Alex Honnold climbs massive rock faces without ropes. Half of his fans are scared he’ll die. The other half wants everyone to shut up about that possibility. Honnold’s pretty sick of it too. Climbing the way he does is remarkable, but what I like about him most is that it hasn’t gotten to his head. He’s blunt but friendly and always downplaying his accomplishments. He’s also a fiercely, hilariously outspoken atheist.
When you exit Interstate 10 and start driving east on Highway 62 in southern California’s Mojave Desert, you first come across the town of Yucca Valley. It’s a pit stop of gas stations, fast-food chains and a surprisingly expansive sprawl of housing complexes that surround both sides of the highway. Grandiose rumors suggest it’s home to household meth labs that occasionally explode at dusk and add fire to the already burning sunsets. But it’s also here that you first see signs of your destination: the ethereal moonscape of Joshua Tree National Park, a world of spindly Joshua trees that resemble armed warriors and sandstone boulders scattered across the ground, piled on top of each other in great imposing columns. With over 7,000 established routes, it’s a rock climber’s paradise, and I’m here to meet up with Alex Honnold, one of the most daring climbers alive today. He’s in the upper echelons of the climbing elite, regularly conquering routes that border on impossibility, and often doing so without the use of ropes.
When he stumbles out of his van – a 2002 Ford Econoline that serves as both transportation and home for his drifter lifestyle – he’s a mess. His auburn hair is all askew and shooting out in every direction. His big doe eyes are puffy and rimmed red and his nose is full of snot. I know this because of the several short bursts of snot rockets he launches before saying hello. The man is sick, and his demeanor tells me there’s nothing more he’d rather do than stay wrapped in a blanket to pass the day way inside his van. Luckily, he’s up for climbing despite the illness, and within minutes we leave the van to explore Joshua Tree’s many boulders.
Honnold is most recognized for his daring exploits on Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome. It stretches 2,000 near-vertical granite feet into the sky, towering above the valley floor to reach up and scratch at the heels of God. There is a famous image of Half Dome currently circulating the adventure world. It features a young Alex Honnold, 1,700 feet up the cliff’s face, standing on a ledge that varies between a mere five and twelve inches wide. He’s facing out with his back to a portion of the wall that overhangs slightly, forcing him to peer over the edge at the abyss below, threatening to pitch him forward at any moment. Above him is the last few hundred feet of climbing, and beneath: a sheer drop of empty space met far down by a boulder-strewn valley floor.
On that sunny September morning in 2008, Honnold was free soloing Half Dome’s Northwest Face. That is, climbing without any ropes or camming devices to protect him in case of a fall. He was completely alone, armed only with climbing shoes, a chalk bag and a form of audacity some might more readily refer to as insanity.
Free soloing is the most treacherous form of an already dangerous sport. Every move must be perfect, otherwise you’re sent to a screaming, gravity-driven death. To Honnold’s way of thinking, however, it’s only dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. “I feel like it’s not that risky because I know I won’t fall,” he tells me. So far, he’s been right, but it’s not a very convincing argument.
Climbing is the only thing Honnold’s ever really been in to. He was five years old when he first went to a local Sacramento climbing gym, and at ten, his father, Charles Honnold, joined him.
“When I first started going to the gym, my dad and my sister would go and we’d climb for the afternoon,” he says. “It was like a fun family excursion.”
Eventually both his sister and father stopped, leaving Honnold to ride his bike to the gym everyday after school on his own. Though he spent most of his after-school time at the gym, it wasn’t until college that he began focusing solely on climbing. On his way to a degree in engineering while enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, he began frequently missing classes, usually to climb at Indian Rock, a small crag in the Berkeley suburbs. Then, a combination of two events propelled him to drop out. One, despite being a voracious reader, college wasn’t keeping Honnold’s interest. The second was a more abrupt change. At the Phoenix airport in July of 2004, Honnold’s father died of a heart attack. It left him feeling depressed, with little interest in anything but climbing. After returning from a climbing trip to Scotland, he made up his mind to leave college, “stole” the family van and hit the road in proper vagabond fashion to visit North America’s premiere climbing spots.
Reflecting on that decision he made six years ago, he still feels that it was the right choice, albeit with some mixed emotions. “I would go back to school,” he says. “I’ve thought about it. But if I ever had to miss out on a climbing trip because of finals or something …No way. Fuck that.”
It was during that first summer after leaving Berkeley that Honnold started free soloing. His first ropeless ascent was on a two-pitch, 5.3 route at Lover’s Leap in South Lake Tahoe, California. In terms of difficulty, 5.3 is about as simple as it gets. The ratings go from 5.1 up to 5.15, with each grade following 5.9 divided into four levels of difficulty marked by the letters “a” through “d.”
Though he began soloing on easier routes, it ignited a trend, and growing progressively bolder it took only two years for him to stun the climbing world. In September of 2007, he became the second person to ever free-solo Astroman and the Rostrum – two long 5.11c climbs in Yosemite Valley. Not six months later he practically sprinted up Moonlight Buttress, a 5.12d climb in Utah’s Zion National Park. The route is a splitter crack that shoots straight up 1,200 feet of exposed red desert sandstone. He conquered it in a mere 83 minutes. Next up on Honnold’s radar was the most daring solo anyone’s ever attempted: Half Dome.
In an interview with Alpinist Magazine, Honnold revealed why soloing has such a grip on him: “It represents total commitment. Perfection. Execution.” Despite this seriousness, Honnold takes a surprisingly casual approach to an activity with such damning consequences as a result of even the slightest missteps.
“It’s all risk analysis,” he says. “Can I do it? Is there a chance of me falling off? And if I think that there is risk at all then I don’t do it. It’s not like you’re rolling the dice. You either can do it or you can’t.”
Honnold gets annoyed by the pundits who question whether or not he should be allowed to risk his life like he does. While many claim that the way he climbs is excessively dangerous, he retaliates by suggesting that they simply don’t understand his methods.
“I think a lot of people confuse the risk with the consequences. They say that soloing is a high-risk activity, but really, soloing has very high consequences. If you mess it up, you’ll likely die, but it doesn’t make it any more risky. The odds of me falling off aren’t any higher because I’m soloing. If anything, the odds are lower because when you’re soloing you stare down like it’s no joke. You’re really focused. You’re aware of every hand and foot placement.”
But even with flawless execution, no one is immune to accident. As David Roberts points out in Outside Magazine, looking to the history of the most notable North American free-soloists makes this abundantly clear. He spotlights nine individuals, only four of whom are still alive and the other five – Dereck Hersey, Daniel Osman, Charlie Fowler, Michael Reardon, and John Bachar – have perished.
“Yeah, several soloists have died doing that kind of thing,” admits Honnold. “But,” he goes on to say, “I don’t know, it’s not necessarily a consequence of their soloing. The ones that have died, it wasn’t on things where they were like pushing the limits and going big. It was just like silly accidents.”
It’s a comment that only seems to make a point against his personal philosophy on risk. The reality that, regardless of technique or mental clarity, other factors can influence what takes place. I ask him about the unknowns – like inclement weather, for example, which in mountainous regions can thunder in without the preferred warning. Before he can answer I do a quick mental checklist of the possibilities. What if the wind picks up, and at 1,000 feet off the ground it starts screaming at you from all directions? What if a rock loosens up above and it crashes down onto your head? What if water has been dripping onto your next hold and then the chalk on your hands becomes useless. These things happen. Are you aware, I want to shout, that when bodies reach terminal velocity and then hit the ground, they can actually explode? Imagine that.
His response is nonchalant: “I think I pay attention to that kind of thing. I generally don’t solo on things where I think the rock is too loose, or I rein it in to the appropriate level and keep it on really easy terrain.”
Honnold has an almost superhuman ability to remain calm in the most potentially disastrous circumstances. As climber Nick Martino says in Sender Films’ documentary, Alone on the Wall: “It’s like he doesn’t even feel fear or any of the normal human emotions… He has this ability to just shut his brain off and do the sickest things that have ever been done.”
Honnold confirms this, saying, “Do I feel adrenaline like when you almost get in a car wreck and like, your quads hurt and your whole body’s flooded and tense? No. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that climbing.”
Surprisingly, when the discussion revolves around climbing, Honnold isn’t animated. It’s as if he’s rehearsing a speech memorized in his youth that his mother still forces him to recite at family gatherings to impress the relatives. This all changes when the topic steers towards spirituality. Seeing as how he excels in a game that’s arguably the most dangerous activity a person can participate in, I ask if he ever thinks about an afterlife, if such a thing exists. He responds with a blunt, “Not at all.” Upon further questioning, it’s clear that it’s a topic he’s considered extensively, in fact, but he just doesn’t buy into it.
“I don’t think religion or faith or my lack thereof has had any bearing on my life at all. It’s like asking if Santa Claus has affected my life. I’m like, ‘Well, no.’ you know? It’s just this interesting thing that little kids believe in.”
Honnold is a devout atheist. He’s read all the Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins books and has come to a fundamental stance on the God debate.
“[People] make all these claims about objective reality, like that the world works in certain ways, and it just doesn’t. All this stuff about prayer and whatever, God hears your prayers… God does not answer prayers. It just doesn’t happen,” he states. Honnold then tells me a about controlled experiments with double blind prayer studies at hospitals where one set of a thousand patients has somebody at their bedside praying for them, and one doesn’t. His eyes sparkle for the conclusion: “And there’s no effect at all.”
I’ve heard about studies like this before. I remember reading an article whereby the sickly that remained optimistic generally experienced an increased chance of survival.
I say, “really?”
At this he appears confused, “I mean, well, obviously, because it’s all a crock, you know?” Then he scans from me to Joey (the man behind the lens) with a look that suggests pity, “I hope neither of you guys are really religious.”
Honnold’s blunt statements have caused many to raise their eyebrows, sometimes in offense; sometimes just surprise. But these are his beliefs, and while he doesn’t aim to offend – “I wouldn’t go out of my way to be crude or mean or anything.” – he also doesn’t feel that he should have to censor himself simply because he’s in the spotlight.
At 26 years old, Honnold now has a resume of big-wall free solos that puts him at the top of the class, a pusher of previous boundaries, a revolutionizing figure leading a bold sport. Aside from Half Dome, Moonlight Buttress, Astroman and the Rostrum, he’s also soloed the Rainbow Wall, a 14-pitch, 5.12b route outside of Las Vegas, Crucifix (5.12b), Cosmic (5.13b) and Heaven (5.12d) in Yosemite, and last summer, a 12-pitch, 5.12a route called Northern Lights in Squamish, BC. But perhaps his most significant accomplishments are just getting started now. In May 2012, he and Tommy Caldwell, another modern-day climbing legend, completed Yosemite’s Triple Crown – a link-up of Mount Watkins, El Capitan and Half Dome for total of 7,000 vertical feet – in under 20 hours. A month later, beginning at dusk and climbing through the night, Honnold went up the triplet alone, using protection on only 500 feet of the hardest sections. He finished in less than 24 hours. He didn’t stop there, either. On June 18, Honnold, along with speed climber Hans Florine, screamed up The Nose route on El Capitan, setting a new record on the route at 2 hours, 23 minutes and 46 seconds – 13 minutes faster than the previous record.
Despite the international acclaim, the half-dozen sponsors that feed, clothe and pay him to climb and the obvious accomplishments, Honnold spends a lot of time trying to convince you that he’s really not that good – that, as far as professional climbers go, he’s just average. He feels that he’s still just a regular climber, not the elite athlete everyone keeps saying he is.
“People see a very cherry-picked thing. They don’t see the tons of days I go out there and totally suck. I hardly ever do anything badass. It’s just that when I do, it all happens on film.”
But then, with sinuses full of snot, puffy eyes and a headache, he blasts up Father Figure, a Joshua Tree 5.12d route, as if it provided an escalator to carry him to the top.
“I’m definitely a better-than-average climber all around,” he allows, “but I’m only an elite big-wall soloist. How small is that little niche? That’s tiny.”
Honnold derides the media attention he’s received in recent years, too, viewing it as a snowball effect of popularity rather than merit. “It’s kinda BS in a way, because it doesn’t have that much to do with your own abilities or your own development or whatever, it just has everything to do with how much exposure you’ve gotten.”
He refers to the “thousands of people that can climb 14c’s” worldwide to knock his own abilities, and then hinges on Alain Robert, a French rock and urban climber who became legendary for soloing skyscrapers and famous landmarks throughout the world – the New York Times building, the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House, to name a few. Prior to Robert’s penchant for urban climbing, he’d harnessed his skills in the French Alps, soloing 13c and 13d sport routes some 25 years ago.
“He was free soloing at a super high level, like, way back when. And you know, I haven’t done anything that hard yet really.”
Honnold’s use of the word “yet” is enough to draw shivers down the spine, as it highlights a question raised by many who fear for his future: How long can you tempt fate before disaster strikes? Is all the attention he’s receiving putting pressure on him to attempt increasingly dangerous climbs?
The first time I interviewed Honnold, he denied that as a possibility, saying, “So far I’ve never set soloing goals because then I’d feel an obligation to try it. I never want to be in that position where I feel like I have to do it. I try to keep real soloing projects to myself just so that if I don’t want to do them, I don’t feel like I’m letting anyone down.”
While in Joshua Tree, however, he sings an altered tune.
“You get a certain amount of exposure and so then you feel like you ought to live up to that,” he says. “You’re like, ‘all these people think I’m amazing, therefore, I probably should at least try to be amazing.’”
Trying to be amazing all the time can be exhausting though, particularly when he’s just out on a normal day with nothing special planned. People flock to him, they enthusiastically shake his hand, say, “What’s up dude!” as if they were old friends reuniting for the first time in years. He’s always in some form of spotlight. Honnold appreciates the fans, but it’s their expectations that can sometimes grow tiresome.
“Especially on days like today when I’m totally sick, and then you have people watch you expecting to see something amazing and you’re like, ‘Dude, I’m just going climbing like everybody else, and sometimes I totally blow.’”
It’s a small price to pay, however, for getting to do what he loves as a profession. He’ll spend the next week climbing here in Joshua Tree before being flown down to Mexico by one of his sponsors, The North Face, and then he’s heading off to winter in Bishop, California. He’s been flown all over the world to climb, including the desolate deserts of Chad and to report on the climbing scene in Poland. He’s put up new routes in some of the most aesthetically beautiful places on earth.
Sitting on a Quartzite boulder in the sundrenched Joshua Tree National Park, shaded by Father Figure, the route he just climbed, Honnold looks wistful reflecting on a life defined by bold pursuits on rock walls that call into question the existence of gravity. It’s the first time he’s animated while on the topic of climbing.
“Just the fact that I can be happy going out climbing like 300 days a year and still want to go out for more…” He nods to himself and grins, “For sure, climbing is more fun than anything else I’ve ever done.”