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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?

 

one place you’re likely to find Honnold when he’s hanging around Berkeley is the Iron Works, a climbing gym in the industrial hinterlands on the city’s far western edge. He got his start at an indoor climbing gym in Sacramento, at age 11, when his father read about its opening and took him on a lark. At the time, Honnold played no organized sports, but he loved climbing. Over the next six years, he went to that gym at least five days a week; but it wasn’t until he dropped out of UC Berkeley after his freshman year that he actually free-soloed.

These days, a gym is merely utilitarian, a place for Honnold to refine technique and stay limber while on break between missions. He’ll show up, climb the hard stuff, then quickly lose interest. If it’s crowded, he’ll sign a lot of shirts.

Climbers tend to be lean—the more weight you carry, the more you have to pull up by your fingers—and Honnold is slim but not overly so. He’s 5'11" and anywhere from 155 to 161 pounds. Fall being a semiquiet period, he’s gone up over 160 by bingeing on one of his weaknesses, cookie dough, but he says that weight has never really been a concern of his; in truth, he has no interest in getting overly thin. “With a lot of stuff I’m doing—the 30-hour pushes in Alaska, or the bike trip—you can’t be twiggy,” he says, squeezing out the last dollops of almond butter from a snack-size package.

Honnold often points out that plenty of climbers are stronger; a superhuman athlete like Chris Sharma, for instance, could tackle far more physically challenging routes, and there are probably a few wall rats hanging around in any of the big-city gyms capable of handling supercomplicated problems, but that’s also not the point of Honnold’s climbing, or his resulting fame. He’s more than strong enough to handle anything on the world’s big walls, but what makes him unique is his mental strength—he isn’t fazed in the slightest by height or affected by fear, at least not in any kind of normal, human way. “He’s incredibly dedicated and genetically predisposed to being a great climber,” says Tommy Caldwell, a climbing great who sometimes partners with Honnold. “What sets him apart is that he’s very bold. There have been bold climbers in the past, and really good climbers. He’s the first of this generation to put both things together.”

During a good gym workout, Honnold will climb all the expert-level routes in the facility, and his posture on the wall is one of great comfort. He’s methodical, stalking the holds like a tiger on the hunt. In terms of movement, he looks more like an orangutan, with long, rubbery arms that seem to contort and almost dislocate; when he moves, it’s in slow motion, never overexerting himself. A good climber doesn’t rush, and even when Honnold is straining, he appears relaxed, to the extent that if you had a camera focused only on his face and chest, you’d be hard pressed to tell if he was rock climbing or sitting on a couch.

“I get scared just like anybody else,” he admits later. But survival in his game is all about beating back the adrenaline. “I’m pretty good at recognizing, ‘Now I’m scared and I’ll set that feeling aside for a minute. My breathing is way too fast. I can tell that my technique is falling apart. Shit’s going bad.’ And I’ll put that aside and focus on what I’m doing.” As he told 60 Minutes: “If I get a rush, it means something’s gone horribly wrong.”

The gym’s hardest section is closed for the afternoon, so after an hour of practice, Honnold is done. “Should I do some training?” he asks, walking to a wall to do a few minutes of “campusing”—a climbing-specific exercise for strengthening fingers. (Picture pullups, using only your fingers.)

He describes his training as “pretty free form.” On a light day, he might climb in the gym for two or three hours, then bike a couple more. “I always aspire to run more, but I don’t really do it much.” That said, he entered and finished a 50-kilometer trail race in 2010, wearing approach shoes, with no preparation. “Apparently you can do it without training,” he says with a smirk. “But it hurts a lot.”

Honnold considers the various workout machines in the gym, muttering reasons why he doesn’t feel like doing any of them.

“That’s the thing about being self-coached,” he says. “Maybe I should be doing more? Maybe I should be doing less?”

Obviously, I reply, it doesn’t appear to be holding him back.

“I don’t know that,” he says. “Maybe I could do more. Maybe I could do harder stuff.”

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