There’s a reason it’s called Thank God Ledge.
By the time rock climbers have scaled most of Yosemite’s massive geological feature called Half Dome, the narrow ledge near the top is a welcome relief.
Before the 20th century it didn’t seem possible that anyone could go straight up the granite face. Three climbers – working together and using all the latest mountaineering equipment – accomplished the feat in 1957. It took them five days.
Things have changed since then. In 2008, a young climber named Alex Honnold did a “free solo” of Half Dome’s face. He had no ropes, no partners, and no safety net – just his bare hands. Four years later he did it again in a mere one hour and 22 minutes.
That’s Alex in the picture above, standing on Thank God Ledge – an iconic photo that appeared on the cover of National Geographic and defined a new era of extreme climbing.
Long after establishing his reputation as “Alexander the Great,” Honnold dreamed of doing the ultimate free solo: scaling the 3,000-foot façade of Yosemite’s other granite monolith, El Capitan.
Think of climbing, unaccompanied and with absolutely no room for error, a slick rock face as tall as the Empire State Building – and then add another Empire State Building on top of that, and for good measure an additional 50-story building. When Honnold announced his intention to do what no one else in the world thought possible, his friends feared for his safety and his sanity.
Indeed, there appears to be something missing in Alex Honnold’s brain. You’re probably thinking, “Yeah, like maybe the whole thing.”
In 2016, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans revealed that his amygdala – long recognized as the “primitive” part of the brain that can register fear in less than a tenth of a second – barely indicated anxiety as he watched disturbing, get-me-out-of-here images.
Honnold admits that he feels anxious from time to time. But never for very long. He has coached himself not to freak out.
Does he ever feel a surge of adrenaline? “If I ever experience that,” he says, “something has gone seriously wrong.”
On June 3, 2017, Alex set out from the base of El Capitan. His climb was documented by cameras (some of them on drones). The footage ultimately became Free Solo, an Academy Award-winning documentary that creates far more anxiety in most viewers than the guy pressing his fingers into tiny granite seams thousands of feet above the ground.
Honnold knew in advance that his do-or-die moment (literally) would come about two-thirds of the way up the face. Climbers call it the Boulder Problem. That’s a rather understated label – a bit like calling the loss of your entire net worth the Cash Flow Problem. Even those with ropes and spikes hold their breath when they run out of footholds and handholds and have to shift their bodies about six feet to the left in order to find safety. Honnold spent months practicing a “karate kick” maneuver in which he extends his left leg as fully as possible to stick the horizontal landing. You can watch him address the Boulder Problem here.
Yes, he makes it. But as you can see in the reaction of his film crew, it was a white-knuckle moment for more than just Alex.
Honnold conquered El Capitan in a mind-blowing 3 hours and 56 minutes. It’s possible that no one will ever attempt such a climb again.
In order to succeed at his extreme craft, it’s a good thing Alex rarely experiences fear. But on the whole it’s crucial that the rest of us do. Fear is an internal warning siren that danger is lurking, and we had better do something about it.
Author and pastor John Ortberg wrote an entire book about the account in Matthew 14 where Jesus walks on water in the midst of a howling gale on the Sea of Galilee, whereupon Peter asks Jesus to command him to join him out on the waves. Ortberg’s 15-word title neatly states his thesis: If You Want to Walk on Water You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.
Fear may be a natural human response to real concerns. But sometimes it becomes attached to things that really shouldn’t trigger anxiety. That’s when fear becomes worry.
“Worry,” writes Ortberg, “is fear that has unpacked its bags and signed a long-term lease.”
Even if you’re not a rock climber, you experience drama almost every day. It happens every time you face a difficult situation. Do you stare it down and decide to take action, or shrink away and hide? Either way, you’re developing a habit – one that will be reinforced every time you confront the next difficult situation.
It’s unlikely you’ll have to face the Boulder Problem today. But you may need to confront the In-Law Problem. Or the Self-Confidence Problem. Or the Workplace Ethics Problem.
If you push your fears aside and choose to take action instead of procrastinating, you’ll experience what Ortberg describes as a surge of joy. You did the hard thing. And now you can imagine doing it the next time. “But when you wimp out by refusing to take the difficult step or saying the hard word – you die a little.”
Whatever habits we develop will be intimately connected with our life with God.
Bad theology has generated its share of heretics over the centuries. But fear has created many more, since it tempts us to conclude that God probably isn’t big enough or strong enough or close enough to get us out of whatever mess we’re facing.
A few years ago, Alex Honnold co-authored a book about his own climbing exploits. It’s called Alone on the Wall. Aloneness is what defines free soloing.
But aloneness is the antithesis of the experience of every follower of Jesus.
Whatever you are facing today, you are not alone.
Which means that even before you reach the security of the next ledge, you can sigh, “Thank God.”
There’s a reason it’s called Thank God Ledge.