From the New York Times:

The world’s finest climbers have long mused about the possibility of a ropeless “free solo” ascent of El Capitan in much the same spirit that science fiction buffs muse about faster-than-light-speed travel — as a daydream safely beyond human possibility.

Which structure does "safely" modify?

"ropeless “free solo” ascent of El Capitan" is considered as a daydream and beyond human possibility, but we do not say it is considered safely. How can I take the grammar of "safely" here?

  • I'd call it an intensifier - same as ...well beyond [any chance of actually happening]. Or ...completely beyond. Jun 27 at 3:19
  • These "adverbs of degree" all emphasize the metaphoric use of spatial distance to represent the difference between real / possible and unreal / impossible. Jun 27 at 3:26
  • 1
    It's a rather poor choice of word in this context. Read it as "a daydream which we can safely assume is beyond human possibility", where in turn "safely" means "with very little risk of being proved wrong". Jun 27 at 17:00
  • @MichaelKay - Yes, I think "safe" is used here in the sense of there being no real danger of being proven wrong, as in the common phrase "safe to say..."
    – Hypnosifl
    Jun 28 at 16:48

2 Answers 2


In that context, "safely" modifies the prepositional phrase, "beyond human possibility".

It means a ropeless "free solo" ascent of El Capitan is a fantasy which is at a safe distance beyond human possibility.

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    The definition of "safe" being used here is "Certain to happen or be the case" (image - link). "Far" happens to work out in this case, but "certainly" might be a better allround synonym here.
    – Flater
    Jun 28 at 4:40

It means that there is no chance of it entering the realm of possibility (becoming possible).

Compare: "Our car sped away, and soon we were safely out of range of pursuit."

That's a positive sense that overlaps in connotation with "safe" itself. But we sometimes use "safely" in this negative sense and its connotation is then literary and slightly ironic: what one is safe from is something one might have desired.

In the original sentence, there's a conflict suggested between the desire of the climbers to do something dangerous and the likelihood of not being able to. The use of "safely" strengthens the implication that their idea is foolhardy.

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