Coinciding with the wide-release documentary, Free Solo, about Honnold's historic climb. Readers will pick this up for Honnold but will be equally engrossed by Synnott's own adventures and writing. A worthy companion to Honnold's memoir Alone on the Wall and Tommy Caldwell's The Push.
The Impossible Climb is an accomplished portrait of two remarkable lives — but its major weakness, of both style and imagination, lies in Synnott’s depictions of women. Professional climbing is largely a man’s world, but rather than examine this dynamic as he does countless others, Synnott uses descriptions that further diminish and objectify the women he encounters ... Like a jazz record or a dog-eared book by Dostoyevsky, the women here are simply another tool for characterizing the men around them — as well as vehicles for Synnott’s fascination with the younger Honnold’s sex life. This fascination is shameless and enduring, fitting into themes of aging that build throughout the book.
The author occupies a solid position from which to tell this story, and his characterizations of Mr. Honnold are convincing ... Although Mr. Synnott’s writing is fast-paced and enjoyable, episodes from his own climbing history make the book an odd hybrid—equal parts memoir, climbing journalism and authorized celebrity biography. The author struggles to contain disparate story lines, find a consistent channel through which to let the narrative flow, and keep the sequence of events easy to follow although not strictly chronological ... Either he is too much in awe of Mr. Honnold to pepper him with precise, persistent questioning, or Mr. Honnold couldn’t be bothered to answer ... Mr. Honnold’s impatience with what must be constant questioning is understandable, but such a thoughtful and literate person (he read Dostoevsky in a midcliff camp in Borneo) ought to challenge himself to better articulate the feelings, sensations, visions and lessons gleaned from his singular achievement. In that respect, Mr. Honnold has failed to fulfill the mythic hero’s final obligation: to bring back a story from the underworld. Or, more likely, Mr. Synnott has failed the interviewer’s task to force it out of him.
Synnott’s book is as gripping and nail-biting as a thriller. It is a memorable portrait of the fearless and driven Honnold ... From reading The Brothers Karamazov 10,000ft up a cliff in Borneo, to his passionate commitment to environmentalism, Honnold is a remarkable figure ... Synnott’s book is also an attempt to understand what drives people such as Honnold to risk their lives on the world’s most dangerous mountains. One climber describes it as a primal experience: 'Everything is more intense.' Although he denies being an adrenaline junkie, Honnold clearly lives for climbing, the only thing that has ever 'lit his fire'. Climbers such as Honnold are only happy when they are hanging from a fingertip jammed in a fissure of rock a thousand feet off the ground.
Synnott’s admiration for the subject matter results in a lot of plodding backstory between the climbs themselves; the book works best when exploring the psychological challenges of such harrowing endeavors. The 2018 documentary Free Solo captures Honnold’s story and his sweaty-palm-inducing feat in a more concise and visceral way, but those looking to know more about the people and culture of climbing’s past and present will be roped in by this sporting memoir-biography hybrid.
One of the great virtues of this book is the author’s cleareyed explanations of how alpinists parse mountains, rating them for difficulty and then doing the calculus of who qualifies as the world’s leading climber on the strength of those numbers. Old-timers agree: Honnold may be ill-mannered and self-absorbed, but he’s got the right stuff, doing what previous generations of climbers deemed impossible. As for lessons for would-be climbers, Synnott offers the cardinal one in the voice of one of the old-timers: 'Don’t fall' ... Fans of mountaineering will find this a winner.