The World's Hottest Climber
An exclusive interview with Alex Honnold
In 2008, 23-year-old Alex Honnold emerged from obscurity with two free solo climbs that astonished the climbing world. Without a partner, a rope, or any gear—“if you fall, you die”—Honnold sailed up the 1,200-foot Moonlight Buttress in Zion in only an hour and 23 minutes. Then, five months later, he free soloed the even more daunting 2,000-foot northwest face of Half Dome in Yosemite in two hours and 50 minutes. Both routes are rated 5.12.
Today, at 26, Honnold is still pushing the human limits of rock climbing, not only with free solos but with marathon “link-ups”, high-speed chains of more than one huge rock face in a nonstop push, with a minimum of aid (pulling on fixed protection) and only brief self-belays on the hardest sections.
Earlier this month, Alex stunned the climbing world again by solving the famous Triple Crown of Yosemite—a link-up of the faces of Mount Watkins, El Capitan, and Half Dome—in a record time of just over 18 hours. He had earlier broken the record by simul-climbing with one of his heroes, Tommy Caldwell; now he broke his and Caldwell’s own record by pulling off the Triple Crown solo.
Then, last weekend, Alex and Hans Florine broke the hotly contested speed record on the Nose of El Cap. The fastest time had been established two years ago by Dean Potter and Sean Leary, who, in cruising the 2,700-foot route in 2:36:45—two hours, 36 minutes, and 45 seconds—had bested Florine’s previous record by only 15 seconds. But on June 17, Alex and Hans sped up the route in 2:23:46, an improvement of 13 minutes. Such an improvement on this arduous and dangerous line seemed almost unthinkable.
In late 2010, I spent a week with Alex at Smith Rock in Oregon, where I interviewed him and watched him climb for a profile for Outside magazine. The same month that my profile came out, Alex was featured on the cover of National Geographic, and shortly thereafter Lara Logan interviewed him for “60 Minutes.” Since then, we've stayed in touch, and on Saturday, between Alex's latest notable deeds, he took the time to answer some questions I asked him for The Active Times.
Q. Congratulations on your speed records on the Triple Crown and the Nose. They're phenomenal achievements. Have speed link-ups with minimal aid and/or self-belays become even more important to you than pure free solos?
I don't think they've become more important. I still think free soloing is better style. It's just more pure. But in a lot of ways this hybrid style is more fun, because you get to climb the same kinds of walls with only a fraction of the commitment. This way I can enjoy the same places and the same exposure without having to climb at an extreme level.
In this hybrid solo aid style, I only have to freesolo up to 5.10 or 5.11-, so it's not nearly as serious as climbing the routes completely freesolo, which would be hard and technical 5.12d or so.
Q. Aren’t they every bit as dangerous? How do you keep the quest for speed from tempting you into sloppy moves or ill-thought-out sequences?
At no point am I "speed climbing" in the sense of climbing fast. I'm climbing slowly and carefully; the fast times are only a by product of not having to stop at belays or deal with gear.
So no, I don't think it's nearly as dangerous. I have gear and daisies [and on the Nose, a rope], so I can stop and belay at any point, or protect whatever I want.
Honestly, I'm not really moving very fast, I just don't have to stop at all, so I still get to the top pretty quickly.
Q. Lionel Terray: “ . . . attempting record times, a still more sterile form of competition.” What’s your rationale?
Well the triple wasn't really about record times, it was about seeing if I could climb the three proudest faces in Yosemite in a day, by myself. Like I said, the speed part is really just a byproduct of the style.
That said, real speed climbing like Terray is referring is pretty damn fun. It might be a bit silly, and it might not be a noble form of competition, maybe it even demeans the sport or something, but there's no denying that it's amazingly fun to get to the top of a huge face very quickly.
We get to climb huge walls and be down for brunch! It's so civilized.
Q. Four years ago you were a nobody. Now you’re world-famous. How do you keep fame from sabotaging your judgment and motivation? Or from giving you too big a head?
I've sort of stopped worrying about this too much. I just climb the things that excite me and don't overthink it all.
I still climb with all the same friends and they still know me as the same person. Basically, I'm still just doing the same things as always, I've just gotten slightly better at it. Which was kinda the whole point; I've spent years training to be able to climb things like this, there's no sense second guessing myself now. I've always wanted to climb bigger and bigger routes in the simplest style. That hasn't changed at all.
Q.You end your recent Rock and Ice essay with a profound statement: “Ultimately, I think the biggest appeal of soloing is to find my limits, to test my mastery of climbing. And that is a complicated thing, since I can’t push forever without accidentally finding my limit.”
Is the ideal, then, to curve closer and closer to the limit without ever reaching it?
Like I just said, I try not to overthink it all too much. But I suppose that's the idea, to approach a limit but never quite hit it. But at some point I might just lose the passion for pushing myself like that, or move on to other challenges.
Q. Your writing is excellent and introspective. Do you want to be a writer “when you grow up”?
Ha! I'll leave that to the real writers.
But I do enjoy writing things from time to time, and I probably always will. It's satisfying to share some experiences. But I doubt I could ever do it as a real job. I just don't love the process enough.
Q. Any new thoughts since we last talked about free soloing El Cap?
Well I think it through from time to time, but it still just seems too hard. El Cap is still the same, and even though I'm gradually improving as a climber it's still just too hard. Maybe some day it will feel secure, or maybe it will be for the next generation. Who knows?
Q. Is climbing selfish? If you fall off and die, it’ll merely be, as you put it, “the worst five seconds of my life.” But for your mother, your sister and your girlfriend, it will be a tragedy that never heals. Thoughts?
I don't know if it would be a tragedy that never heals. I'm sure my family would grieve, but this is what I do. It wouldn't exactly be a shocking surprise. They know that I do my best to be careful.
This is really a bigger question about risk and consequences. You could ask this question to every person who engages in any form of risk taking, from driving to free diving to bull fighting. I suppose they are all just selfish pursuits, but then aren't most things that people do in life? Hopefully, if I ever have an accident, they will find solace in the fact that I've pursued my dreams and lived my life as I saw fit.
Q. If you don’t believe in God or an after-life, doesn’t that make this life all the more precious?
I suppose so, but just because something is precious doesn't mean you have to baby it. Just like suburbanites who have a shiny new SUV that they are afraid to dent. What's the point in having an amazing vehicle if you're afraid to drive it?
I'm trying to take my vehicle to new and interesting places. And I try my very best not to crash, but at least I take it out.
Q. In some ways, you're following in the footsteps of Paul Preuss [a visionary, purist Austrian climber who disdained the use not only of pitons but of the rope itself, and virtually invented free soloing. In 1913, he died in an unwitnessed fall as he attempted a new route on the Mandlkogel in the Austrian Alps]. A kindred soul?
Maybe a kindred spirit, but hopefully we'll meet a different end. . .
Q. Your nickname among your buddies is Alex "No Big Deal" Honnold, after one of your favorite retorts to those who praise your climbs. But on top of Half Dome after finishing the Triple Crown, you said, "That was a big deal."
What's the boundary between "no big deal" and "big deal"?
I think the difference between big deal and no big deal is just how it feels when you finish. Though the more time that passes since the Triple the less hardcore it seems to me. But when I topped out it all felt pretty raw. It just felt really hardcore. That combination of scariness and seriousness and just overall fatigue. It was just an intense experience.
Now I think I might have just been getting overly worked up. Or overly emotional from the fatigue. But who knows, maybe it was badass. But I think I can do better. Hopefully.