Imagine if the prevailing narrative about your life was that you were professionally suicidal, that the thing you’d dedicated yourself to doing—and loved more than anything else—was going to kill you, perhaps soon, and that it definitely wasn’t a matter of if but when. That’s basically what it’s like to be Alex Honnold, a 28-year-old rock climber whose fate is exacerbated by the fact that he’s really the first climber to rise from the margins of this lonely fringe sport to become a “kind of” celebrity.
Honnold will readily admit that he’s not the strongest or most technically gifted rock climber in the world, but he happens to be extremely competent and cool-headed. He has, according to mountaineering veteran Conrad Anker, “really strong hands,” but it’s a steel-trap mind that sets him apart. An ability to subsume fear is a quality that all climbers must possess, Anker notes, but “Alex is off the charts.” This enables Honnold to climb in a way that most people, professionals included, think is sort of crazy—that is, without ropes or other climbing aids. It’s known as “freesoloing” and is a pursuit attempted by only a very tiny group of humans, especially when it’s done on the kinds of towering rock faces where you tend to find Honnold, plodding along as calmly as if he were 10 feet off the ground.
Honnold has been famous in the climbing community since 2007, when accounts of free-solos in Yosemite National Park signaled his from-nowhere arrival as a rare talent, but the myth went mainstream in October of 2011, when CBS’ 60 Minutes brought his story to the millions of American homes that didn’t follow niche adventure sports. Honnold’s climbs are “so remarkable that it defies belief,” CBS correspondent Lara Logan said, before sprinkling on some breathless melodrama: “The penalty for error is certain death.”
Honnold politely disagrees. His view is that he has every intention of living to a ripe old age, and so he only free-solos routes he’s certain he can handle. The one he did for 60 Minutes—up the face of the iconic, 1,600-foot Sentinel in Yosemite National Park—“is not that hard.” The way Honnold sees it, he climbed that route numerous times with ropes and never fell, so why should it be any different once the rope is taken away?
“Is he crazy? Is what he’s doing unsafe?” asks Hans Florine, an experienced climber who, with Honnold as his partner, shattered the speed record for the 2,900-foot ascent of the famed Nose route of Yosemite’s El Capitan in 2012. (They used safety equipment, but only a bare minimum.) “I say this: When your dad gets on the ladder to put up Christmas lights, is he crazy? That’s the same with Alex.”
And yet, among the world’s elite climbers, very few choose to free-solo big walls for the simple reason that shit happens. Every once in a while, dads fall off ladders. So even if there are numerous climbers who are technically as strong, if not stronger, than Honnold, and who probably could free-solo all of the routes he’s done, nearly all of them still prefer the assurance of a rope, just in case.
That’s fine, Honnold says. It’s all a matter of perspective. “I see stuff and I think it’s rad and I want to do it,” he says, meaning free-soloing. “Most people look at the same thing and think, ‘That looks fucked up!’ Fair enough.”