Here are excerpted paragraphs from an amazing and long story about Alex Honnold, one of the world’s two or three greatest rock face climbers. And he does what is called free soloing: no ropes of any kind, neither to help him up or to prevent a fall. He risks death every time. What stands out for me is not just what he does, but that he does not seem to have any fear about doing it. Especially when I am merely trying to not tense up in a game, when I am serving a tennis ball. Both times watching the video I felt my palms go sweaty. Terrifying.

Unroped climbing is, of course, the oldest kind, but ropes and hardware can provide such a reliable safety net that nearly all climbers now use them. This is typically done in pairs, with one climber tied to each end of the rope, moving one at a time.

But using gear slows progress. A roped pair, taking turns climbing and fussing with all that equipment, might spend six hours on a climb that a free-soloist floats up in 30 minutes — focusing purely on the pleasure of movement, the tactile sensation of hands on rock. On cliffs where even elite climbers employ complicated rope systems, the free-soloist wears only shorts, a T-shirt, a pair of climbing shoes and a bag of gymnast’s chalk to keep the hands dry. Honnold has free-soloed the longest, most challenging climbs ever, including the 2,500-foot northwest face of Half Dome in Yosemite Valley, where some of the handholds are so small that no average climber could cling for an instant, roped or otherwise. Most peculiar of all, even to elite rock climbers, Honnold does this without apparent fear, as if falling were not possible.

At one level, free-soloing can be seen as the most extreme expression of the same progression: One generation aid-climbs a route, the next climbs it in record time, the next free-climbs it, then it’s time for someone to climb it without ropes. But free-soloing is so much more dangerous and frightening, even to highly experienced climbers, that a vast majority want no part of it.

Climbers know that fear itself can cause a climber to panic on the side of a cliff. To get a sense of the experience, try a thought experiment: Picture hanging from a pull-up bar in a playground, with your toes inches off the ground, and feel the calm security of your grip. Now imagine standing on the edge of a skyscraper with that same pull-up bar suspended at eye level two feet in front of you. Lean forward to grab that bar and let your feet swing free, so that you’re hanging by your hands. Look down. How’s your grip now?

Even if you have perfect confidence in your climbing ability and perfect emotional control in the face of danger, as Honnold appears to, most climbers fear the unexpected: the handhold that suddenly breaks, the bird that erupts from a hidden nest. I was once 50 feet up a Yosemite cliff when thousands of biting ants poured out of the rock to attack my bare arms and legs. Free-soloists also die with alarming regularity.

When I asked Honnold’s mother how she tolerated her son’s climbing life, she told me that at some point she realized that she couldn’t live with worrying all the time. “Alex is the only one on the planet who knows what Alex can do, and I’ve had to learn to just trust that.”

Honnold enters death-fall territory with the same casual deliberateness that someone might apply to arranging knickknacks in a bedroom.

The world’s greatest climbers struggle to make sense of this mysterious sang-froid. “Most of us think dying is a really serious, scary thing, but I don’t think Alex does,” says Caldwell, who has climbed extensively with Honnold and considers him a close friend. “He’s wired a little differently from everybody else. The risk excites him, and he knows it’s super badass, but he doesn’t allow himself to go beyond that in his mind. The other great free-soloists always talk about this conversation with death. Alex is like, ‘I’m not going to fall, it’s no big deal.’ That’s what makes him so good.”

“If I have a particular gift, it’s a mental one,” Honnold wrote. “The ability to keep it together where others might freak out. . . . Whether or not we’re sponsored, the mountains are calling, and we must go.”