Amazing Images of Alex Honnold’s Epic Climbs

Skill, training, and focus led the climber to his historic free solo of El Capitan and widespread acknowledgement as the greatest free solo climber in the world.

By Kat Long
Published 6 Oct 2018, 16:55 BST

The Oscar-winning Free Solo is coming to National Geographic TV on the 3rd March. Click for more.

Alex Honnold didn’t wake up one morning and decide to make the first historic rope-free ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan. For more than a decade, he’s trained and climbed around the world, notching major milestones in free climbing (using ropes and equipment only for safety) and free soloing (not using any ropes or safety equipment).

In 2008, Honnold burst onto the climbing world scene with his speedy 83-minute free solo of the Moonlight Buttress, a sheer 1,200-foot sandstone wall in Zion National Park.

Honnold’s first-ever free solo of the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome astonished the climbing world in 2009 and helped bring him to international attention.
Photograph by Jimmy Chin, National Geographic

Five months later, he free soloed the northwest face of Half Dome, a 2,000-foot granite wall, an ascent featured in the short film “Alone on the Wall.” At the time it was the most challenging free solo ever attempted. It took Honnold two hours and 15 minutes to reach the top, including several minutes spent in a rare “mini nervous breakdown” along an eight-inch-wide ledge. “Doubt is the biggest danger in soloing,” Honnold said in the film.

Watch Alex Honnold's journey toward his rope-free climb of the world's most famous rock wall—Yosemite National Park's El Capitan — in Free Solo, a stunning, intimate, unflinching film by E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. The film is in cinemas now.

In 2010, Honnold free climbed the walls of Half Dome and El Capitan in slightly more than 11 hours, crushing the speed records for El Cap and the two routes consecutively. Honnold and climbing partner Sean Leary also climbed 3,000-foot El Cap for 24 hours straight, summiting three times for a total of more than 2,500 metres (8,000 vertical feet) climbed. They also set a new record for consecutive ascents. Also in 2010, Honnold was honoured as a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.

In June 2012 Honnold free climbed the 'triple' in Yosemite: a back-to-back climb of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Mount Watkins, the park’s three tallest formations. They totalled about 2,300 metres (7,000 feet) of vertical rock, which Honnold scaled in less than 19 hours, breaking his and Tommy Caldwell’s climb record by two hours. Honnold free soloed all but 165 metres (500 feet) of the record-setting climb.

Tommy Caldwell (right) sets up a rappel on the way to Aguja Saint Exupery, one of the seven peaks of the Fitz Roy Traverse. Honnold and Caldwell completed the first ascent of this massive traverse over five days in February 2014.
Photograph by Austin Siadak

Less than a week after the triple, Honnold and renowned speed climber Hans Florine attempted to break the record for the fasted climb up the Nose route, “which is the nicest line up the middle of El Cap,” Honnold told National Geographic Adventure that year. The pair set a new record of 2 hours, 23 minutes, and 46 seconds—13 minutes faster than the previous record set in 2010 by Dean Potter and Sean Leary.

In January 2014, Honnold free soloed the intimidating 800-metre (2,500-foot) El Sendero Luminoso ('The Shining Path') in El Portrero Chico, Mexico. Before attempting the ropeless ascent, Honnold and climber Cedar Wright cleaned the route, and Honnold climbed sections attached to a rope to assess the conditions. “For me personally, it was a new challenge just because it’s a different style of climbing. Maybe not my hardest ever, but very satisfying either way,” Honnold told National Geographic Adventure a month after the feat.

With Tommy Caldwell, Honnold completed a first ascent of the Fitz Roy Traverse in 2014, which links seven peaks in five days along Patagonia’s Cerro Fitz Roy (also known as Chaltén) ridge line in South America. Compared to free soloing, which Honnold has said is as simple as “walk up with your shorts, a T-shirt, and a bag of chalk and climb,” the Fitz Roy traverse was a far more complicated undertaking. They were loaded down with cold weather gear in their packs, endured icy conditions and high winds, and had just one sleeping bag between them. “Alpinism is all about carrying lots of stuff and being all encumbered,” Honnold observed.

In February 2016, Honnold and mountaineer Colin Haley set a new speed record on the Torre Traverse. In 20 hours and 40 minutes, the two climbers achieved the second ascent of the four Patagonian peaks: Cerro Standhardt, Punta Herron, Torre Egger, and Cerro Torre. With the hike to and from the peaks, their car-to-car time totaled 32 hours.

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