Bold young rock star from Sacramento sets new climbing standards

By Seth Lightcap

Honnold_BacharYerian4Sacramento’s Alex Honnold is not your average rock climber. Sure there are other uber-strong 23-year-old ropeguns out there, but Honnold’s game face ain’t like the rest of ‘em.

Over the last three years, Honnold has proven to be one of the boldest rock climbers that has ever ascended stone. Like an invisible ninja Honnold burst on to the free-solo scene (climbing without ropes) with no prior notoriety and has systematically peeled back the eyelids of the climbing community.

Not only did Honnold solo classic Yosemite testpieces the Rostrum (5.11c, 800 feet) and Astroman (5.11c, 1100 feet) in a day but he blew minds when he soloed Zion’s Moonlight Buttress (5.12+, 1300 feet), and later, Half Dome’s Regular Route (5.12, 2000 feet). When the report of Honnold’s April 1, 2008 free solo of Moonlight Buttress hit the web forums it was roundly dismissed as an April Fool’s prank.

But this kid is no joke.

Fresh off a summer in Yosemite setting speed records on El Cap, ASJ caught up with Honnold for an exclusive interview from Siberia. Honnold tapped out his responses on a Russian keyboard at the tail end of a month-long international climbing festival in Ergaki National Park in south-central Russia, home to what is sometimes glorified as the “Russian Yosemite”. Honnold was there with fellow climber Chris Weidner of Colorado to represent the American Alpine Club.
Direct from Russia, here’s one of Nor Cal’s newest climbing sensations in his own words.

What inspired you to start climbing?
Nothing in particular. I just always liked climbing – trees, playgrounds, whatever. My parents read about a climbing gym opening in town and took me in. I loved it.

Where did you climb growing up in Sacramento?
I climbed exclusively at Granite Arch climbing gym for the first five or six years that I climbed. It was the only gym in town. I climbed outside a little bit now and then, field trips as it were, but wasn’t very passionate about it.

How would you describe your evolution as a climber?
I’ve transitioned from a pure gym climber to sort of an all-around everything climber. I’d say I established my style several summers ago climbing in Yosemite with my friend Josh. We climbed a bunch of walls, each in a day, and soloed on our rest days. That trip started to steer me towards free climbing and climbing walls quickly.

When, where and why­ did you begin free-soloing?
I think my first free-solos were at Lover’s Leap maybe five years ago now – Knapsack Crack (5.3) and Corrugation Corner (5.7). But I started soloing a lot more in Joshua Tree the next season. I did a lot of single-pitch routes and learned my weirder techniques – slabs, offwidths, troughs, weird shit like that.

California has always had a rich history of soloists so part of me was just following in their footsteps. But it’s more complicated than that. I didn’t have many partners early on. I’m sort of a loser and I was shy. Climbing by myself just made sense. And it’s super fun.

Soloing Astroman and the Rostrum in 2007 were your first big wall free solos. Were these solo ascents merely the next step in your climbing progression or undeniably big moves based on your previous experiences?
They were definitely just the next step. I’d already climbed Astroman in a wide array of conditions. I’d led the whole route with a backpack on, including the Slot, and I’d also done a Nose/Astroman link up, so I’d done it super tired. But what opened my eyes to what was possible as a soloist was a trip I took the summer before. I went out soloing with a friend of a friend who took me on a tour of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Salt Lake City. I’d never climbed with anyone who was a “real soloist.” I wound up onsite soloing things up to 5.11b.

Can you reflect on the day you free-soloed Astroman for the first time?
It was actually pretty cool. I drove into Yosemite Valley that morning to find the whole place engulfed in controlled burns. It was like driving through Hell. And it was an overcast day. When I got to the base there was grey smoke below me and grey clouds above. It had an apocalyptic feel to it. A weird day for certain. I was excited but nervous. Seems to be how it always is.

Eight months after Astroman you casually free-soloed Zion’s Moonlight Buttress cranking AFI and Rise Against on your headphones. What did that ascent mean to you? Did you slot fingerlocks in time to the beat?
Soloing Moonlight boosted my confidence. It showed me that the real difficulties are mental. I definitely didn’t climb to the beat of my music though. I normally take one ear off when I’m climbing, so I can hear normal just in case. And when it gets hard I often take the headphones off so I can concentrate.

Free-soloing Half Dome was up next. You’ve said the Regular Route on Half Dome was your most difficult free-solo effort yet. What quirks of the Half Dome experience made the ascent so daunting?
The nature of the climbing on that route is super insecure. It’s technical and thin, all the things that I normally don’t really like climbing. Just the hike up to the base is intimidating. It’s a big wall and it looms above you for two hours while you hike up from the Valley floor. You have to be pretty psyched to even hike up there, let alone to start climbing. It’s a big f‘ing wall. You have to sit at the bottom to appreciate it.

Joining The North Face team has granted you a lot of international climbing opportunities in the past year. How has the diversity of stone influenced your skills? Did you pick up any new techniques on the English gritstone or the big walls of Borneo?
I learn something new everywhere I go. Whether it’s a local technique for doing things or just a particular way to climb a particular kind of rock. On the grit we learned about protecting such dangerous routes – new ways to belay, new ways to approach the routes.

It’s sort of subtle though. Traveling broadens your climbing skills, but it can also make you weaker. Flying around the world and eating Ramen in a muddy camp don’t lend themselves to cutting-edge fitness. It’s a trade off.

Sounded like you got after it in Yosemite this summer. Why did you choose the Salathe Wall on El Capitan as your primary free-climbing project?
I’d red-pointed the Salathe two years ago over three days of climbing. That same fall I’d tried to free it in a day but failed. So really I was just trying to tie up loose ends this summer. I was a little surprised by how much easier it felt this year. It’s nice to come back to something feeling stronger.

After the Salathe red-point you and your partner Sean Leary moved on to the Salathe speed record and a simultaneous attempt at a massive linkup – two El Cap routes and a Half Dome route in a day. What was the motivation there?
Sean and I knew that we could break that Salathe speed record based on our experiences free climbing the route. We felt like we had to go up there and make it happen. We stopped short on the linkup after climbing the Nose because it’s really not all that fun after a certain point. Our feet hurt a lot. The goal was to do the Salathe record, everything else was extra. But we’re already talking about doing three El Cap routes in a day instead. That’d be way cooler.

How important are speed records to you?
I wouldn’t say speed records are a big priority, but it’s certainly fun to play the game from time to time. Makes for a good break from free climbing.

So you’re writing from Siberia? How has the trip treated you?
I am just decompressing from this crazy trip. It took me five days of flying, busses and delays to get to Ergaki National Park and I lost all my luggage along the way. I’ve done a month-long mountaineering festival with nothing but flip-flops and shorts. Sweet. I’ve been borrowing things from my partner, but basically life has been shitty. I’m flying to Ceuse, France, tomorrow. Supposed to be some of the best sport climbing in the world. I can’t wait for the change of pace and change of country.

Were there any Russian climbing style differences that were especially glaring or interesting?
It seems like the Russian mountaineers are like 20 years behind the times. They’re all about aid climbing. And aid climbing in shitty weather. They enjoy siege-style expedition climbing backed up by a well-stocked base camp. I don’t really do any of that kind of stuff. My partner and I were both fairly shocked.

What’s on the long-range radar? Any other expeditions planned for the fall or winter?
Not yet. This Russia experience has prompted me to swear off traveling, but I’m sure I’ll forget in a few months.

Soloing seems to have a taken a back seat for you recently. What are your climbing priorities at the moment?
I want to sport climb hard. I’ve never been a very strong climber. I’d like to get stronger. But my priorities change a lot. Right now I’m burnt out on Yosemite after a month of wall climbing in Borneo and then two months in the Valley. I’m super psyched to sport climb. But I might get bored of that after a few months and start fantasizing about soloing again. Who knows?

Are you looking to be an inspiration to other climbers as a professional?
For one, I’m not much of a professional. And who thinks about legacy when they’re 23?! If I inspire other climbers that’s great but I’m really just trying to get better.

What does climbing mean to you and why will you climb until you can’t?
I just like climbing a lot. And it sure beats working.