alex honnold, climber, athlete

Alex Honnold is the conqueror of fear

WORDS: GORDY MEGROZ 
PHOTOGRAPHY: RAINER HOSCH & JIMMY CHIN 

Alex Honnold just became the first person to free-solo Yosemite’s El Capitan, a 3,000-foot-high wall that’s considered one of climbing’s most difficult routes. And it’s not the first time he’s faced death and survived to tell the story.

Inside Berkeley Ironworks, a climbing gym in Berkeley, California, professional rock climber Alex Honnold is speaking in front of 500 people. “I’m frazzled by the craziness here,” Honnold says into a microphone. “Ironworks puts on quite a party!”

It’s late March, and the 23,000- square-foot space, cavelike with 45-foot-high artificial rock walls rising to the ceiling, has been decked out this evening with kegs of beer and the kind of lighting you might find at a Springsteen concert— purple, blue and red ones that illuminate the gym’s craggy interior. It’s an appropriate setting: To this crowd, Honnold is Springsteen. Bigger. To climbers, Honnold is a deity. 

What makes him different is his ability to do something most people—not even experienced climbers—can comprehend. Honnold specializes in big-wall free soloing, which means that he climbs long and dangerous pitches without any ropes or other safety equipment. The consequences are simple: If he falls—in more cases than not—he’ll die. 

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In the history of the sport there have only been a handful of free soloists, and Honnold is considered the most outstanding of that breed. Much of that has to do with the fact that, over time, he’s essentially become numb to fear. Last year, for a story in the science magazine Nautilus, doctors at the Medical University of South Carolina scanned Honnold’s brain and found that his amygdala, the fear center of the brain, didn’t fire. His bravado has earned him a nickname: No Big Deal, both because he makes his climbs look easy and because he often shrugs off insane challenges as being “no big deal.” 

That’s caused him to take on some harrowing ascents, most notably his 2008 free solo of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. The 2,000-foot wall is difficult even for climbers who are roped in, due to tiny handholds and footholds and vertical pitches. It takes most climbers a day to complete it; Honnold did it in just under three hours. 

This year, Honnold will climb in The Arctic and scale, along with fellow climber Renan Ozturk, a 5,250-foot wall called Wine Bottle on Alaska’s Mount Dickey. He’s also contemplating a first-ever free-solo attempt of Yosemite’s El Capitan, a 3,000-foot-high wall that’s considered one of climbing’s most difficult routes. “It’s significantly harder than Half Dome,” says climber and photographer Jimmy Chin. “It would be the ultimate solo.”

Tonight, however, Honnold is regaling the crowd, not with a story of free soloing but one about nearly freezing to death. In 2015, he and alpinist Colin Haley attempted to complete Patagonia’s Torre Traverse—four spires, 7,200 feet of elevation gain and tricky route finding and ice climbing—in one 24-hour period. That would break the record for the traverse by three days. The climb had gone well until the men were two pitches from the final summit. “Then it started to get dark, cold and windy,” says Honnold. “It’s nuclear wind. We’re freezing.” The duo decided to stop for four hours until the sun came up. “We just held each other and shivered.” 

When the sun finally emerged, the peak was completely obscured with clouds. “I thought, we are screwed,” Honnold tells the audience. “We ended up retreating down the west side of the mountain because it was safer and faster. But, because we hadn’t summited, we ended up having to walk for 22 hours without food to get back to town. It totally sucked!”

“Sucked” seems like an understatement. Surely this type of experience gave even Honnold some cause for concern. “Nah,” he says. “I’m used to the elements.” 

” I VISUALIZE THE WORST TO KEEP MYSELF HONEST. IF YOU ONLY VISUALIZE THE BEST, YOU’LL SUCKER YOURSELF INTO SOMETHING YOU’RE NOT READY FOR.” 
Alex Honnold

I met Honnold earlier that day at the headquarters of The North Face (TNF) in Alameda, just outside of Oakland. The outdoor brand is Honnold’s biggest sponsor, and he was there for the day for product meetings and to discuss some upcoming climbing projects with the marketing department.

“How are you doing?” he asked, as he proffered a meaty-looking hand. Honnold, 31, who has huge brown eyes and is nearly 6 feet of lean muscle, has long and fat fingers—the connective tissue in them thickened from years of pinching rocks—and shaking hands with him feels like grabbing onto a pack of sausages. We snagged lunch from the cafeteria and sat down outside on the patio. Joining us were Chris Sylvia, the brand’s sports marketing manager; Conrad Anker, one of the world’s most accomplished alpinists; and Boone Speed, a climber who was once considered the best in the world.

“So where does Alex rank?” I asked the table. Honnold was quick to dismiss his accomplishments compared to several other climbers. “Anybody who can climb a 5.12 [the most difficult climbing grade he’s usually up against on long ascents] can do what I’m doing,” he said, noting that there’s a fairly large pool capable of climbing the type of pitches he climbs during his free solos.

climbing, extreme, solo

Honnold re-enacts his stunning free solo of the 2,500-foot NW face of Half Dome in California’s Yosemite. 

© Jimmy Chin

“No,” said Anker, jumping up from his seat. He put one foot on a half-inch-wide metal rail two inches off the ground— edging for one of the gardens—and began balancing on it. “I can balance on this and I’m psyched about it,” he said. “But if this is 1,000 feet up in the air, I can’t do it. And you can—because you’re mentally stronger than me.” 

Honnold’s ability to comfortably negotiate perilous situations has developed over a long period of time—thousands of hours of climbing and exposure to dangerous circumstances. The training began when he was just 10 years old, when he started going to a climbing gym with his father near the suburb of Carmichael, California, where he grew up. 

 
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By 15, Honnold was doing odd jobs at the gym, which included belaying kids at birthday parties and cleaning the bathrooms. After the gym would close at night, Honnold would put down his mop and climb the routes without a rope. “That was my first experience free soloing,” he says. “But it wasn’t that dangerous. The most you could fall was 25 feet. You could get hurt, but you weren’t going to die.” 

borneo, climb

Honnold tackles Borneo Big Wall as part of a 2009 expedition to the Asian island. 

© Jimmy Chin

By 18, Honnold was one of the best indoor climbers in the U.S., placing well in climbing competitions at gyms nationwide. But he’d barely climbed outside. That changed in 2003 when he attended Cal Berkeley and began skipping class to climb boulders in the local park. The summer after his first year of college, his father died of a heart attack and he decided not to return to school.

He borrowed the family’s minivan and began driving all over the country in search of crags, where he’d climb with partners using ropes. He also free soloed for the first time outside, climbing a route near Lake Tahoe called Corrugation Corner. The 300-foot climb is full of large footholds and handholds that, today, Honnold would practically run up. But at the time it scared him. “I was gripped,” he says, using a term adventure athletes use to describe intense fear. Still, the climb provided a level of excitement he hadn’t felt before. 

Soon after, he began free soloing harder and harder routes, until steep pitches and tiny holds felt routine. Referencing the study that was done on his brain last year, he says, “I think I sort of killed my amygdala over time.”

The day before we met, Honnold made the first-ever free solo of a new route in Yosemite called Voyager. About 350 feet up the 10-pitch, 1,000-foot climb, he encountered a tricky section that forced him to pick his way over tiny holds. If he slipped, he’d fall 12 feet to a rock ledge. “I wasn’t planning on falling,” he says. “But I thought that if a hold broke or if something else happened, I’d probably be OK. Or sort of OK.” 

It was better than the alternative. As he often does before free soloing routes, Honnold climbed Voyager a few days earlier with a friend, using ropes. On one section, an overhanging cliff, he envisioned potential for a 350-foot fall. “To do it, you have to step out over the void,” he says.

“You practice on things that are difficult for you and you onsite on things that are easy for you.”
Alex Honnold

“Something happens and it’s a full drop to the ground.” He climbed the section over and over that day, practicing for what he’d do during a ropeless attempt. But on the day of his free solo, he envisioned the worst. “I wasn’t feeling it,” he says. “I visualize that stuff to keep myself honest. Falling from certain places, it’d be a terrible four to six seconds of ragdolling down the mountain. If you only visualize the best possible outcome, you’ll sucker yourself into something you’re not ready for.”

Instead, he circumvented that route, deviating from the only course anybody had ever climbed before, and made his way over to the harder-to-climb section with less potential for a deadly fall. It took him an hour to reach the climb’s summit. “You’re always trying to find the safest way,” he says. “But you still have to pay attention. If you’re driving, four seconds of inattention and you could drive off the road into a fiery wreck. Four seconds of inattention when you’re climbing and you could fall.” 

© Rainer Hosch

But sometimes Honnold takes a different approach to free soloing. On occasion, he “on-sites” routes, meaning he free solos them without ever having climbed them before. He employed that method on Rouge Berber, a 1,500-foot- long Moroccan face. The crux move, about halfway up, required him to cling to a four-inch-wide crack as he maneuvered his way around the bottom of an overhanging cliff. Slip and he’d fall 750 feet to his death. Honnold completed the route in two hours. 

When presented with the fact that the two approaches seem contradictory— one measured, one uncalculated—he disagreed. “It’s not contradictory,” he said. “You practice on things that are difficult for you and you on- site on things that are easy for you.” Honnold’s climbing practice can seem obsessive. Sometimes he’ll climb all day, 10 days in a row, before taking a day off. And he doesn’t let anything derail his training, avoiding drugs, alcohol and caffeine. He’ll even go long stretches without eating sugar. 

In 2011, he and climbing partner James Lucas, who’s now an editor at Climbing magazine, were in Squamish, British Columbia, working a route called Eurasian Eyes. “For Alex, it was basically a warm-up,” says Lucas. But he’d been climbing for 23 straight days and the skin was coming off his fingers. He’d also not eaten sugar in two months. “He tried taping his fingers but it kept coming off,” says Lucas. “And he was exhausted.”

At the crux of the climb he struggled and finally gave up. When he got down, he was disappointed and angry. “He’s not used to sucking,” says Lucas. Honnold got in his van, drove to the grocery store and bought a package of cookies and some Sweet Tarts. Then he drove straight to California. “You have to be obsessive if you want to be good at something,” says Lucas.

 
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His successes have captivated the public. His 2008 climb up Half Dome was immortalized in a 2009 documentary called Alone on the Wall. In 2012, he was profiled by 60 Minutes. In 2015, he released a book (written with author David Roberts) also titled Alone on the Wall. His popularity comes at a time when the sport of climbing is growing. Since 2014, retail sales of climbing gear and apparel have increased by $52.9 million, reaching a four-year high of $175.5 million. That’s helped make Honnold extremely marketable.

Through his sponsorships with TNF, Black Diamond, La Sportiva and Stride Health (a company that provides him with free health insurance), appearances in commercials for Dewar’s and Citibank, and speaking engagements, Honnold earns a respectable living. “I make about as much as a really good orthodontist,” he says. “I could make seven figures if I did speaking engagements all year—but I’d kill myself.” 

World-class photographer Jimmy Chin has shot Honnold often, like on this crag on an Omani peninsula.

© Jimmy Chin

At TNF, Honnold is one of the highest- paid athletes. Inside the offices, his photo appears on framed, blown-up magazine covers that line the walls. And he’s frequently being pulled away to give input on gear design. “He’s free soloing and that’s impressive and that makes people notice,” said Sylvia during our lunch. “But to our consumers, that he’s just spending time outdoors on the wall is what’s inspiring. Don’t just look at your phone all day, get out and do something.”

Honnold’s entire lifestyle has also become aspirational for a large set of people. He spends four to five months each year climbing abroad. And though he recently bought a house in Las Vegas to be closer to year-round climbing in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (“And because there’s no state income tax in Nevada,” he says), he still spends 90 percent of his time in the U.S. at various climbing venues, living in his van, something he’s done for 10 years. 

He recently upgraded from a 2002 Ford Econoline E150 to a 2016 Dodge Ram Promaster. Inside, there’s a queen- size bed, a sink, a stove and a hangboard (a piece of wood carved to mimic rock holds that climbers use to build strength) that’s bolted above the van’s sliding door. The white van is lightly decorated with a few small photos and drawings. “My girlfriend put those up,” he says. “I’d never have done that but she wanted to make it feel more like home.” Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, met Honnold at his book signing in Seattle in December 2015 and spends chunks of time living in the van with him.

Climbers refer to this type of living as “dirtbagging.” But a generation of bohemians is embracing it as a minimalist way of life, a way to cut down on possessions and live more simply. “As long as I’m climbing full-time, I’ll live this way,” he says. “Probably 10 years. It’s hard to imagine being 47 and living in my van. But maybe.”

Honnold and I jumped in his van to make our way from the TNF offices over to the climbing gym. His equipment rattled around in the back and a tune by Sum 41 played on the radio. I noticed a little gray hair in his temple.

“Yeah,” he said. “The first time somebody noticed it we were camped in a gnarly storm on the ledge of a cliff in Borneo. I said it probably just sprouted from the stress of feeling like we’re about to die!”

Honnold is joking, but he does contemplate death. “Recently somebody died and my girlfriend said, ‘At least he died doing something he loved.’ I was like, ‘I hate that saying.’ Nobody wants to die doing what they love. I love climbing but I don’t want to fall to my death. I’d much rather die of old age.” 

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07 2016 the red bulletin

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