A conversation with Alex Honnold
Story by Bryan Schatz, Photos by Andrew Burr
When you exit Interstate 10 and start driving east on Highway 62 in southern California’s Mojave Desert, you arrive at the town of Yucca Valley. Not a spectacular town, Yucca Valley is significant only because it’s the first time you’ll see signs for Joshua Tree National Park. With over 7,000 established routes, “JT” is a rock climber’s paradise. I’m here to interview Alex Honnold, who is quickly becoming one of the biggest names in American climbing.
When he stumbles out of his van⎯a 2002 Ford Econoline that serves as both transportation and home⎯it’s clear he isn’t well. His auburn hair is all askew, shooting out in every direction. His big doe eyes are puffy and his nose is full of snot. Luckily, he’s up for talking despite the illness, and I take notes as we begin a rambling conversation about his meteoric climbing career.
Honnold is best known for his climbing exploits on the soaring granite of Yosemite Valley. His chosen mode of ascent is often free solo, going thousands of feet above certain death without the safety of a rope. Last summer he was featured on the network TV show Sixty Minutes, climbing 2000 feet above the Merced River on the vertical face of the Sentinel. Seeing big wall free soloing for the first time, a large national audience was introduced to an unforgettable spectacle. Clearly this good-looking young man was completely out of his mind. Climbing with a rope is crazy enough; this high-wire act appeared suicidal.
The Sentinel is a spectacular granite monolith, but the Yosemite formation that is most associated with Alex Honnold is Half Dome. A 2008 ropeless climb of the famous landmark earned him the cover of National Geographic magazine. The picture features a young Alex Honnold, 1,700 feet up the cliff face, standing on a ledge that varies between a mere five and twelve inches wide. He’s facing out with his back to the wall, and he appears likely to pitch forward at any second. Above him is the last few hundred feet of climbing, and beneath is an ocean of empty space. In the photo, he looks completely serene and in control: a portrait of Zen-like concentration.
Alex’s true state of mind during that climb was captured in the Sender Films video Alone on the Wall. “Just a second, I’m like freaking out actually.” is what Alex was saying at that very instant. The video brought home the reality that while playing this game, even a second’s hesitation could cause a long, long fall and certain death. Alone on the Wall showed that Alex is a real person, not a circus act, and this made the moment terrifying to watch. For the majority of viewers, being introduced to Alex for the first time, the question became, who is this guy?
The award winning video didn’t go into detail about Honnold the person, but it did put into perspective his achievement. For an audience comprised mostly of climbers watching the Reel Rock film tour (where Alone on the Wall was first aired), the historical significance of the Half Dome free solo was made clear.
When the Northwest Face of Half Dome was first climbed in 1957, it was a terrifying project and it required many days of dangerous toil. Where Honnold hung gracefully from fingers and toes, first ascensionists Royal Robbins, Jerry Gallwas, Mike Sherrick, and Wayne Merry hammered pitons and hung in painful slings to gain progress. Where Alex compressed all the danger into about three hours, Robbins spread the risk over five days.
More remarkable, however, is that Alex Honnold, some guy in his early twenties from Sacramento, was being compared to Royal Robbins at all. Until just recently, Honnold was just another no-name gym climber. Robbins, or course, is arguably the biggest name in the history of Yosemite climbing.
Climbing is the only thing Alex has ever really been in to. He was five years old when he first went to Granite Arch climbing gym with his father, Charles Honnold. “When I first started going to the gym, my dad and my sister would go and we’d climb for the afternoon,” he says. “It was like a fun family excursion.” Eventually both his sister and his father stopped climbing, leaving Honnold to ride his bike to the gym everyday after school. Though he was a regular gym climber, it wasn’t until college that he began truly dedicating himself to outdoor climbing. On his way to a degree in engineering while enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, he began frequently missing classes, usually to climb at Indian Rock, a small crag in the Berkeley suburbs.
A life-changing event propelled Alex to drop out of college. At the Phoenix airport in July of 2004, Honnold’s father died of a heart attack while waiting for a flight. His death was completely unexpected. After losing his father, Honnold felt depressed, and only climbing held his interest. After returning from a climbing trip to Scotland, he made up his mind to leave college. Shortly thereafter he “stole” the family van and hit the road in proper vagabond fashion, visiting North America’s premiere climbing spots.
It was during that first summer after leaving Berkeley that Honnold started free soloing. His first rope-less ascent was on an easy, 5.3 route at Lover’s Leap in South Lake Tahoe. Akin to ascending a ladder by climbing standards, this route nonetheless changed Alex forever. The hook was set.
Growing progressively bolder, it took only two years for Alex to become world class. In September of 2007, he became the second person ever to free solo Astroman; a ten-year-old high-water mark in the history of Yosemite climbing that many had said would never be repeated. Suddenly this unknown climber from Sacramento was the talk of the climbing world. Not six months later he practically sprinted up Moonlight Buttress, a 5.12d climb in Utah’s Zion National Park. The route is a mostly perfect crack that splits 1,200 feet of exposed red desert sandstone. He made it to the top in a mere 83 minutes.
At some point after this, Alex realized he would try to climb the Northwest Face of Half Dome without a rope.
Even with flawless execution, climbing without ropes is a seductively dangerous game to play. As David Roberts pointed out in a May 2011 Outside article, the history of North American free soloing makes this abundantly clear. He spotlights nine individuals, only four of whom are still alive and the other five – Derek Hersey, Dan Osman, Charlie Fowler, Michael Reardon, and John Bachar – all perished while pursuing their passion.
“Yeah, several soloists have died doing that kind of thing,” admits Honnold. “But, I don’t know, it’s not necessarily a consequence of their soloing. The ones that have died, it wasn’t on things where they were pushing the limits and going big. It was just the result of silly accidents.” Pointing out that there are many holes in his argument, he just shrugs.
In fact, when the discussion revolves around dealing with fear and danger, Honnold is totally emotionless. It’s like listening to a canned speech designed to keep his mother from worrying. Wondering what makes him tick, I ask him if he believes in God. “Not at all.” Alex is a committed atheist.
At 26 years old, Honnold now has a resume of big-wall free solos that make him a revolutionizing figure leading a sport known for being dangerous. Aside from Half Dome, Moonlight Buttress, and Astroman, he’s also soloed the Rainbow Wall (5.12b), Crucifix (5.12b), Cosmic Debris (5.13b) and Heaven (5.12d), and last summer, a 12-pitch, 5.12a route called Northern Lights in Squamish, BC.
Yet, Alex is very good at downplaying his accomplishments. At first I think it’s false modesty, but then he draws me into a sincere discussion that attempts to make his climbing appear less impressive. Yes, he is an elite big wall soloist, but what he does only represents a “specialty” within climbing.
He refers to the “thousands of people that can climb 5.14c” worldwide to knock his own abilities, and then educates me about Alain Robert, a French rock and urban climber who became legendary for soloing skyscrapers and famous landmarks throughout the world: the New York Times building, the Eiffel Tower, and the Sydney Opera House. Prior to Robert’s penchant for urban climbing, he’d harnessed his skills in the French Alps, free soloing 13c and 13d sport routes 25 years ago. “He was free soloing at a super high level, like, way back when. And you know, I haven’t done anything that hard yet.”
Honnold’s use of the word “yet” is enough to send shivers down my spine, as it highlights a question raised by many who fear for his future: How long can he tempt fate before disaster strikes? Is all the attention he’s receiving putting pressure on him to attempt increasingly dangerous climbs?
“You get a certain amount of media exposure and so then you feel like you ought to live up to that,” he admits. His face darkens a bit, and I realize he may not have an easy answer for this particular question. “It’s a small price to pay,” he finally says, “for getting to do what you love as a profession.”
He’ll spend the next week climbing here in Joshua Tree before being flown down to Mexico by one of his sponsors, The North Face, and then he’s off to Bishop, California. He’s been flown all over the world, from the lonely desert towers of Chad to the bustling climbing scene in Poland.
Sitting on a Quartzite boulder in JT, Honnold reflects on a life defined by bold pursuits on rock. For the first time during our conversation, he becomes animated. “I get paid to go climbing, which I do almost 300 days a year—and still I want to climb more. That pretty much says it all.”
After a short pause, we both realize that the interview is over. Alex has shrugged off his illness and I follow him to the base of a 5.12d called Father Figure. Muttering something about feeling weak, he flows methodically upward and then pulls over the top with no apparent effort. Looking down from the top, he just smiles and shrugs. Typical Alex.