In Morocco with the World’s Greatest Free Solo Climber

Alex Honnold shares tips on his favourite places to travel - and how to deal with fear.

By Marie McGrory
Published 10 Jan 2019, 15:17 GMT
Photograph by Jimmy Chin, National Geographic

Where most people see an insurmountable wall, Alex Honnold sees an ascent.

He’s the first and only person to have free-solo climbed El Capitan, ascending the nearly 3,000 feet of this granite monolith in California's Yosemite National Park without a rope or gear to protect him in the event of a catastrophic fall. Free Solo, a documentary about the historic climb, is in cinemas now.

“Yosemite’s my favorite place in the world,” he says. “I love the big, clean, sheer, perfect faces.”

For travellers not ready to take on El Capitan, Honnold says “every hike in  Yosemite is worthy. I’ve probably hiked every trail within the valley core.” When looking to get off the beaten path, he prefers some of the decommissioned trails, closed-down or abandoned paths the park system no longer maintains. Hikers take on these trails at their own risk, but Honnold assures “you’re pretty much guaranteed to not see any other people.”

Between training in Yosemite for his free solo, Honnold and his crew took a trip to rock of comparable scale, skill, and activity type: the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Connections between Morocco and the American West might not come to mind quickly. But climbers can make a connection that others wouldn’t consider: the geology.

Most of Europe is limestone, Honnold says, as is a lot of Southeast Asia. “You could be climbing a big cave in Greece or climbing the same formation in Thailand. The same type of rock, same style of climbing, but completely different cultural experience.”

Honnold has nicknamed the mountains around Taghia the “Yosemite of limestone”, they are the same scale but different rock. “Everything about the trip is totally different, except for the climbing,” Honnold says. The long climbing days in Taghia, a small village outside of Marrakech, are great practice for Yellowstone, and getting to know the village and indigenous Berber community is a bonus too.

You’re not likely to find Taghia in a guidebook, but this was Honnold’s third trip there. The village is certainly more isolated than Yosemite, reached by a nearly five-hour drive from Marrakech followed by a two-hour hike. On Honnold’s first trip, the village didn’t have electricity, though development is happening slowly. “It’s interesting to see how it has changed,” he says. “It’s a slice of a different world.”

On June 3 of 2017, Honnold became the first person to free solo scale El Capitan. A feat that he trained for for more than a year, after years of consideration. Friend, cinematographer, and director of the film, Jimmy Chin, was waiting for him at the top.

A Bird's-Eye View

“I’ve put up new routes on all seven continents now,” Honnold says. “I definitely like to go to new places and see the world.” Most images you’ll see of Honnold show him on the rock. But his extensive travels to those spots come with some amazing experiences as well. “Traveling around Jordan and Israel, it’s just cool seeing road signs from the Old Testament. An interesting reminder of really old history.”

Sometimes climbing takes him to remote areas like Taghia; other times, he might find himself scaling an apartment building in the middle of the night, like he did a few weeks ago in Jersey City. “I like urban climbing, I think it’s fun,” he says. “It’s funny people think of it as less beautiful than being in the ‘real outdoors,’ but in a lot of ways it’s actually more interesting. When you’re in a city and look out, it’s like ‘Where’s Waldo’: There are just a million little things happening.”

But it doesn’t do to let your mind wander: Free solo climbing would top pretty much any list of dangerous sports. Though the sport may have high consequences, Honnold considers his risk as low, because of the time and effort he puts into training.

Though his confidence in climbing doesn’t equate to complete fearlessness.

“Public speaking used to be horrifying, but now I feel pretty relaxed.” All thanks to practice, he says. “Skydiving is a good example: Pretty much every time I fell out of a plane I was like ‘woah, this is scary.’” That hasn’t stopped him from doing it. Multiple times.

Practice makes perfect—and as Honnold says in his upcoming movie, when you free solo, “you’re either perfect, or you’re dead.”

Free Solo, National Geographic's documentary about Alex Honnold's historic rope-free climb of Yosemite's El Capitan, has been nominated for a BAFTA and is in cinemas now.
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