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Life isn’t a solo event so maintain your support system

Col. Paul Burger 88th Air Base Wing Mission Support Group commander
Col. Paul Burger 88th Air Base Wing Mission Support Group commander

The other night I watched a documentary that literally took my breath away. The film is called “Free Solo” and chronicles the life of professional rock climber Alex Honnold leading up to his climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

To better understand the significance of his endeavor, it helps to have some background on “El Cap.” The mountain is essentially a massive granite wall rising over 3,000 feet from the valley floor – the height of three Empire State Buildings. It was first climbed in 1958.

That first ascent took a team of men 47 days over 16 months using all manner of ropes and hardware. While El Cap has been climbed hundreds of times since, Honnold’s climb was unlike anything attempted before: He was going to do it alone without a rope or any safety equipment. Man against mountain.

Honnold’s “free solo” attempt of El Cap tends to elicit strong reactions from those who learn of his endeavor. From admiration of the sheer audacity, skill and athleticism required for such a feat to ridicule from others who view it as crazy and an unnecessary risk to his life. Honnold has climbed El Cap probably 40 times in his career with a partner and ropes and an array of safety equipment. So why forego all of that protective gear and the support of a partner for the alternative where the consequence of failure is certain death?

I’ve thought about the documentary a lot over the last week (even watched it a second time) and have come to see parallels between the film and how some people approach life’s challenges. Throughout life we’re constantly faced with obstacles, problems or issues needing to be overcome. These challenges vary from mundane hassles to literally issues of life and death. But in the face of those challenges there are some individuals who, no matter the magnitude of the problem or gravity of the situation in which they find themselves, will choose to “go it alone.” Whether for reasons of pride, embarrassment or plain stubbornness, they feel compelled to deal with by themselves. Man against world.

While the very point of Honnold’s free solo attempt (or any free solo attempt) is the challenge of a flawless climb, no climber will dispute that having a rope and other safety measures makes such a climb easier. It’s similarly hard to argue how having a support system in times of personal crisis would not make the situation far easier for an individual to endure.

There are dozens of routes up El Cap and nearly all have steel bolts – anchors – drilled into the rock, put there by climbers onto which ropes can be affixed. These anchors are permanent and remain for use by other climbers, aiding and protecting them in their attempt to reach the summit.

In life there are anchors, too. Some come in the form of people, such as friends, family, mentors or even counselors and therapists. Other anchors come from the grounding principles one finds in religion or spirituality. Still others may be found in athletic pursuits or a dedicated exercise regimen.

Whether it’s soliciting advice from friends or mentors or seeking professional help to overcome more significant issues, the choice of anchors is personal and perhaps less important than the decision to reach out. As on El Cap, these life anchors can also serve to help us reach greater heights even when we’re not facing a crisis.

Just as a climber may try a challenging grab knowing they have rope to catch them, so too can we take risks while attempting new things or chasing difficult goals knowing we have people to catch us if we fail.

Honnold’s climb had to be flawless. There was no “almost made it” nor any room for mistakes. Life doesn’t have to be like this. By maintaining meaningful relationships and a willingness to use those and other lifelines and anchors when challenges arise, we can more easily weather missteps along the way. Simply, a stumble won’t turn into a fall.

Knowing a support system is there for us – whether to provide advice and counsel along the way or to just cheer us on – allows us to reach greater heights than if we’re on the mountain alone.