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Less and Less Alone: Alex Honnold

This profile of Alex Honnold first appeared in Alpinist 35–Summer 2011. On June 3, he became the first person to free solo El Capitan via Freerider (VI 5.13a, 3,000′).–Ed.

Alex Honnold reenacts his Moonlight Buttress (5.12+, 1,200') free solo in Zion. [Photo] Celin Serbo

Alex Honnold reenacts his Moonlight Buttress (5.12+, 1,200′) free solo in Zion. [Photo] Celin Serbo

ON THE MORNING of April 28, 2010, dry gales rushed through the sandstone canyons of Red Rock, Nevada, scattering the sport climbers at the Gallery. A few miles down the road, Alex Honnold sat alone in his van listening to the wind, accepting it and putting it away. He pushed the door open and set off for the Rainbow Wall with a few snacks, some water, rock shoes and a chalk bag. As he climbed up, the cliff protected him from the gusts. About three hours after leaving the car, he stood on a small perch 750 feet above the ground, just below the crux of the Original Route (5.12).

He stemmed and palmed three times on sickeningly vague ripples into this perfect two-pitch corner–only to stare down a distant jug and refuse to jump. Four years before, he’d easily onsighted the entire route, but this time he didn’t have a rope or, thereby, a partner, and so he wanted to be extra sure he was going to make it (which is to say, not die).

He had a few options: (1) He could climb back up to a tiny divot just big enough for him to paw 1/3 of the first pad of his index finger, stack the other fingers behind it, and wrench. This vicious crimping and some high feet could get him to the security of the jug. (2) He could down climb relatively easy ground to Over the Rainbow Ledge, walk right, and take the Swainbow Wall variation (5.10) to the top of the wall. (3) He could descend another 700 feet of pin-scarred 5.11+ cracks to the base and walk off. (4) He could just jump to the jug.

Though many would consider what he was doing to be so irrational as to negate the use of reason, Honnold was thinking rationally. There was no way he was jumping (4). “I didn’t want my life to come down to one move, you know?” he later said, ignoring the concept that in free soloing, your life always comes down to the next move. The full down climb (3) would be silly, when there’s the Swainbow Wall (2), which would be almost a walk off. This option would have been acceptable. Safely on the ground again, he would have thought, Whoa, I just had a rough day. He might have called a friend to tell the story.

But in Honnold’s mind, the need to digress from his original plan could raise significant questions. A year and a half prior, climbing ropeless on the glassy slabs near the top of Half Dome, he’d frozen. “It was like I woke up,” he told me afterward–and where he found himself was horrifying. Now, for the first time since then, he’d been motivated to try another big free solo. And so, high on the Rainbow Wall, he was facing what felt like a defining decision.

At last, Honnold committed to the black iron oxide divot (1), jammed a foot in the corner and levered to the jug. When he reached the top of the wall, the wind nearly blew him over. That night at dinner with some friends, he went to wash his hands. On the tip of his left index finger, he found a blood blister, raised by pulling on that divot for his life. He thought to himself, That is legit.

The ascent received little attention in the press, but in Honnold’s “climbing bible” (where he quietly, fastidiously records all rock climbs with their dates, and occasionally, times), he noted it with a smiley face. The success was a reminder that he could still get into “some messed up stuff,” yet remain composed and execute. His Half Dome crisis– and the publicity surrounding that solo–had not permanently changed him. He was still himself, a “nondescript kid from the suburbs,” alone in his van.

Honnold on Outer Space (5.10c), Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. Philosopher Jack Turner argues, Solo climbing is unique, a direct confrontation with the self. That purity of attention begins to be diluted as soon as you start worrying about other things. By the time you're worrying about whether your logo is being seen, it's a totally different experience.... The spirit of climbing is untranslatable into mass media. [Photo] Celin Serbo

Honnold on Outer Space (5.10c), Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. Philosopher Jack Turner argues, “Solo climbing is unique, a direct confrontation with the self. That purity of attention begins to be diluted as soon as you start worrying about other things. By the time you’re worrying about whether your logo is being seen, it’s a totally different experience…. The spirit of climbing is untranslatable into mass media.” [Photo] Celin Serbo

IN THE MIND of the climbing world, Honnold emerged from the goo fully formed. In 2006 nobody had heard of him. In 2007 he free soloed Yosemite’s Astroman and the Rostrum in a day, matching Peter Croft’s legendary 1987 feat, and suddenly Honnold was pretty well-known. A year later, he free soloed the 1,200-foot, 5.12d finger crack that splits Zion’s Moonlight Buttress. The ascent was reported on April 1. For days, people thought the news was a joke. Five months afterward, Honnold took the unprecedented step of free soloing the 2,000-foot, glacially bulldozed Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome. Croft called this climb the most impressive ropeless ascent ever done. Yet despite the resulting fame, Honnold remained an enigma, his privacy guarded by the incomprehensibility of his abilities and by what his friends describe as a nearly pathological shyness. I first met him at the Red River Gorge, Kentucky, in the spring of 2007. His shoulders seemed very broad and his irises, an odd metallic brown, were bigger than most people’s. Although his eyes made him look perpetually dazed and/or surprised, I soon realized he had a ruthlessly analytical brain and a keen bullshit detector. Mostly what I remember is that, if you could get him to speak, pretty much all he would talk about was rock climbing. One night, we were sitting in a brown vinyl booth at Miguel’s, and I was telling him about maybe applying to law school, and he asked me, with genuine wonder, “Why?” I stammered out an answer and couldn’t help sounding like some compromising equivocator and so felt like one. Out at the cliff, Honnold was deeply, quietly motivated. He moved slowly, and he could hang on forever, climbing up into cruxes and down out of them, recovering, trying again.

I saw him later that year in Rifle, Colorado, then lost touch–except for the breathless accounts of his free-climbing and free-soloing exploits I read in print and online. I didn’t go to law school. While Honnold was ropegunning for Conrad Anker in Borneo, I was in journalism school in New York City, adjusting to all the noise and to becoming one of the noise makers myself. When I emailed Honnold in January 2011 about writing this profile, I told him I was now a documentary field producer. He responded with a warm email that ended thus: “Documentaries seem like boring work. But as long as you like it. alex.”

FOUR MONTHS LATER, I flew and flew and floated from New York City to meet Honnold on the limestone idyll of Kalymnos, Greece. After seventy hours of travel, I (haggard but excited) dropped my bags in a shabby pension. I saw Honnold through the window first. He looked bigger than I remembered. He wore what turned out to be his uniform: red hoody, dark pants, tattered running shoes, all marked with the logo of his sponsor. We hugged. After a few pleasantries, he said, “Dude, have you looked at the weather?” I hadn’t. I was going to be there no matter what, so I figured there was no point. “It looks heinous,” he said.

Honnold never was one for sugarcoating, a trait of his that I appreciate, but there was something else. He seemed somehow cooler. Or at least more normal. He had a steady (if unusual) job, an (albeit mobile, kind of creepy) abode–his big white van–and a (smart, well-adjusted, good-looking) steady girl named Stacey Pearson. He was currently with Pearson on his “Sport Climbing Tour of the Antiquities” (which included Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Greece) and as we walked down from the crag that evening (the only sunny day all week), he mentioned buying a house. We talked about mortgages.

But Honnold is not normal, socially or otherwise. Last year, when he visited Pearson in Tucson, they went to a bar with some of her best friends. At one point, Honnold slipped away without saying a word. He was gone for two hours. She texted him to ask where he was. He replied that he didn’t know. He’d just taken a walk. “He’s still very uncomfortable in big groups of people he’s not familiar with,” Pearson said.

This occasionally still-awkward kid has become one of the most famous rock climbers in the world. He was recently profiled in Outside, made the cover of the May 2011 issue of National Geographic and will soon be featured on 60 Minutes. An average of 13.361 million people watch 60 Minutes every week. If he wasn’t already, Honnold is on his way to becoming a relatively mainstream professional athlete. Described so often as a recluse and lauded for a monkish devotion to climbing, Honnold is being scheduled out of his hermitic life. When I asked about the current size of his ego, he sighed. “Well, it’s probably bigger,” he said. “When everybody keeps telling you that you’re the shit, it’s hard for it not to sink in a little bit–it makes me kind of sad to say that, but it’s true.”

I just got really lucky that what I like to do is what everybody is into. Daniel [Woods] will never be able to explain the difference between a V13, a V14 and a V15. People will be like, “That looks hard. But why are you climbing on that little rock? And why don’t you just walk up the other side?” When you solo a wall, it’s a lot easier for people to be like, “Whoa, that’s rad.” They have an easier time wrapping their heads around it.

Although the actuality of what Honnold does lies beyond all but a few people’s understanding, the theory is simple: Holy crap. No rope? If he falls he dies? That wall is huge! Those holds are tiny! Amazing! Horrifying! What do his parents think? Whether you dismiss him as stupid or crazy or irresponsible (to his family and friends or to his duties as a role model), Honnold’s accomplishments are undeniably, adfuckingverbally impressive and oddly magnetic. Maybe because in some way his climbing represents an ideal–something simple and uncompromising and absolute. Which (1) are qualities that we don’t get a lot of these (post- or post-postmodern, overwhelmingly relativist) days, and which (2) make him eminently marketable, turning him into a commodity and hence threatening the very object of our admiration. What’s next? Give us more!

It’s this What’s next? question that becomes especially problematic. Fame brings the weight of expectations: of oneself, from the public and from sponsors; of time, professionalism, performance and future feats. Expectations can be dangerous, and they only become more so when what you are famous for is risking your life.

If he’s not careful, we could admire Alex Honnold to death.

DIERDRE WOLOWNICK, Honnold’s mother, likes to tell a story about how he pulled himself to stand on the day he was born: August 17, 1985, in Sacramento, California. Honnold, who tends to skepticism, considers this story apocryphal. Either way, Wolownick said, “You could say he was climbing from Day One. He was a horrible kid to raise. Always climbing on stuff.”

Honnold at Lake Tahoe, California, during his third summer. His mother says, Alex rode a 2-wheeler from the age of about 2 and a half--which scared the bejeebers out of all the moms in our court. [Photo] Courtesy Dierdre Wolownick

Honnold at Lake Tahoe, California, during his third summer. His mother says, “Alex rode a 2-wheeler from the age of about 2 and a half–which scared the bejeebers out of all the moms in our court.” [Photo] Courtesy Dierdre Wolownick

As a child, Honnold spent a lot of time by himself. He covered his bedroom floor with so many Legos that his parents gave him permission to get rid of his bed. (Last year, at age twenty-four, when he brought Pearson home for the first time, they slept next to each other on his bedroom floor. She thought it was weird.) His father, Charles Honnold, was an ESL teacher, and he had an early Macintosh computer. “The game I remember was laid out in a two-dimensional grid. You were point-of- view walking through basically a maze, and you had to remember the maze,” Honnold said. “All I remember about these games is the left, left, right, right, left, right, left and ‘Whoa, which room am I in?'”

He had to remember the sequence: the beta.

But Honnold pleads ignorance of much of his childhood. “Ask Ben about this stuff” he said. Honnold and Ben Smalley (now a First Lieutenant in the Air Force) have been best friends since first grade. Lieutenant Smalley told me that before he said anything else, he wanted to note, “I love Alex, and everything I say comes from a warm place.” He laughed.

AND SO, a condensed version of young Honnold’s childhood through Lieutenant Ben Smalley, vol. 1: Alex wore sweatpants to school. Every day. There was a gray pair and a blue pair. He wore T-shirts that were two sizes too big, and they said things on them like, “I hiked the Grand Canyon,””Visit Yellowstone” or “How to Identify Deer Tracks.” He was very good at capture the flag. Defensively. He could talk to you about the War of 1812 for an hour. It wasn’t so much that he was shy, as he just didn’t even bother to try. Like, he would speak to you if you spoke to him. He wore hoodies in class, always with the hood up, and he would just sit there, but he always knew the answer if a teacher called on him. He’s got sort of a Holden Caulfield thing going on, maybe, in that he’s always on the lookout for a phony.

“I’ve always been a huge dork because I’ve always been real unfortunate looking,” Honnold said. “Especially as a kid. Like, kind of homely.” But when he found the climbing gym at age twelve, learned that he could climb by himself and that he could ride his bike there on his own, he discovered his freedom, or rather something to do with his freedom. The gym’s walls were all connected, not unlike a honeycomb, and Honnold would traverse back and forth, not touching the ground for an hour or more. “I would wear my headphones and blast Megadeth and just traverse,” he said. “Who doesn’t like to do what they’re good at?” (And he was, indeed, good at indoor climbing, earning his way onto the US Youth National Team by the time he was eighteen. In those early days, however, he rarely ventured onto real rock.)

On his way home, he would stop at his grandfather’s house to play backgammon and chess. Gym climbing was also his main form of interaction with his father. Charles was a big man with a burly beard. Although they didn’t talk much, Charles belayed him for hours. When Honnold started to compete, the two drove hundreds of miles to regional and national competitions. “They’d say maybe five words that whole time,” Pearson explained. “But Alex said that’s just how his father was.”

Honnold’s mother spoke only French to her kids. “Mom tried so hard to make us cultured,” Honnold said (in addition to teaching them French, she also sent them to the symphony, art museums, ballet and piano lessons), “and it just did not take.” Honnold and his sister, Stasia, insisted on responding to her in English. At dinner, his father, who didn’t speak French, sat by quietly.

“That’s a pretty messed-up picture when you paint it that way,” Honnold said to me.

LIEUTENANT SMALLEY on the Young Honnold, vol. 2: [Alex’s] were very, very hands-off parents. They were very much of the you’re-an-individual-what-you-do-is-your-choice school. His parents were not very happily married. His father would sit on the couch most nights, reading until he fell asleep. I would say [Alex]got worse in high school, actually. He withdrew further. He hung out with the kids who played Pokemon in the math room at lunch. During sophomore year, Alex got his first girl-friend. Her name was Elizabeth Thomas. She went by E.T. That should give you some idea of the social circle she ran in. I just don’t think Alex thought the typical high school stuff was for him. He considered himself more of a loner.

“We raised our children as small adults,” his mom told me. “Because that’s what they are.” Honnold’s parents gave him a lot of freedom, but skipping college was not an option. He filled out his applications reluctantly the night before they were due. He was accepted to the engineering program at the University of California, Berkeley.

ABRIDGED REMARKS on one year of college (2003-2004) from Alex Honnold, as he sat on a bed covered with a low-qual blue bedspread. The bed rested on a chilly, humid white tile floor in a pension on a plug of limestone in the middle of the Aegean Sea. Outside, the rain continued to fall, filter through the porous stone and spooge all over the tufas. Honnold was still in the same red hoody and dark pants he’d been wearing for days. Tattered running shoes sat in the doorway. His back rested against the head of the bed, his hands were in the hoody’s kangaroo pocket. Across the room, I sat at a rickety wooden table where our landlords left delicious crumbly cookies covered with powdered sugar and flecked with whole cloves that made your gums numb. “I was going to eat your cookies, but Stacey made me leave them,” he said. He often calls himself a fat kid at heart:

College was heinous. See, I didn’t live in a dorm. We had a family friend who let me sublet his two-bedroom apartment in town. In my one year at Berkeley, I never met anybody. I never spoke to anybody. That was monkish. I was sitting in an empty building by myself in my boxers all the time. I’d go to Indian Rock a bit. Ironworks [the climbing gym]. I didn’t get into the scene at all. I spent like a year basically in isolation.

IN JANUARY 2002, his grandfather died. Then just before Honnold started college, his parents split up. During a business trip a few months later, Charles died of a heart attack as he rushed to make a connection at the Phoenix airport. He was fifty-five. Honnold returned home late that night after a long hike in Tahoe with E.T.

The house was open, all the windows were open and stuff, but like, everything was dark; nobody was in the house. And, I was like, “Mom?”– “Mom?” And went and found mom sitting outside in the pool. Sitting with her legs in the pool. Just sitting there crying. And she was just like, “Your dad died.” I don’t remember what she said, but basically like, “Your dad died,” and then she went to bed. I don’t remember disbelieving her. But, for all I know, he could still be alive. I never saw a body. There was never a real funeral. This little can of ashes showed up one day, and people said he was dead. I read all the articles about him. For a while, I would see people on the bike path. People who looked like dad, with a big beard and just all big, and I would be like, “Oh!” And then, “Oh, that wasn’t him.”

Two deaths and a divorce in two and a half years. Honnold dropped out of college. There was no reason for me to be there. Nobody wanted me to be there. I didn’t want to be there. Like, what the fuck? You know? Lieutenant Smalley: He was like, “My dad died.” I kind of had to yell at him about it. “Why aren’t you upset?” I think deep down, I think Alex never did any mourning.

Me: Did you mourn at all?

Honnold: I was too young and angstful. I had too much other anger.

HE REMAINED isolated for another year. He had no job, no prospects. He went on long walks into the mountains around Lake Tahoe. A couple of days after Christmas 2004, he tucked his first cell phone, which he’d unwrapped days earlier, in the pocket of his new down jacket, and set out for a hike. Near the top of a mountain, he took a straight line up its face.

An expanse of old snow, melted and refrozen, spread beneath him. When the slope became too steep, he tried to turn around. He stumbled. “I pitched. I was sure I was going to die.” He came to at the bottom of the snow field, splayed across the talus that had stopped his fall. “My down jacket had exploded, and I was all bloody, so it was like I was tarred and feathered,” he said. He got out the phone and called his mom. A helicopter airlifted him out. He had a punctured sinus; lacerations in the back of his head, on his cheek, above his eye; a couple of broken ribs; and a broken hand. It’s the closest he has come to actually dying, he said.

Honnold calls this post-accident time his Blue Period, a joking reference to Picasso. at spring, he absconded with his family’s otherwise unused van to Joshua Tree to meet up with E.T. (who was in college in Southern California). There, Honnold began to free solo in earnest: 5.3 to 5.6 slabs. “Stuff that’s perfect if you’re crippled,” he said. “I did a bajillion pitches.”

By himself, he could climb or not climb. He didn’t have to ask for a belay or make small talk or interact with anybody at all. The tiny epics on giant stacked boulders–5.10 roof cracks that took him uncomfortably off his feet, skatey friction slabs on granular monzogranite–provided his original proving ground. I picture, Romantically or not, a lone kid wending his way through the desert from formation to formation, topping out in the dry wind and walking off to the next bump on the horizon. Like most teenagers,his mood probably zagged between distant points. From anger at his dad’s death/his parents’ divorce to girls/girl problems and life/life problems to the simplicity, the movement, the tingle of total commitment and the forgetting of all of the angst that freesoloing allowed.

IN JANUARY 2007, Honnold decided he would buy a van with the money his father left him and live–just be–on the road.

Chris Weidner met Honnold at the Virgin River Gorge soon after the acquisition of the now-famed vehicle, aka “the pedophile van,” aka “the big white box,” on the floor of which, at this point, Honnold was sleeping directly. Five years later, from a sunny step in a subdivision outside of Las Vegas, Weidner recalled their introduction:

He looked timid. He was really nice. Like, over the top nice. The main thing I noticed that sets Alex apart is this unwavering confidence that he can climb pretty much anything. He doesn’t look at rock and see trad route, sport route, boulder problem. He thinks, “I can and will climb this and it doesn’t matter if I’m placing cams, clipping bolts or soloing.” He has a simple, profound perspective.

After only a few months in Yosemite, Honnold made a quiet free ascent of El Cap’s Freerider in May 2007. On his fourth or fifth (roped) time up Astroman, Honnold climbed with Brad Barlage. “Sure didn’t place a lot of gear on that,” Barlage said. Barlage was a gear rep, and sensing something, he started giving Honnold a harness or a chalk bag or a fat 10.2mm rope now and then. It was Honnold’s first contact with sponsorship, yet any thoughts of becoming a professional remained unthunk.

A different idea was percolating. Honnold doesn’t recall when he first became conscious of Croft’s one-day free solo of Astroman and the Rostrum. But he said he must have been very young. “That definitely set the bar for me. Like, ‘Oh, that’s what it takes to be a badass.'”

And then in September of 2007, he repeated Croft’s feat and took the wider climbing world by surprise. “Usually you hear a lot of conflicting stuff about people. Some say, ‘Wow, this guy’s awesome,’ others are like, ‘well, not so much,'” Croft told me. “With Alex there was none of that. It was all, ‘This kid is the real deal.'”

ALONE ON THE ROCK, however, Honnold wasn’t worrying about other people’s perceptions. When he’s soloing, Pearson said, “Nobody’s judging him. He’s just doing what he wants to do. He can be whoever he wants to be.” In 2007 and 2008, Honnold was developing his habits. On granite, he almost never carried a gold or blue Camalot because, he said, “That’s my hand size.” He kept a couple of limp rags with loose chalk in his bag, so he had something to grab in there. Even today, he claims he’s “terrible” at pure power moves, and he doesn’t think he’s “great” on his feet (both of which statements are preposterous sandbagging). But, he said, “I don’t think I’ve ever fallen off of a 5.12 finger crack.” He paused. “That might actually be true. Whoa.”

And so, in the spring of 2008, after he spent a season climbing various Hardest Cracks in the Desert (added to the memory that he’d flashed Moonlight’s finger crack two years before), another idea chafed at the back of Honnold’s brain. Honnold and Weidner had been talking about attempting a one-day linkup of four major free climbs in Zion. Honnold showed up a few days earlier than the agreed date. “I probably showed up then because I knew I was going to try [soloing Moonlight],” he said.

Croft, who has gone for months without tying in at all, once described a space he entered where, “You feel like you’re an animal just reacting. You’re not thinking about anything. You’re in a super spectacular environment, and you’re just reacting like an animal would.”

Honnold doesn’t talk too much about the actual experience of a big solo. “As soon as you leave the ground, there’s nothing but execution,” he told me. A bracketing out of everything except the next move. But what he can depict with gusto is the preparation. He fixed lines down the whole buttress of Moonlight except for the first two pitches; then he toproped the last 800 feet four times in two days. At that point, he said, chuckling, “I was pretty sure I could do it, physically.” It rained the next day, so he had to wait for it to dry. “I spent two days in the van by myself, thinking about it…visualizing or whatever.” (He often edits himself with “whatever” when he’s said something that sounds pat or cliched and/or perhaps too true.)

I was partially thinking about sequences, but partially thinking like, if you fell off–what if I blew the move off the Rocker Blocker [a Pitch 5 ledge off which one must complete the hardest individual face climbing moves on the route], I’d probably stick the ledge, but if I blew the move on the crux, I probably wouldn’t stick the Rocker Blocker. [Chortles.] That would be fucked. I could just sit on the ledge at half height for like a day ’cause there are always aid climbers on it. Just be like, “Help.” You know?

What if I get up and rip the hold off the Rocker Blocker? I guess I could down climb all the way. I remember sitting in a movie theater parking lot. I don’t know if I saw a movie. I might’ve. I sat in the van in silence…. I swear that’s what it takes to get your head around that stuff.

The night of March 31, Honnold had trouble sleeping. The next morning, he started up the route, giddy and nervous–because of the scruffy sandiness of the rock and because it takes him a while to settle into a solo. An hour and twenty-three minutes later, he stood on top.

THE DOING is quick. It’s the thinking that lasts longer. Honnold ruminates for months before he carries out a big free solo. In the summer after Moonlight Buttress, he was ambling over granite somewhere, when he decided that Half Dome was next and that he didn’t want to prepare so extensively for it. “I think that if you limit your soloing to stuff you rehearse all the time (1) It’s kind of stupid. (2) It’s kind of gimmicky in a way. It’s like a gymnast practicing a routine.”

He’d free climbed the Regular Northwest Face only once, a year prior. In autumn 2008, he climbed the route one more time, but he took several variations around what he was going to free solo.

If there’s a point to this whole thing, it’s to be able to go to the Greater Ranges and climb these cool big walls, just by yourself. Like if I ever go to the Dolomites, I could just go solo walls. So onsight soloing makes more sense in a lot of ways even though it’s harder and more dangerous or whatever.

Here, Honnold echoes a much older history. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Paul Preuss was free soloing the first ascents of towers in the Dolomites, climbing up to 5.9 in large boots, until he died young in a fall off the Mandlkogel.

On September 6, Honnold walked up to Half Dome to try the ethic for himself. “I was just going to go up. See how I felt,” he said. He wasn’t sure he was going to climb it when he got there. But with a third of a liter of water in his pocket, a few bars and a chalk bag, Honnold left the ground at about 8 a.m. Two hours and fifty minutes later, he topped out. “Half Dome was supposed to be perfect,” he said. “And instead it wound up being kind of fucked up.”

The climb, in his ubiquitous climbing journal, received a sad face–a darkly humorous shorthand for: Suffering “5 minutes in a mental prison” while standing on nubbins like worn erasers and edges like credit cards pasted to a just-less-than-vertical slab 1,800 feet off the ground; if he gets just a minor case of the Elvis leg, he’s taking the plunge, like poof that’s the end, and voices of intrepid tourists up on the summit are exulting within earshot, a wind-scrambled murmur punctuated with exclamations, and they are safe and not about to die, and the well-scoured Sierras spread out below them and below him, too, and he’s barely standing there, 200 feet underneath them, his calves getting pumped, and he’s trying (after more than two and a half hours of suffocating even the slightest peep from Doubt but finally failing on the last pitch) to get Doubt back into its lair, to recompose himself. A bolt within reach is tempting, but he resists and commits. He commits and succeeds.

“I think in retrospect I should have given it another couple of days of contemplation,” Honnold said. “Maybe actually done the whole thing once. Whatever. But I mean it worked out fine.” In the immediate aftermath, he didn’t mention that the experience had shaken him so much he swore off free soloing. “I just decided I didn’t need to do that anymore,” he said. For a while, he turned to ambitious linkup, speed-climbing, and free-climbing goals instead.

The late Sean Leary (1975-2014) and Honnold check the topo of Lurking Fear, during a 23-hour (roped) linkup of The Nose, the Salathe Wall and Lurking Fear (ca. eighty-five pitches) on El Capitan, Yosemite.  [Photo] Tom Evans

The late Sean Leary (1975-2014) and Honnold check the topo of Lurking Fear, during a 23-hour (roped) linkup of The Nose, the Salathe Wall and Lurking Fear (ca. eighty-five pitches) on El Capitan, Yosemite. [Photo] Tom Evans

HONNOLD signed his first major sponsorship contract in January 2009, a few months after he soloed Half Dome. “Being a professional means doing the thing that you love even on the days that you don’t love it,” he later said to me, paraphrasing the basketball player Julius Erving. Honnold also agreed to re-create the Moonlight and Half Dome solos for a documentary, Alone on the Wall. He would rappel in from the tops of both formations, and he wouldn’t have to climb anything he didn’t want to. Moonlight’s footage included nothing harder than 5.12–and only in Honnold’s preferred finger cracks–while the Half Dome footage contained nothing harder than 10a. “I’ve never soloed anything hard on camera,” he said. “When I go and pose, it’s just a workday for me, you know? It’s just for fun.”

In April 2011, Honnold got me on the list at Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Cinemas for a screening of the movie, part of a publicity preview for a new film festival in New York City. When I found him there, he was dressed in his fanciest outfit: a button-up plaid shirt and khaki-colored (albeit nylon) pants. Running shoes. “You can actually eat the container that’s holding the mousse!” Honnold said about the desserts on the circulating trays. “I’m blown away.” He was only half-joking; he ate five. The downtown crowd gasped at all the right moments of the movie. They gave Honnold and Peter Mortimer (one of the filmmakers) a standing O, and they sipped martinis (gratis). During the Q&A, they made long-winded statements that sometimes ended with questions such as, “…and so, when you’re finished with a climb, do you thank the rock?” Honnold, who drank only water, answered after an awkward silence, “No.” He paused for some laughs. “But maybe I should.” He sounded honest.

Someone asked Mortimer how he reconciled having Honnold solo for the camera. If he fell, after all, his death would be, partly, on the filmmakers. Mortimer acknowledged this was a very tough spot, but he told a story about shooting on Moonlight Buttress:

So we rap in there, and we’re, you know, hundreds of feet off the ground, and Alex unties from the rope and takes his harness off, and he’s just standing there, and we’re all quiet, like, really nervous. Like, “Whenever you’re ready,” you know? [Nervous laughter.] And Alex starts to climb, and it’s this pretty hard climbing, and we’re just silent, and then he turns and says, “So do you guys, like, want me to make this look like it’s hard for me?”

After the Q&A, Honnold stood gamely on a line in front of a camera, but he refused to stop eating popcorn for the photo. He hobnobbed with Jacques Cousteau’s kids and National Geographic brass, and then he went to dinner with a 60 Minutes producer and puked up $165 of two-Michelin-starred food.

“That was probably the best food you’ve ever eaten,” I said the next day, as we walked down the talus below the High Exposure buttress at the Gunks. “Yeah, it probably was, but according to whom?” Honnold said.

He’d just finished soloing up and down two soaring moderates with big quartzite horizontals. Honnold had done both, um, easily. Throughout the day, he’d drawn crowds, and he’d posed for several photos. One of our party heard a girl say, “Oh my god, is that Alex Honnold? I’m gonna cry. He’s my favorite!”

“Them,” I said. The proverbial ones who deem things stuff. “Yeah, exactly,” Honnold said. He wasn’t buying it.

BECAUSE SOLOING is fundamentally selfish, the great free soloist Henry Barber said, matter-of-factly, it must be done alone. During long days of free soloing, Croft would avoid contact with anybody at all. “I just didn’t want to interrupt the climbing. When you’re roped up, it’s fun, but you’re stopping here and anchoring there. With soloing it’s just climbing,” he told me. Croft found that solitude more easily on big routes. “With the really long stuff you have to be into the inner voyage a bit more,” he said. “That’s why I prefer [it]. Because of that inner world you go into and you get to hang out there a while.”

The necessity of privacy, Honnold said, is one of the main reasons that free soloing El Capitan (which he knows people are waiting for) would be such a problem. There are climbers–and eyes–all over the wall all season long. There’s no way to find an outer or inner space free of expectations. Without that pressure, he would be free to sit on a ledge for forty-five minutes or to back off entirely. He wouldn’t have to worry about impressing or inconveniencing anyone. Expectations bear on motivations, which, according to him, are the crux of his free-soloing future.

Poking around for more pudding in the kitchenette in Kalymnos, Honnold explained:

That’s when all the sponsorship stuff and all that weird stuff starts to get complicated, you know? Like if you just wanted to do the solo. Then that’s one thing. You just go out; you’re like, “I want to do this,” and you climb it. But then once you start adding all these weird little factors, then all of a sudden, it’s like, “Ah, you know, I want to do the solo. I also know that if I do it, I’ll get X, Y and Z. I’ll have bitches all up on me all the time.” [Chuckles.] Then it’s like, “Aw, do I really want to do it or am I just psyched about all the goodness?” And then it gets weird.

Which means as far as El Cap goes:

That’s the elephant in the room, you know? “Are you going to do that?” Like, Lynn Hill has the Nose. And she can ride that the rest of her life. If I did El Cap, I could ride that the rest of my life…. On the one hand, I definitely want to do it because it’s there, because it would be proud. Because it’s the obvious continuation of all the stuff I’ve been doing. But then it’s like there’s all this other shit that goes along with it. How do you separate all that kind of stuff?

If I could, sorry, interpose (even more) here as the writer: What’s striking, at least to me, is that most people in Honnold’s position wouldn’t be willing to cop to these complications so frankly. It would be mighty easy to bullshit and let people assume the purity of your motivations. Honnold is willing to grapple with these hard questions. And what allows him to do so is his ability to be remarkably honest with himself.

“I fully embrace all of it,” Honnold said, “Because it’s stupid to pretend it doesn’t exist. Because it does exist.”

WHAT HONNOLD doesn’t grapple with, at least publicly, is death. Perhaps the short succession of his grandfather’s and father’s deaths, and his own close calls, have led him to accept it as an idea, a consequence. He’s embraced it and set it aside. With his girlfriend, to whom he has said, “I love you” (she made him say it first), he jokes about not being around in a few years. She tells him to stop. “I don’t know why anyone would think like that,” she said.

Weidner worries that “there’s a real possibility [Honnold] will die soon…. I think the same confidence that leads him to be a world-class climber also in my opinion leads him to take foolish risks.” His mother is also concerned, but she trusts her son. “He’s the only one who can decide to do it or not,” she said. “I would never tell him not to. It would be like telling a concert pianist, ‘You know, that’s bad for your fingers. You’ll end up with arthritis.'”

In Kalymnos one night, the rain provided a steady backdrop of white noise. Antsy, tired of just sitting, Honnold milled about in the kitchenette of my room. We were talking about death, which he treated with a sort of ironic frankness, chortling at the idea of worst-case scenarios. “What would failure on a solo mean?” I asked. A simple question.

He replied, “Plummeting to your death.” And after a beat: “Which would be a huge bummer.” His tone made me chuckle, then stop. “You know? Whatever.” A moment of nothing but the sound of rain. Honnold moved across the room. Looking out the window into the black, he exhaled. “I hope we get to go climbing tomorrow.”

IT WAS HIS FREE SOLO of Yosemite’s Crucifix that Honnold feels is his best yet. In June 2010, after three pitches of cracks and a 5.12 fingerlocking crux, Honnold stood on a narrow ledge just before the psychological crux of the route–airy, slippery 5.11+ stemming. He shuffled out onto the ledge and down-mantled it until he hung from its edge. It was the kind of thing, he said, that you could trick yourself into doing. “Just do this, this, this and this and then you’re done!” But that was exactly the sort of thinking he was trying to avoid.

As he reached out to the crack, he savored the position, the freedom, the movement.

Right there, it’s like, bam, hundreds of feet of air beneath you. And for once I was like, “I’m up here because I want to be up here. This is the whole point, to be in this position.” And I was actually happy. It was actually fun.

Honnold on The Nose. Both climbers and mainstream journalists were speculating whether Honnold or Dean Potter would free solo El Capitan first. Potter told Outside, The magazines want a race, but this would go beyond athletic achievement. Soloing, he insists, is spiritual. Honnold completed a ropeless ascent of Freerider (5.13a, 3,000') on June 3, 2017. [Photo] Tom Evans

Honnold on The Nose. Both climbers and mainstream journalists were speculating whether Honnold or Dean Potter would free solo El Capitan first. Potter told Outside, “The magazines want a race, but this would go beyond athletic achievement.” Soloing, he insists, is spiritual. Honnold completed a ropeless ascent of Freerider (5.13a, 3,000′) on June 3, 2017. [Photo] Tom Evans

[This profile first appeared in Alpinist 35–Summer 2011. You can order your own copy at the store.–Ed.]