The only way to train for climbing buildings is to climb buildings, and that’s easier said than done when your goal is to scale skyscrapers that stretch halfway to the moon. So Honnold must make do with what’s available. Recently, he was visiting a friend in Boulder, CO, so he scaled the tallest building in the county. “You’d be surprised that no one notices,” he says, as we pedal up a hill onto the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, on bikes. It’s 7 p.m. and pitch black, but still many students wearing backpacks walk the dimly lit passageways with purpose as Honnold rides around scouting facades. “Look out for fun stuff,” he says, veering right and around the back of a rectangular building that probably looked modern in the 1970s, until he finds a quiet spot with minimal foot traffic. I hear the muffled sounds of Cal’s marching band practicing off in the distance. The air smells thickly of eucalyptus.
He stares up at a large overhanging concrete beam. If he could get to it, it would be large enough to tap dance on. “I might just go up to that beam and frolic a bit,” he says.
Suddenly, students pour out a back door; a class must’ve ended inside, and it gives Honnold pause. He gets back on the bike. “The thing is, I just need to suck it up and not feel bad,” he says, giving voice to the debate that’s going on inside his head. “It’s hard not to feel bad.” What he means is that it’s difficult not to feel weird when you’re surreptitiously scrambling up public buildings. It’s probably illegal, too. “But Taipei 101 is harder than this,” he exclaims. “And taller!”
At least 95 stories taller than the biology building he takes a look at next. It’s six stories and built in rows of blocks with inch-deep crevices between them. Nearly every window is lit and lab work seems to be taking place behind most of them, but they’re also four or five feet apart, so there are large columns of facade that would allow him to climb without being spotted from the inside.
“Doesn’t this fill you up with a little bit of excitement?” he says, pacing. I’ve yet to see the man who calmly climbs cliffs with no rope anything but calm, but now he appears surprisingly nervous. “It seems quite scary,” he says, noting that he hasn’t brought climbing shoes or chalk or anything else that might help. He has no idea what the top is like. “With most urban stuff, I have other people goading me on.” Here, he has only me, standing quietly.
I’d hoped I might see him climbing for real, and we considered taking a day trip to Yosemite. “That would be pretty boring for you,” he’d said. “Climbing is kind of a terrible spectator sport.” The most compelling, upclose shots from 60 Minutes were taken by Mortimer and his crew, who’d spent hours rigging. Logan and her producer sat in lawn chairs on the valley floor, staring up at a cliff face wondering which dot was Alex. Instead, tonight I watch Honnold slip into a dark spot between two shrubs, grab the building’s side, and commence scrambling. Within minutes he’s three-quarters of the way up and I can only make out his shadowy figure when he passes by a window. At the top, he grabs onto the metal roof, shuffles from side to side on the top crease, then begins his descent. I can barely make out his progress from where I’m standing, pretending to look like just another student fiddling with his iPhone, but I feel butterflies developing as he begins downclimbing. What if he slips? Oh, God, what if I kill Alex Honnold? Am I loitering too obviously?
A minute later, he’s back on solid ground. “That was exciting,” he says. “That was scary!” He’s flexing his wrist. “I got pumped. And I learned another important lesson: I’ve got to take that shit seriously. I gotta stack the odds in my favor.”
Even though this building is relatively low, with good, consistent holds, it’s proven challenging to climb in street clothes, after dark, without scouting, and with no gear. It was physically and mentally stressful. “The whole thing’s uncomfortable,” Honnold says. “There were people in those windows.” He’d been close enough to two of them to see that they were screwing around on Facebook.
“The whole point of doing this is that I ride around thinking, ‘Dude, that’ll be easy!’ Then I do it and it’s a little harder than I thought.” A similar thing happened when he traveled to Taipei to practice on parts of the tower. Though individual sections were technically simple, the sheer volume of repetitive steps was fairly exhausting. That was valuable intel.
Probably the most famously perilous episode of Honnold’s career was when he stalled out 1,800 feet up on the first-ever free-solo of Yosemite’s Half Dome in 2008. It was the climb’s most precarious section, and he’d been aware of it, but he froze when he came to a slab studded with bolts put in so that climbers could actually ascend it. The only way to make it without using those bolts was to use a foothold that Honnold didn’t entirely trust. “I could’ve pulled on the bolts,” he explains. “I could’ve cheated, but I also wanted to finish the solo.” So he took the step, the small leap, and his foot held. “It wasn’t a huge moment of terror, like I thought I’d fall.” But he also caused himself unnecessary stress by not fully preparing. “I went up without rehearsing because I thought it’d make a better adventure. Then I got there and realized it was a little harder than I thought.”