What climbing success tells us about economic growth

I recently watched solo free, the great film about the solo free ascent (with no aids, no ropes, no protection at all) of mountaineer Alex Honnold of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Among other things, it got me thinking about economic growth.

The abilities of contemporary climbers are far beyond those of climbers of just a generation ago. The Wikipedia story of El Capitan begins with a 47-day ascent in 1958 – which used pitons, ropes and all kinds of equipment – and continues with the development of routes and techniques up to the three-hour climb. ‘Alex on the face.

Why were such climbs not done long ago? There is virtually no technology involved. OK, Honnold wears modern climbing shoes, which have very sticky rubber. But that’s about all. And reasonably sticky rubber has been around for a hundred years too.

There is nothing technological that stopped human beings from climbing in this way centuries ago. Honnold, transported to 1890, might not have soloed El Capitan without his current boots, but he would have scaled far more tall walls than anyone else.

Clearly, there has been an explosion in human ability to climb rocks, just as there has been an explosion in human productivity, or our know-how, in more prosaic and economical pursuits.

In studying economic growth, we (and especially those of us in Silicon Valley) focus far too much on gimmicks and too little on mere human knowledge. Southwest Airlines’ ability to get an airliner back in the air in half the time it took in the 1970s (and still does at many major airlines) is as much about increasing productivity than installing the latest gadget. Growth is about knowing how to do things, a knowledge that is only sometimes embodied in machines. Free Solo is a prime example of capacity expansion, driven solely by advances in knowledge, unrelated to machines.

How did it happen? The radical improvements in escalation that led to Honnold’s achievement exhibit the same patterns that economic growth theorists tell us about.

Knowledge externalities: When a person learns to do something and can communicate that knowledge to others, others can quickly benefit and the group progresses.

Honnold, like Isaac Newton, climbed on the shoulders of giants. How do you ride El Capitan? There are now many established routes – successions of impossibly tiny holes, cracks and ledges in a 3,000 foot rock face that experienced climbers have figured out how to put together. Honnold didn’t have to figure all that out, as he chose an established route.

Similarly, no one in 1958 had any idea that you could hold on by your thumbs and fingers to mine small pieces of rock. This knowledge, demonstrated in the film, has emerged from the community of climbers and boulderers over time. Honnold is incredibly good at it, but he learned from others.

Transmission of knowledge: Everyone is upset about intellectual property (IP) these days, but no one is patenting climbing techniques. (There is patentable technology in the devices people use to climb with ropes, and it has enabled free climbing, but it’s really not central.) Knowledge is produced, which is costly to the individual who produces it and then passes it on, where it is much easier to learn than to innovate, and the whole group improves.

Virginia F. Goins