On the whole, rock climbing is a relatively safe sport. Advances in safety gear have given modern climbers a wide range of options for protecting themselves when they step off the ground and start up the cliff. While there are still plenty of twisted ankles and bruised heels to be found amongst the ranks of climbers, serious injuries and death are the extreme exception to the rule.

Except when you’re climbing without a rope.

Free solo climbing is the act of going up a cliff with no rope or other protection to save you should you fall. When you get above a certain height on your climb, a slip or fall translates into certain death. It’s heady stuff.

And in the tiny world of free solo climbers, there are few better than Alex Honnold. The 28-year-old professional climber has mastered fear and has put up some of of the hardest free solo routes in history. In 2008, he free soloed Yosemite’s Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome in a little under an hour and a half (it usually takes “normal” climbers two days to complete). He was the first to free solo climb The Phoenix, a difficult and technical climb that was the first route in the U.S. to be rated 5.13a (Routes are rated on difficulty on a scale from 5.0 through 5.15c. So, 5.13a is really difficult climbing.)

But his greatest free solo route may just be his three-hour run up the big-wall route El Sendero Luminoso in El Potrero Chico, Mexico. The route, rated 5.12d, offers sustained difficulty over its entire 1,500-foot length. Just watching the video churns the stomach. Director Renan Ozturk and cinematographer Cedar Wright produced this beautifully shot video that utilized remote-control flying drone cameras to great effect.

I did a bit of free solo climbing myself back when I was young, stupid, and childless and can speak to the purity of mind that can accompany a good free solo route. I never got close to the difficulty reached by Alex and his peers (my hardest free solo was the direct route on Boulder’s First Flatiron, a 5.6 non-vertical climb), but did have a few moments where I contemplated how close to death I was. Coming out of an experience like that can change how you see the world.

Want to read more about rock climbing? Check out these stories here on MNN:

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Shea Gunther is a podcaster, writer, and entrepreneur living in Portland, Maine. He hosts the popular podcast "Marijuana Today Daily" and was a founder of Renewable Choice Energy, the country's leading provider of wind credits and Green Options. He plays a lot of ultimate frisbee and loves bad jokes.

Free climbing with Alex Honnold: 1,000 feet off the deck with nothing but air below
Professional climber Alex Honnold completes what may be the hardest free solo climb (meaning no ropes!) on the 1,750-foot route up El Sendero Luminoso.