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His Life in His Hands

Alex Honnold routinely climbs some of the world's toughest mountains without a rope. He's that confident. But is anybody really that good?

 

there’s an old cliché about climbers, that they all live in their cars. Alex Honnold is the biggest and best-paid rock climber alive. Guess where he lives: in his van.

This van, mind you, is nicer than most of those you’d find in a Yosemite campground. It’s got a bed and built-in cabinets, plus power, courtesy of solar panels in the roof installed by one of his sponsors, panel manufacturer Goal Zero. And it’s not entirely accurate to call it his permanent residence, since Honnold spends much of his year getting paid to travel the world and climb.

Last fall, however, he went on a long semivacation, dividing his time between Berkeley with his girlfriend, Sacramento with his mom, and Yosemite for sporadic but mellow impulse climbs. “Basically, I’m living in a three-hour pyramid of those three places,” he says between forkfuls of vegetable omelet at a Berkeley restaurant. About a year ago, Honnold gave up meat, partly for health, but also to lessen what he calls his “impact” on the planet. The biggest difference he’s noticed has been a healthier conscience, though he’s also gotten fewer colds. But climbers are opportunists when it comes to food; they can’t really be picky when they’re in the field, and calories tend to come most often from snack bars, which are easily carried in pockets.

Honnold is a modest guy, with a mellow manner. He has a long face and large ears, with short but shaggy black hair, but his defining feature, without question, is his hands. The palms are normal enough, but the fingers that stretch out from them are anything but: Each one is sausage-size and swollen as if attacked by a swarm of bees. The skin, from years of gripping rock, is calloused and leathery. Imagine an Olympic sprinter’s calves compared with your own, and that’s about the difference between Honnold’s hands and those of a normal human being.

His recent hiatus from ambitious climbing “missions” (his preferred term) was Honnold’s first in four years. “I was just all burned out,” he says, referring mostly to the kinds of dangerous climbs—free-solos of big walls, or record speed attempts requiring extreme focus—that he’d been undertaking with regularity. So he slowed down—sort of. “I had no interest in trying to be rad…I’ll put it that way. I didn’t have the fire for it. If you looked at it objectively you wouldn’t think it was a break, but it felt like one to me,” he says, before mentioning that “last week I spent 16 hours on El Cap.” In those 16 hours, he completed the first-ever one-day ascent of the Excalibur route on El Capitan. You know, down time.

Earlier in the summer, he and his friend Cedar Wright, also a professional climber, had completed an accidentally epic adventure in which they climbed all 15 of California’s 14,000-foot peaks in three weeks, traveling between peaks by bicycle. They rode from trailhead to trailhead, then hiked in and attempted the hardest possible summit routes, climbing without gear. In total, they biked 750 miles, hiked more than 100 miles, and climbed roughly 120,000 vertical feet of Sierra Nevada peaks. “It all culminated in the worst trip of our lives,” Honnold says. The worst part was easily the biking, because neither had ever had to pedal that much before. In particular, there was a 9,000-foot bike ascent of White Mountain, which Honnold describes as “among the worst experiences of my life.” By November, though, with Honnold’s aches soothed by the soft-focus lens of time, the trip had become something of a proud war story. And Wright, who’d filmed the entire ordeal, released a short film titled The Sufferfest that was financed by Clif Bar, another of Honnold’s sponsors.

Being a person who supports himself only by climbing is basically unheard of; there’s no road map for such a career, and Honnold seems to embrace the freedom to draw one for himself. He climbs when he wants, where he wants, with little fanfare. He’s paid plenty well by his sponsors (The North Face, especially) to live a comfortable life, but he doesn’t need much, so he recently set a goal to give $50,000 a year to a foundation he set up that will support mostly environmental causes. Honnold lived on $8,000 a year before he was sponsored, and even now he’s comfortable on $15,000, which is a lot less than he actually earns. (He won’t disclose his yearly income, though he confirms that it’s in the ballpark of “six figures.”) The most luxurious thing he’s done with his money is purchase solar panels for his mother’s house.

And yet, the checks keep getting bigger. Honnold will receive the largest payday of his life—“by far”—if his next big mission comes to fruition. For the better part of a year, he and his friend Peter Mortimer, founder of Sender Films, have been plotting to have Honnold free-solo one of the world’s tallest buildings, Taiwan’s Taipei 101. But Honnold says such a bold, Vegas-style stunt isn’t about the money. It’s about the challenge, the fun (“Because it’s there!” he says), and hopefully he can raise the profile of the sport, which has precious few followers. Climbing is a highly specialized undertaking, after all, performed in the wilderness, and regular people—those without the right gear or binoculars—just don’t get it. Climbing a building, on the other hand, translates easily, argues Honnold. “Anyone who’s mainstream is like, ‘Skyscraper!’ ” he says. “They get it.”

Honnold scouted buildings all over the planet before settling on the world’s third tallest, which has 101 stories and is 1,474 feet tall, not counting the spire. Initially, National Geographic planned to televise the climb live in prime time (in partnership with ABC), and had even begun promoting it, then backed out—for now, at least.

One hang-up was the matter of safety measures. Of course, Honnold would prefer to free-solo; naturally, this made the network nervous. He says he was willing to compromise and take minimal precautions if the building management insisted, but that only good ideas were acceptable. When producers suggested he wear a parachute, he laughed. The building is constructed in sections, with overhanging balconies, so a chute would be useless. “I was like, ‘Have you guys seen the building? Carrying an eight-pound weight that isn’t actually going to increase my safety—that’s not helping anybody.” So the project is moving forward tentatively while Mortimer chases a new partner, most likely from Asia. And when the time comes, Honnold says he’ll be ready.

“It would be the biggest climb in terms of media and importance to my career,” he says. “But it’s sort of the least important in terms of climbing fitness and everything. I’ve scouted the building. I know I can do it. I’m physically ready. If they overnighted me to Taiwan right now I’d do it tomorrow.” The idea has been floated, in fact, that he would maybe have to do the climb twice—so both America and Asia could view it live—and he thinks that’s probably a good idea. “If we finally get through all the freaking hoops I’d much rather climb it twice than once,” he says. “I think I prefer that. But maybe it would be better for me to do it in the evening and then the next morning so I get a little rest in between.”

To see his words in print, it’s easy to imagine Honnold as some arrogant adrenaline junkie. In reality, he’s the opposite. He’s confident, sure, but also calm and quiet and methodical. Professional climbers see routes as problems that can be solved—routes in bouldering, a subset of the sport, are actually called “problems”—and Honnold can feel so certain of his safety because he’s already solved the problem. The holds are there. He knows how to conserve energy, and where to put his hands and feet. So, what’s the big deal?

The only part of the idea that gives Honnold pause is the packaging. He’s dismissive of the notion that climbing a building live on TV is somehow co-opting his sport; rock climbers can be quite spiritual about the “purity” of what they’re doing, to the degree that some call it art. Honnold isn’t one of them. Though he’s not naive to the allure of spectacle, he’s wary of overexploiting the “death-defying, circus” aspect. That’s why he insists on working with Mortimer, “who makes things a little sensationalized,” Honnold says, but not so much that it makes him uncomfortable. “He’s a climber. He gets it. He’s not going to be like, ‘Alex Honnold, throwing the dice on yet another risky stunt!’ ”

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