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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?

 

Late in the morning of my final day with Honnold, we take the BART commuter train into San Francisco, then ride our bikes through a steady rain to a bouldering gym in the Dogpatch neighborhood. He wants to get some more practice in, and also make good on a promise he’s made to film an interview for a documentary about a famous and influential climber named Tom Frost.

The film’s director, a climber himself, seems a little in awe of Honnold, which is something I’ve grown accustomed to seeing in Bay Area gyms. He asks if Honnold, best known for climbing alone, really prefers to climb that way, or if he’s just as happy climbing in pairs, the way the sport is typically done.

“I prefer a partner,” Honnold replies. “It’s fun to have a friend up there, to work as a team, but there’s definitely something powerful about going solo and having this experience. It’s just you up there, alone.”

One of the pioneers of free-soloing, Peter Croft, explained the appeal of going alone, without gear, as “leaving behind all the distractions—rules, equipment, people— and being able to concentrate solely on the climbing.” He compared the feeling of ascending a giant wall in just shoes as something like the fabled runner’s high, “but to a much more intense degree.”

Croft says that Honnold has taken freesoloing to new heights “not because of any one climb, but because he’s done it time and again. He appears to thrive on going big.”

In fairness, it’s an oversimplification to speak of Honnold as only or even mainly a freesoloist. Free-solos of big walls are just a small part of his regular program. He climbs very often with partners—this year he’ll be heading out on an expedition in Patagonia, Argentina, with Caldwell—and with all the normal ropes and gear. He’ll occasionally free-solo without scouting, but he almost always tries a route with safety gear first. His philosophy, if you force him to sum it up, is pretty simple: to have fun. “It’s the overall experience,” he says.

That will be the aim in Patagonia, certainly. When I ask if this trip is for a film, he gives me a look like I’ve asked a dumb question. “There’s no way to get the cameras in position. We’re two of the only people in the world who can handle that terrain,” he says. “You go on the trips just to send the gnar.”

Honnold has now climbed all over the world, in some of the most dramatic locations imaginable—South Africa, Thailand, New Zealand—and his favorite place is the most familiar one, Yosemite. Because he can always make a route more difficult, or free-solo something that’s always required ropes, the potential at any one location for him is vast. He doesn’t have to embark on arduous treks into remote ranges to find new rock faces.

I ask him if he would consider the kinds of adventurous expeditions that his climbing friend and North Face teammate Anker does, like deep into the Himalayas.

“I have no interest in going somewhere that’s logistically hard to get to, and stricken by terrorism,” he says, “when Yosemite is virtually the same kind of climbing and it’s right by my house and has good cell service.”

Here, in the bouldering gym, the director asks Honnold to address the fairly common assertion that he’s setting a bad example for young climbers coming up in the sport.

“It doesn’t matter to me at all if people think what I’m doing is crazy, or that I’m a bad influence,” he replies. “Everybody does his own thing. My original motivation to solo was just that I thought it was cool.”

Anker dismisses “all the moralizing” about Honnold and his climbs that he sees online, from people who suggest he’s not a role model. “If someone chooses to do something that’s a passion, more power to him.”

Hans Florine, who runs a climbing gym, says he definitely notices a Honnold effect—young climbers who admire Alex’s feats—but so far, he hasn’t spawned many imitators. It’s hard to imagine, though, that there isn’t another kid out there whom Honnold has inspired, just waiting to show up and blow minds.

“For sure there will be at some point,” Honnold says, but he’s not holding his breath for a sudden rush of competition. “Most people get to the base of a huge wall and they’re like, ‘This is fucked up, I don’t want to do this.’ ”

It’s hard to talk to Honnold about what he does without returning, again and again, to the risks. To any outsider, especially to an outsider who doesn’t climb, the simple fact of the matter is that climbing a 2,000-foot slab of granite without safety ropes looks completely crazy. It may be technically simple, but any number of things could go wrong. Last year, Honnold was besieged by silverfish insects about 1,000 feet up the south face of Yosemite’s Mount Watkins. They crawled through his hair, over his face, and into his ears. He just ignored them and pushed on with his vertical ascent.

“Most soloists don’t die soloing,” he tells me. And the ones who have died, he says, were mostly in freak accidents—one was taken by a rogue wave while climbing in coastal Ireland; another was rope jumping. The perception that it’s going to kill him, he says, is “super misleading. No high-end soloist has ever fallen off of hard stuff. It just sounds good for media.”

When I suggest to Caldwell that Honnold really doesn’t believe that what he’s doing is dangerous, he chuckles. “You just nailed it, what makes him special,” he says. “He thinks it’s no big deal. And it is a big deal. It’s dangerous. And that’s why other people aren’t doing it.” Caldwell says that the things Honnold free-solos are “well below his ability level” and that “Alex is one of the most talented climbers I’ve seen in my life, but I worry about him all the time.” For Honnold, though, it’s all quite simple. He’s just your dad on a ladder. “As long as you don’t let go,” he’ll say, “you’re fine.” 

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