47 days and all sorts of equipment? The answer, Cochrane explains, is that Honnold benefited from an advance in knowledge:
I think that in studying economic growth, we (and especially we in the Silicon Valley) focus way too much on gadgets, and too little on the simple fact of human knowledge of how to do things. Southwest Airlines’ ability to turn an airplane around in 20 minutes, compared to the hour or so it took in the 1970s, and still does at many larger airlines, is just as much an increase in productivity as installing the latest gadget. Growth is about the knowledge of how to do things, only sometimes embodied in machines. Free solo is a great example of the pure advance of ability, from a pure advance of knowledge, completely untethered from machines.
Honnold was able to take advantage of the accumulated knowledge acquired by climbers since 1958. As Cochrane adds,
Knowledge externalities When one person learns how to do something, and can and does communicate that knowledge to others, then the others can quickly benefit from knowledge and the group advances.
Alex, like Newton, climbed from the shoulders of giants. Just how do you get up El Capitan? There are now many established routes. A “route” is, as the movie made clear, a succession of incredibly tiny holes cracks and ledges in a 3000′ face of rock, that experienced climbers figure out how to stitch together. Alex didn’t have to figure all that out, and chose an established route.
Likewise, nobody in 1958 had any idea that you could hang by your thumbs and fingers to exploit little pieces of rock. This knowledge, demonstrated in the movie, emerged from the community of rock climbers and boulderers over time. Alex is incredibly good at it, but he learned from others.
This type of acquisition and dissemination of knowledge is an example of one of the Acton Institute’s Core Principles:
SOCIAL NATURE OF THE PERSON – Although persons find ultimate fulfillment only in communion with God, one essential aspect of the development of persons is our social nature and capacity to act for disinterested ends. The person is fulfilled by interacting with other persons and by participating in moral goods.
Even an achievement as singular as Honnold’s free solo climb of El Capitan relies on the social nature of the person. While he may have been alone in his climb, Honnold was relying on the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of a broad community of climbers. In this way he is similar to many acclaimed innovators and entrepreneurs.
Every notable advance and achievement in the economic realm—even those attributed to a single individual—is dependent on the accumulated knowledge of hundreds or thousands of people. While we can celebrate the risk-takers and innovators like Honnold, we should never forgot that they are able to climb to the top because of the work of people whose names will never be remembered.