Exclusive: climber Alex Honnold on fear, freedom and climbing in the UK

His attempt to free solo the kilometre-tall vertical cliff of El Capitan has carved Honnold's name into climbing history.

By Jonathan Manning
Published 14 Dec 2018, 09:46 GMT
Without ropes, bolts or protection, Alex Honnold is at the mercy of his own ability. One ...
Without ropes, bolts or protection, Alex Honnold is at the mercy of his own ability. One false move would be fatal. Here he climbs through the enduro corner on El Capitan's Freerider.
Photograph by National Geographic/Jimmy Chin

Part athlete, part Spiderman, climber Alex Honnold’s new film, Free Solo, is basking in rave reviews. The limelight is a tough place to be for a climber who seems far more comfortable clinging to a cliff or chilling in his campervan.

But Honnold carved his name into the annals of climbing legend with his free solo attempt to ascend El Capitan, a 1,000-metre tall rock wall in Yosemite National Park, USA. Free soloing involves climbing without ropes. It offers unencumbered liberation on the rockface, but at these heights it’s challenge to mortality is inescapable. Without exaggeration, Honnold’s free solo attempt of El Capitan would deliver death or glory. Ironically, neither outcome appealed to the quietly spoken, thoughtful, rather intense climber.  

National Geographic’s Free Solo is a riveting account of Honnold’s physical, mental and emotional quest to tackle the most iconic rock climb in the world with just his fingers and toes for grip and protection.

Don't look down... at least until you're at the top. Alex Honnold peers over the edge of Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. He had just climbed 650 metres up from the valley floor.
Photograph by National Geographic/Jimmy Chin

Reaction to Free Solo has focused heavily on the risks you run of dying, but the film seems more about life. Is this true?

Free soloing, to me is more about living. I have talked about death a lot, but that’s not my focus. I go free soloing because I love doing it, it’s more about how I live life.

Do you ever get scared?

As a climber that happens all the time. Last winter I went on an expedition to Antarctica where we were putting up new routes, and that was a deeply frightening trip. I was very afraid on many of the climbs just because the rock quality was bad and on a first ascent there’s a lot of room for hestitation because everything is new.

How do you control your fear?

I don’t intentionally work on it, but I’ve been around fear so much and talked about fear so much through interviews that I’ve thought about the process a lot.

What else scares you?

Public speaking scares me. Chai [Chai Vasarhelyi, co director of Free Solo] says I’m afraid of intimacy. And I am afraid of danger and death. I do not want to die. I have the same fears as everbody else, I’ve perhaps just spent more time working on them.

Do you have a faith?

I have no religious faith, I consider myself an atheist.

Alex Honnold has kept a climbing journal since 2005. Here he records a day's climbing event.
Photograph by National Geographic/Jimmy Chin

How have you developed as a climber through your career?

I have a climbing journal going back to 2005 of everything that I’ve climbed, and because of the journal I have a much more empirical view of how my climbing has progressed. If I were just thinking about it emotionally it would feel like slow, gradual progress, each year just getting a little bit better. But actually I think it is more of a [series of] step-changes. The reality is more like every other year I have done something groundbreaking for me. And the years in between have been consolidation or doing other things. Part of that is restoring my motivation. I do really big challenges and then need a year consolidating before getting psyched again and pushing myself.

Alex Honnold seems embedded in the rockface at the Scotty-Burke offwidth pitch of Freerider on Yosemite's El Capitan. The drop beneath him offers some perspective on the monumental challenge he undertook.
Photograph by National Geographic/Jimmy Chin

Does anything compare to the feeling you get when you’re free soloing?

Not really, free soloing is unique. I really love climbing, I love the movement of climbing and the feeling of climbing, and free soloing is the biggest version of that.

The real joy of climbing is when you can just climb for a long amount of time, but with conventional rope climbing you have to stop every 100 or 200 feet because you have run out of rope and you have to belay up your partner. There’s a lot of waiting and it doesn’t feel free in quite the same way as free soloing does. It doesn’t feel unencumbered, it feels more laborious.

Does that make climbing with ropes feel like a chore?

No, I love the rope experience as well. I like climbing in all ways and forms, and I just consider myself a climber. The free solo of El Cap would not have been possible without a deep love of the process, enjoying the day-in-day-out of going climbing. Free soloing is just a bit more of an experience, it’s heightened in every way.

Do you have a technique for memorising the most challenging sections of a climb?

No, it’s just practice, I just do them over and over again, sometimes making notes or occasionally taking a photo, but mostly just practising it and spending time in my own head thinking it over.

Free climbing is much more of a mental challenge than a physical endeavour, says Alex Honnold.
Photograph by National Geographic/Jimmy Chin

Could you share the free solo experience with anyone else?

No, that would be horrible, not because you don’t want to share the experience, but because you wouldn’t want to wonder if you were pressuring somebody. Imagine if you told one of your friends, ‘let’s go and do this thing’ and then they fell off, you’d spend the rest of your life… [and Alex’s voice tails off].

Exclusive: A Conversation with star climber Alex Honnold and the Co-Directors of 'Free Solo'
Take a look behind the scenes of the National Geographic documentary film 'Free Solo', which chronicles Alex Honnold's unbelievable free-solo climb up El Capitan. He is the first person to summit the near-vertical 1,000-metre (3,000-foot) face without any ropes or safety gear. National Geographic caught up with Honnold as well as co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi at the film's premiere in New York.
Co-directors and producers of Free Solo, Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi.
Photograph by National Geographic/Chris Figenshau

How would the film crew have reacted if you had fallen on the El Cap climb?

I don’t know. I was surprisingly well insulated from the day-to-day filming and the details of production. I was really focused on what I was trying to do and they kept the film making process to themselves. I knew where they were going to be  on the wall, but I didn’t care at all what kind of film they would make. I think Chai and Jimmy [Jimmy Chin, co director of Free Solo] thought about it but I never talked about it.

How much of free soloing is physical and how much mental?

Free soloing is very much mental. Physically I reached my peak when I was 18 to 23, so at 33 I’m well past my prime, but climbing is skill-based, technique driven and mental, and free soloing especially, so  I have been able to improve as a climber for many years even though physically I am declining. The real limitation of free soloing is the drive, whether I have the hunger for it, the passion for it.

Onwards and upwards, Alex Honnold makes his way up El Capitan completely unencumbered by ropes and safety equipment.
Photograph by National Geographic/Jimmy Chin

What’s your next challenge?

Having free soloed El Cap, it’s hard to imagine anything else quite as inspriring, so I don’t know if I’ll find anything that’s as big an undertaking. Maybe in a couple of years.

What do you make of climbing in the UK?

I have spent quite a bit of time in the UK, I’ve climbed in the Peak District and Wales a few years ago. The UK has such a crazy climbing culture, there’s a really rich tradition and history here; I really like the UK climbing scene. It’s unique. There’s a real emphasis on boldness and danger climbing. There are a lot of very strict rules about how climbing should be done and a lot of ethics in climbing in the UK, and those rules make it more dangerous than it necessarily needs to be. On the gritstone, for example, there is a very strict ‘no bolts allowed’ rule, which basically means half the routes wind up being solos or very dangerous leads. It’s all slightly arbitrary and kind of silly, but it does make for a very rich climbing experience, something that’s very different and very challenging.

Alex Honnold holds all of his climbing gear atop the summit of El Capitan. He had just became the first person to climb El Capitan without a rope.
Photograph by National Geographic/Jimmy Chin

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