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Home » Features » El Potrero Free Solo: A Q&A with Alex Honnold

El Potrero Free Solo: A Q&A with Alex Honnold

El Sendero Luminoso (V 5.12d), on El Toro’s 2,000-foot Central Pillar in El Potrero Chico, Mexico, one of the largest chunks of exposed limestone in North America. Alex Honnold Soloed the route in three hours on January 16. [Photo] Renan Ozturk/Camp 4 Collective collection

Six years ago, Alex Honnold stood in the streets of El Potrero Chico, Mexico, staring up at a striking line on El Toro’s Central Pillar called El Sendero Luminoso (V, 5.12d). In that moment, he knew he had found a route he could solo that was unlike any other in North America. A few years later, Honnold was back in El Potrero climbing and cleaning the route. It hadn’t seen much traffic since it was first climbed, siege-style, in 1994 by Jeff Jackson, Pete Peacock and Kurt Smith. “Peacock supplied us with water, fresh batteries for drilling and the occasional 12-pack of Tecate,” Jackson wrote in the 1995 American Alpine Journal. “All told, Smith and I spent 20 nights on the ledge, drilled 190 bolts, consumed 40 gallons of water and ate five dozen tortillas.” As Honnold made his first attempt on the 15-pitch route, an old rope left from a previous party hung from the pillar’s upper flanks, and the holds were covered in dirt. Too much work needed to be done, so Honnold left knowing he’d return more prepared.

This year, Honnold wanted a committed partner to go to El Potrero with him and completely clean the route. Cedar Wright volunteered, and they made the trip south. On January 16, after a week of cleaning and getting comfortable on the line, Honnold soloed El Sendero Luminoso, climbing the route, more than 1,500 feet tall, in only three hours time.

I chatted with Honnold as he rode his bike to a farmers’ market in Oakland, California, the day after he returned home.

Why did you choose El Sendero Luminoso?

Well basically because it represented the pinnacle of technical limestone big-wall climbing in North America. There isn’t really anything else like it in North America. Even though routes like El Sendero are abundant in Europe, nothing like this really exists here.

Ever since I went to El Potrero five or six years ago and first saw that route, I was like “Oh my gosh. That’s the route. That is the line.”

Does the route get climbed often?

It’s hard to say. Last year I went up there and it didn’t look like it had been climbed in years. Someone had gotten their line stuck on rappel and I had to dig it out. It was really simple, the line had just looped itself around a block, and it was covered in dirt. I was like, “Dude when was the last time anybody came up here?” I couldn’t believe there was a full lead line up there stuck to the mountain. It was crazy somebody didn’t go back up and get their rope back. It guess it makes sense because it is so hard. I doubt many people go climb it. El Potrero is kind of a vacation destination, so I don’t think too many hardcore folks go down there.

Did you need to clean the whole route?

Yeah. I climbed it twice last year with two different partners, but half of it with one of them. And then we spent hours cleaning it on the way down. I realized it was going to need some serious time, so we stopped. This year I went back just planning on cleaning the whole thing.

Alex Honnold on clean holds high above the valley below, sans harness. [Photo] Cedar Wright

What was the grade of the new terrain you climbed, and why did you choose to go to the true summit rather than finish at the route’s topout?

I think, stylistically, it’s cooler to climb from the bottom to the top and then walk off. As for the new terrain, we thought we were going to do a first ascent and when we got up there it turns out there were bolts. I actually think that terrain is a part of Huevos a la Mexicana (5.11b), a route some locals put up. We were psyched to see bolts up there. It turned out the terrain was easier than it looked and better than it looked. It was two pitches of 5.9, then 800 feet of chossy 5.4 climbing to the summit.

What’s the rock like there? Is it hard? Soft? Friable?

It’s pretty good. It is sort of like Sierra granite in a way. The rock seems pretty good, and it’s pretty blocky and stuff, but you can still pull big blocks off.

Tell me about the process of learning the moves? How long did it take?

I guess it took about four days of cleaning and climbing to learn the route. I cleaned a lot of holds and memorized a lot of moves. I practiced a few sections over and over until I was OK with it. I actually pioneered some soloing beta on certain sections. After the crux on the second pitch, normally you would need to toss between these two side pulls but it’s doesn’t keep you balanced. So I figured out all these little moves where I’d move both my feet to the left, move up my right hand to a side pull, then I’d move both feet to the right and move my left hand up. I did that so I was always in balance and not tossing to the side pulls. It was pretty intricate and there were a lot of little moves. There were also a few spots where I would need to step really really high to a good foot.

I saw the photo of you getting into your harness on the wall. What was going on there?

[Laughs] Well that’s how you film the soloing process. We did a lot of documenting up there. I had just soloed a whole pitch to that block, and it just marked a natural end and a good spot to put my harness on. [During] one of the other pitches I soloed, Renan Ozturk hung an aider on a bolt. I just hung on it and stepped in. That’s the thing with filming soloing, it’s just filled with shenanigans.

Did you have any “Oh, shit” moments?

No. Because I rehearsed it, I sort of romped it. I almost over-rehearsed it. I felt like it took away the adventure in some ways. It kind of makes sense because the rock is so suspect and the moves were pretty intricate. But I was happy with it. Pitch 2 was the crux so I kind of got shaky or amped up because it was the hard part and I needed to bare down. But then for the rest of the route I was relieved and relaxed.

What was going through your mind the days before you committed to the solo?

That, actually, was kind of the hard part. Particularly because we were filming and there were all these people on an email thread asking when we were shooting and when I was going to solo it. I was like, “Oh man. I’ve actually got to do it.” It was kind of weird. Normally I keep that stuff super low-key and I don’t feel like there is any pressure at all, and I can just take my own time. For this solo I wanted a committed partner to come down and help me work on the route, so it kind of made sense to make a thing out of it. It was a little weird for me. Even the morning I hiked up there I had Renan asking me how I felt and stuff. I was like, “Dude, I don’t really want to talk about it. I really just want to go up and do my thing. Lets not talk about it.”

Alex Honnold committed mid-route on El Sendero Luminoso. [Photo] SkySight Aerials/Camp 4 Collective collection

And you said you were felt pretty good on the route after the crux?

Well with any big-wall solo like that, it takes a few hundred feet to ease into it and feel perfect. It just so happened that the crux was within those few hundred feet. There was a cruxy pitch up high at Pitch 11, and by then I had been climbing so long I felt in-sync and everything felt really easy.

Does soloing scare you?

Not really. I mean, if I pulled off a huge rock or something, yeah, I would be scared. But no, not really. Especially with this route in particular because everything was perfect.

What does scares you?

I used to be scared of spiders but I kind of got over it. I mean, with a route like El Sendero, I definitely felt some anxiety or nervousness beforehand, but I think a lot of that comes with experiencing something new. I didn’t know how it would go because I’d never done anything like it before. Stepping into the unknown is always a little unnerving. But I wouldn’t necessarily call that scary, I’d call it more stimulating than anything.

Do you feel like this was one of your most committing solos to date?

I don’t know about committing. In a lot of ways it’s a slab so you can just step anywhere and feel good. In a few cases there would be a place with a hand jam somewhere and if you got above it and jammed your foot in it, you could just stay there for eternity if you needed to. So it’s not like the clock is ticking and you’re getting pumped and you have to do it or fall off. I would say it is the most technically demanding and involved big walls that I have climbed. It is quite big.

Were there any vertical sections or was it all slabby?

Yeah, definitely. There are a few short vertical sections and a few roofs where you have to step over an overlap. But it is basically an epic slab.

How does it compare to some of the stuff you’ve done in Yosemite?

I’d say it’s pretty similar to Half Dome. The thing about Half Dome was that it was more of an adventure for me because I hadn’t rehearsed it. I just went up there and was like, “Ok, I’ll just figure it out.” Had I been completely unprepared for El Sendero, I would have probably felt the same. They are really similar to me, too, because they are such striking features that dominate the area that they are in.

Have you done any other soloing in the area?

I have done quite a bit, actually. I have pretty much done all of the classics. Potrero is sort of known for its classic 5.10s. The last morning before we left, I did a 14-pitch 5.10c. It took me 45 minutes to climb and another hour to down climb.

How do the locals feel about you guys being down there?

I think they were psyched. Cedar and I were hiking through the canyon and a big local crew from Monterrey stopped for a photo shoot with us. Everyone had their cameras and they all took turns. I think the local folks are just psyched to see any kind of high-profile climbers coming to appreciate their area. And the people that run the campgrounds are just psyched to attract any kind of attention. It’s a big thing for the town to have climbers through the whole winter.

What’s next? What’s going on with you soloing a building?

I don’t know what’s going on with the whole building solo. It keeps getting pushed back because of budgeting stuff and productions stuff so I don’t know. I’m not really involved in the planning process. But, I am flying to Patagonia with Tommy Caldwell in 10 days. It will be my first time down there but the thing is, I don’t know how to ice climb. I don’t know how to use ice axes or crampons at all. I think Rolando Garibotti gave Tommy a bunch of things he thinks we’re qualified to do. Though I hear the weather has been shit. I hope that’s the case so we can just boulder the whole time and I can come back super fit. I don’t really want to go suffer in the mountains. [laughs]

Sources: Alex Honnold, Cedar Wright, 1995 AAJ