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Solo, Part I: Alex Honnold

Honnold bypassing a party while free soloing the 5.10d corner pitch above the crux of the Regular North Face of the Rostrum, Yosemite National Park, California. The same day he had free soloed Astroman (5.11c, 300m). [Photo] Asa Firestone

Soloing is often described as the most pure and dangerous form of climbing. For all of us, testing the limit of what’s comfortable, whether that’s scrambling up 5.3 terrain or spending fifty days on a big wall alone, is an unparalleled mental and physical exploration.

We at Alpinist asked the most inspiring solo climbers we know–those defining the edge of what’s humanly possible–to tell us more about their rare connection to the vertical world.

In this week’s feature, Alex Honnold opens the Solo Series. The upstart was virtually unknown to the climbing world until one year ago when he free soloed Astroman, among other accomplishments, in Yosemite (read the October 30, 2007 NewsWire). Then on April 1, 2008 he completed one of the most impressive free solos ever achieved: the Zion classic, Moonlight Buttress (read the April 7, 2008 NewsWire). How did a 22-year-old from Sacramento do it? Find out below.

1. Please tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m from Sacramento, California. I’m 22 years old, and I pretty much don’t do anything outside of climbing.

2. How did you become a pro climber, and when did you start free soloing?

About twelve years ago my parents took me to a climbing gym. They figured I’d enjoy it, and I did. As for going pro, it was just one of those lucky things–I met the right people and they started giving me things.

I’m not totally sure how I started soloing. I’d been reading stories about Croft and Bachar and the Stone Masters since I was a kid. I guess I always thought it was “cool.”

The reasons I solo now are a lot different than when I started. I used to be a lot more scared. I’d be happy to be climbing but fearful of roofs, or any time I lost good footholds, and other silly things. But it was always exciting. That kept me coming back.

3. It seems like you’ve had a fairly steep learning curve. Can you explain what made you so strong mentally and physically?

It’s actually not a super steep learning curve. I’d been climbing fairly well in the gym for years. Then I switched to climbing outdoors all the time. I just got noticed all of the sudden.

I don’t know what made me strong mentally, if I even am. You should see me around hot ladies. Terrified.

4. What does free soloing represent to you?

It represents total commitment. Perfection. Execution.

5. Why do you free solo?

Why do you climb? Because it’s fun. I find it rewarding. Challenging. Whatever. I solo for the same reason I climb. I enjoy it.

6. Why do you like free soloing multipitch routes?

I feel like it’s more worth it than soloing a single pitch. Less contrived. More committing. And I love exposure.

Honnold “gazing up in awe” at Tricks are for Kids (5.13), Indian Creek, Utah. [Photo] Alex Honnold collection

7. Please tell us about your first free solo.

I’m pretty sure my first solos were at Lover’s Leap: Knapsack Crack (5.3) and Corrugation Corner (5.7). Knapsack is so low angle and easy that you can pretty much just walk up it. You can just walk up next to the crack if you prefer 5.6 friction. Lots of folks learn how to lead on it. I was getting my confidence up. Corrugation is more committing. It’s three pitches and pretty vertical. I don’t remember very well, but I’m sure I climbed it totally statically, overgripped the shit out of it. I probably was climbing terribly and was really scared.

8. What has shifted since you were scared of free soloing? How have you tamed your fears?

Well a lot of things are different. The most obvious is that I’m stronger now than when I started soloing. I’m climbing a number harder, so things are just a little easier. Not getting pumped makes everything feel much more secure.

Also, I used to free solo a lot more just because I had no partners. I didn’t know anyone anywhere, and I was a little afraid to talk to people. So I’d climb by myself, which got me onto routes that would otherwise be unappealing. I was always onsight soloing stuff, looking for new routes just to tick things, do something new. Now I mostly just solo climbs I really like. I stick to quality a little more.

I’m also soloing a lot less now than I used to. I sport climb more and have partners more. Soloing is more of a special occasion for me now.

As for taming fear, I’m not sure if I’d phrase it like that. The first time I jugged I was gripped. It was the West Face of Leaning Tower in the Valley–super exposed, overhanging. But after doing a few more walls it became routine. The first time I soloed it was a little scary. Everyone says, “If your foot pops you die,” or “What if you get stung by a bee?! You’d die.” One by one I had all those things happen to me. I’ve blown feet, had birds come out of cracks, had bats hiss (which always scares the shit out of me), and nothing ever came of it. You go up there and climb–sometimes you get off route or sometimes it’s dirtier than you’d like, but you either push through it or climb down. Nothing dramatic; nothing crazy; certainly never really “do or die” not to say that can’t happen, and if it does you’re in a bad way.

9. What draws you to free soloing?

When I’m climbing there’s no difference between being roped up or free soloing. On Moonlight Buttress there was no difference except that things are done perfectly. The focus is amazing. It’s hard to describe the feeling of perfection when you solo… that you’re doing everything with precision. When I lead I can often just charge ahead. Soloing requires more.

10. Some say that free soloists have a death wish. What do you think of this assessment?

Well I haven’t died yet. I definitely agree with the Dan Osman quote: “You don’t wanna die right? So you just don’t fall.” And I’ve often said things to the same effect. “It’s no big deal because you won’t fall.” I would rather not die. But I know I will eventually, and I might as well live fully until then.

Honnold free soloing the boulder problem section of Astroman (5.11c, 300m) on the day he returned for a photo shoot. [Photo] Alex Honnold collection

11. When free soloing, what goes on in your head?

Normally it takes me a few pitches to quiet down my head, which is one of the reasons I prefer multipitch routes.

12. You listen to your iPod while free soloing. Is that distracting?

I only listened to it on Moonlight. I used it there for two reasons.

A. I’d listened the whole time I was minitraxioning and was used to it. It was like a Moonlight soundtrack (and the fact that I’d rehearsed it meant I knew there were no loose holds or shifting blocks or anything–one of the things I’d normally want to be able to hear for).

B. I wanted a time piece and didn’t have a watch. This might sound lame but I was pretty sure I would set a speed record and that’s a first for me. [Check out Alex’s post in the Readers’ Blog to see his twenty-five-song Moonlight soundtrack. –Ed.]

13. Have you experienced fear or doubts at cruxes on free solos? How do you manage these sensations and push through?

Never. That’s sort of the whole point.

But that answer is limited to Moonlight, Astroman and other major solos. In a more general perspective, if I reach a point where I’m unsure, I just hang out until I decide what to do. I suss out beta, consider, just think. I’ve hung out under the crux of things in Joshua Tree until tourists on the trail below would get bored and walk away just so I could consider in peace. I’m always happy to downclimb if it comes to that.

14. When free soloing, in what state are your body and mind?

It depends. The first time I soloed Astroman I was “in the zone.” I was super focused but at the same time nervous and excited that I was finally doing something I’d thought about for a long time. It was a nice state. When I went back and soloed Astroboy for pictures I wasn’t in any kind of zone. I was just having a good time climbing and chatting with the photographer (Cory Richards, a friend). In a lot of ways it was a lot more relaxed. Certainly more pure fun. But less of a “zone.”

Whatever it is I’m experiencing it’s definitely more intense than when I’m roped up.

15. How do you prepare mentally? Do you practice any mental training?

I wouldn’t say I have any “mental training.” I’ve done a million pitches of easier climbing so I have a solid base and a lot of confidence on any kind of terrain. I think about a route lots before hand, like day dreaming. Sports psychologists call it “positive visualization,” but I prefer to think of it as just getting psyched. The two days before Moonlight I had a ton of time to just hang out and think about sequences and how it’d feel. I just think.

16. What do you like more about free soloing than roped climbing?

Well I like being able to go out by myself… I like the quicker pace, not waiting for anything. But I wouldn’t say I like it more in general. If I had to choose one I’d take ropes, just because I like pushing myself. Soloing is a special occasion. A holiday.

Honnold atop a tower in the Elbsandstein, Germany. [Photo] Alex Honnold collection

17. Do you see yourself free soloing in ten years from now?

Probably. Maybe not trying to push myself the same way, but I can’t imagine not soloing some easy routes. It’s just a waste of time to put on a rope and carry all that shit around.

18. Who inspires you in the soloing community? Why?

Peter Croft. For being completely rock solid. And a nice, mellow man.

Not that there is much of a “soloing community.”

19. What grade do you see yourself pushing in free solo climbing? Does Alex Huber’s solo of Kommunist inspire you?

No, that doesn’t inspire me much. I mean I’m super impressed by it but I can’t imagine ever doing something like that so it’s not really “inspiring.” I’ll climb any grade that I think feels solid.

20. How do you think free soloing in the alpine setting over free soloing multipitch hard routes differ?

I don’t know. I haven’t soloed in the alpine setting really. I’d be happy to though.

21. What recognition are you getting from the climbing community for your free solo climbs? From your non-climbing friends?

Way too much. I think of it like this: any person who has freed Moonlight without falls might as well have soloed it. It’s about the same, physically–which means that if they were psyched enough they could solo it too. I just happen to be psyched enough. My non-climbing friends (the few and the proud) don’t really know or care.

22. Do you think that lot free soloists aim primarily for recognition or for a personal quest?

It’d be hard to be psyched enough if you were doing it for other folks. It’d be scary. It’s all about the personal quest to know exactly what you can do.

23. Does your family understand what free soloing entails?

I solo for myself. I don’t know how they feel about it, but it certainly doesn’t affect my decisions.

24. What was your best free soloing moment?

Jamming the last four glorious pitches of Moonlight. Nothing but air, super exposed. Totally amazing position. I love finger cracks.