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The Man Who Climbs Without Fear

In "Alone on the Wall," climber Alex Honnold explains why it’s not that crazy for him to climb “unstrung.” We almost believe him.
Jimmy Chin

Free-solo climber Alex Honnold is sick of being asked if he “feels fear” when he climbs without ropes, he reveals in his new book, Alone on the Wall. But let’s be honest: When you see him clinging—yes, ropeless—from a granite cliff that’s 2,000 feet above the ground on 60 Minutes, in the Squarespace commercial, or in the pages of Men's Fitness, isn’t that exactly what you want to know?

Honnold’s confounding you-fall-you-die style has made him the most famous climber in the world, and in Alone on the Wall we’re finally invited into his psyche. Despite the physicality of his sport, Honnold himself explains that if he has any gift at all it’s a mental one. Indeed, it’s fascinating to learn how he can bizarrely switch off as he begins up a cliff face or how he once prepared by visualizing his own demise, every tumble, every broken bone. We also meet Honnold the human, a pretty regular guy who got into free soloing only because he was such a socially awkward kid that he had no friends to climb with.

Honnold also talks about the death of his father when he was a teenager but stops short of exorcising his demons: “It probably has something to do with my own childhood,” he says, “but I don’t want to go there.”

One thing that really helps Honnold’s story fly along is the exposition by co-author David Roberts, who is one of the world’s foremost climbing and mountaineering story-tellers. The book pingpongs back and forth between first-person passages and Roberts’ fast-paced scene setting, and it never gets bogged down in climbing jargon or historical tangents.

But perhaps more telling than anything else in this book are the references to free-solo and BASE jumping pioneer Dean Potter, someone Honnold refers to as a “role model and an idol.” The thing is, Potter was killed BASE jumping between the writing and the publishing of this book. As morbid as it sounds, references to Potter in the present tense were less surprising given the fact that it could have been any number of friends and peers Honnold mentions. What could likely illustrate the ephemeral existence of guys like Alex Honnold more than that?

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