He’s the world’s most famous climber, yet when he was younger he found talking to a stranger scarier than scaling high cliffs alone, with no rope. That’s how he learnt to overcome his fear and take rock climbing’s scariest offshoot, free soloing – literally climbing alone, with no rope – to panic-inducing heights.
The sheer granite monolith of El Cap towers 3200ft above the valley floor in Yosemite National Park. The World’s most impressive vertical rock face repelled all attempts to free climb the main wall (using ropes) until 1998 when Todd Skinner and Paul Piana spent 9 days on the wall, sleeping on portaledges before reaching the summit. Free soloists, like Alex Honnold, are able to move as nature intended, unencumbered by ropes and equipment, but weighed down by the knowledge of certain death should they suffer the smallest slip of a foot, or their mental focus.
Despite making history by being the first and only human to free solo up El Cap, taking the Freerider route, 1,000m of hard climbing, including a boulder problem featuring a ‘karate kick’, a slab with rounded rock rather than footholds, and a crack you have to push your whole body into, Honnold doesn’t think that makes him brave – he does it because he loves it.
The kind of drive it takes to achieve a generation-defining dream like that can be seen in how Honnold celebrated topping out after free soloing Freerider. He walked down off the back of the mountain to the van he was living out of and did a fingerboard training session, because he didn’t want to miss a workout!
RSNG caught up with him to find out how he pushes the edge without actually finding it, what tips he has for aspiring roped climbers, and why being alone and exposed, high up on a cliff brings him joy…
RSNG Describe the sensation of being in the zone while climbing free solo (without a rope)? Did it happen on Freerider?
ALEX HONNOLD, ATHLETE ‘It’s hard to describe, but I guess being in the zone just feels like being extremely focused. And it definitely happened on Freerider it’s probably the most “in the zone” that I’ve ever been.’
‘I think that bravery involves some degree of overcoming unelected fear, like running into a burning building’
RSNG Ultimately, what is the appeal of free soloing hard routes? What is it about the experience that’s makes it so compelling for you?
AH ‘Free soloing can be quite fun and fast, the actual sensations of climbing are sometimes more pleasant than when you’re dragging a rope and gear behind you. But I think that really what I love is the test of mastery – I like climbing to feel serious sometimes and require the best of me.’
RSNG How hard is it to stay focused when you’ve just made it through the crux or a section you’ve been thinking about a lot – for instance the karate kick boulder move? Does relief ever start to overtake intensity?
AH ‘Yeah, in the case of the boulder problem I definitely switched into a celebratory mode as soon as I grabbed the finishing hold. But that’s because I could – on easy climbing I don’t need to be as focused, I can relax and enjoy. So as soon as I got to the easy climbing my mind relaxed. I think that I typically give the level of focus that’s required.’
RSNG How would you define bravery, or courage?
AH ‘I would define them as overcoming fear, but in order to do what’s required of you. I think there’s an important distinction with free soloing, which I wouldn’t really consider brave or courageous. I free solo for my own pleasure, so even though it can sometimes be scary it’s still something that I willingly choose.’
‘I think that bravery involves some degree of overcoming unelected fear, like running into a burning building to rescue someone. Presumably no one wants to run into the building, but with enough courage they can force themselves to do the right thing and assist someone in need.’
RSNG Would you say that facing and moving through fear methodically, by repeatedly working hard moves, or being in scary situations, helps you to build courage?
AH ‘Well it definitely helps you deal with your fear. And it probably helps you to summon courage when you need it, just because you have so much experience being afraid.
RSNG In Free Solo, the film of your Freerider ascent, we see you start to really enjoy the experience and share it with the cinematographers as you climb – how important was that?
AH ‘Having a good climbing experience was probably just as important to me as actually doing the climb. Or maybe not quite as important, because I really, really wanted to do the climb, but still very important to me. I climb for my own pleasure, so if it’s not fun there’s really no point.’
RSNG Were you glad your friends were able to record it for you, and what were their own challenges?
AH ‘They had many challenges, ranging from the obvious – hiking to the top of El Cap with 50lb bags full of camera gear and ropes and equipment – to the more subtle – the psychological stress of filming a friend doing something that could potentially kill him. I think the whole film was a trying process for them as well. But I was glad to share it with them. The crew are all close friends and the whole process was made easier by their presence.’
‘Being surrounded by nothing but air really captures my imagination’
RSNG What’s the most misunderstood part of free soloing, from your perspective?
AH ‘The levity of it. The fun. The joy in the movement. Everyone asks about fear and death, which is understandable, but I free solo because I love it. It makes me happy. It’s fun. It’s not always a dialogue with death – it’s more like a playful way to move freely through the mountains.’
RSNG What were the parts of Freerider that made you the most nervous before the successful attempt?
AH ‘Basically all the sections that are highlighted in the film – the Boulder Problem, the Freeblast slabs, and the Enduro Corner.’
RSNG Your ankle recovered amazingly quickly after you sprained it on the slab pitch preparing for Freerider – how difficult was it to rebuild your confidence as fast?
AH ‘That’s a good question – it actually did take me longer to have full confidence in my ankle than it did to physically heal. And actually I was a little bit afraid to fall with a rope on for a while after the injury as well, which made it difficult to train properly since I wasn’t pushing myself to failure. But my confidence returned with time, I just had to know that I was fully healed and that I didn’t run the risk of re-injuring myself.’
RSNG How do you keep from getting pumped out on a long, very technical free solo like Freerider, which you climbed very quickly? The strength endurance demands must be massive?
AH ‘I think it’s all just what you train for. I probably can’t run a sub 3 hour marathon, but after 20 plus years of practice, I can easily climb at a high level for 3 hours. Yes, there are strength and endurance demands, but they aren’t any more outrageous than any other elite sporting performance.’
‘I wasn’t trying to climb fast, the speed of the ascent was more like a byproduct of the style of my ascent. By free soloing I didn’t have to wait for a partner and I didn’t have any extra weight from a rope or gear hanging off of me. While it doesn’t seem like much, that reduction of weight adds up over 3,000ft of climbing. So in a lot of ways I was less pumped on the actual free solo than I had been during all of my training – it all went so smoothly and easily.’
RSNG You’ve had a couple of injury scares, not least a twisted ankle just weeks before Freerider – how close were you to writing the attempt off for another season at that point?
AH ‘Well I almost did skip that season. I spent maybe 6 weeks mostly rehabbing my ankle but the weather in Yosemite stayed good so I wound up having time to work on the climb anyway. But ultimately I had to wait until the next season to be totally recovered.’
RSNG I was interested to read about your brain scan – it left me wondering if your amygdala used to get more fired up but you’ve effectively trained it to be less active, because it would endanger you in exposed situations – do you think this may be true?
AH ‘I think that I’ve trained it to be less active over time. I used to be pretty scared on climbs that now I consider completely trivial – clearly 15 years of climbing outside has had an impact on me. And there’s maybe an even more pronounced difference in my reaction to public speaking. As a child I couldn’t speak in front of any kind of group, or really talk to strangers at all, yet now as an adult I can calmly speak in front of any kind of group.
RSNG When it comes to committing to a hard free solo, what are the factors that affect your decision on whether to go or not?
AH ‘Basically it comes down to how confident I am that I won’t fall off. I don’t want to die any more than anyone else – if I think that there’s a risk of my death then I don’t go…’
RSNG Does the exposure of a climbing move that’s seemingly out into the void get to you, or do you seek out those ‘miles above nothing’ moments?
AH ‘I love the exposure, it’s a big part of what I love about climbing with or without a rope. Being surrounded by nothing but air really captures my imagination. It’s probably one of the best parts of free soloing to me.’
RSNG You’re not one to rest on your laurels. Did you really do a fingerboard session in your van after Freerider and what is it that drives you on to keep continually improving?
AH ‘Haha, it’s true that I did a hangboard session that afternoon. I’d been on an every-other-day training program and it had worked really well for me – I didn’t want to give that up just because I’d succeeded on one climb. The idea of continually improving is maybe even more satisfying than any particular climb.’
RSNG Do you think people misunderstand feats like your ascent of Freerider in that they are the product of years spent mastering climbing techniques?
AH ‘I think the film does a great job of showing how much preparation and training went into the ascent ,so hopefully that will help with the common misperception that I just wandered up to a huge rock and decided to climb up it. For me at least, free soloing is very much an expression of mastery, both of the climb and of myself. But it doesn’t matter too much to me whether the general public understands that or not – their understanding doesn’t effect my experience either way...’
RSNG How important has nutrition been to high performance for you?
AH ‘Not as important as it seems to be to some athletes, though I’m putting more thought and effort into is as I get older (which seems like a common trend). And to be fair I’ve always eaten fairly well. But I think that for me personally nutrition only helps squeeze a few extra % of performance out. I think that diet helps me the most with recovery and avoiding illness – the subtle things that don’t necessarily make you big and strong but allow you to spend more time doing the things (training) that do make you strong.’
RSNG What would be your top three tips for people to improve their outdoor lead climbing?
AH ‘Interesting question. Work on their footwork, make sure they aren’t afraid to fall (make sure that fear isn’t holding back their lead performance), and maybe just make sure that they’re good at placing gear or making clips. Clipping seems silly but it really helps confidence when you know that the rope will go into a carabiner instantly.’
‘The best way to work through plateaus is to identify your weaknesses and work on them’
RSNG And if you were to give intermediate climbers one tip on how to improve their physical climbing technique, and push through a plateau, what would that be?
AH ‘I always tell beginners to focus on their footwork and technique – I think it’s important for people to master the fundamentals of movement and to move smoothly on the wall. For intermediate climbers, strength and fitness start to factor into performance more, so advice should start to get a little more individualised. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, I guess the best way to work through plateaus is to identify your weaknesses and work on them.’
RSNG What’s next for you – do you have any climbing goals for the upcoming season?
AH ‘I’m hopefully going to be in Yosemite for all of May, possibly to do some more climbing on El Cap (with a rope)... I always have more climbing goals, though I doubt any of them will ever rival free soloing El Cap for me. It’s hard to know. But I’ve been putting more energy into the Honnold Foundation and our efforts to support solar projects around the world. And I’m trying to maintain a healthy relationship with my girlfriend. So basically the same things as everyone else – balancing work and family and play. We’ll see how it goes...’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the trailer for Free Solo, directed by Jimmy Chin and starring Alex Honnold.
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.
Follow the author on Instagram @The_Adventure_Fella