Alex Honnold shows grace under pressure as a free-solo climber |

Alex Honnold shows grace under pressure as a free-solo climber

Interview by Phil Lindeman
Alex Honnold, 32, is the only climber ever to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite.
Ted Hesser / Courtesy of the North Face |

At just 32 (his birthday was last month), Alex Honnold has established himself as the Mozart of free solo climbing. For the uninitiated, that means Honnold works his way up intimidating cliff faces with nothing more than sticky rubber shoes and a chalk bag. He is the picture of Hemingway’s notion of courage. Whether it’s scaling big walls in Africa or becoming the first climber to ever conquer Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes, Honnold always exhibits grace under pressure. The fearless athlete’s next challenge? Public speaking, of course.

Honnold, along with members of The North Face Athlete team, will visit Breckenridge to share a collection of films and dish on their exploits. The event, called “From The Field,” begins at 7 p.m. on Monday, September 11 at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge, and will give the audience a chance to experience the Gurung tribe of Nepal through the lens of Renan Ozturk and Ben Knight, life on the trail with endurance runners, and the most breath-taking ski lines from British Columbia to the Baltic Sea. Speakers will include ultrarunner Clare Gallagher, fresh off a 100K victory in Chamonix, France, as well as climber Emily Harrington and Cedar Wright.

The North Face Store in Breckenridge would like to invite you to a special VIP meet and greet before the show at the store at 322 S Main St, Breckenridge. There is limited space for this event and tickets are only available for in store purchase to support the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center. The event will start at 5 p.m. and end at 6:30 p.m.

Proceeds from the event are going to support Colorado adaptive sports programs: the BOEC and Paradox Sports. The Weekender caught up with Honnold last month, just before his August 17 birthday.

Summit Daily News: Your birthday is right around the corner. First off, happy early birthday. Any plans to go climbing that day, or is that the one day a year you try to do something different?

Alex Honnold: No, unfortunately I’m spending my whole birthday flying to London for an event. That’s just the way things work. I’ve never been a big birthday person though. I spend just about every day doing what I love so I try not to stress it.

SDN: If you were into celebrating, what’s the perfect birthday look like?

AH: Last year, my girlfriend and I were climbing near our home, and the year before then I was at a sport crag with one of my homeless climbing friends. The thing is, I spend five or six days a week out climbing, so if I’m on a wall it doesn’t feel like a special birthday.

SDN: You made global news earlier this summer with the first free-solo ascent of El Capitan. How long was that route on your bucket list?

AH: A long time. I’ve been thinking about it since 2008 and I’ve been dreaming about it since 2012. In the last year and a half I started planning. When I’m planning, there’s the mental side and the physical side. Part of it is the vision — believing it’s possible, that I can actually do it — and then the other mental side was memorizing the moves. The physical side is just being fit enough to execute the moves the right way, every time. I don’t even get on a rock until I’m 100 percent certain I can do it.

SDN: Talk me through the process: When you were planning the attempt, what did you expect to be the trickiest part of the route?

AH: There are two main things. There’s the crux of the route, which are the hardest moves, obviously. I knew that would be the hardest part, just by definition, but lower on the route there are 150 feet of slabs — low-angle climbing that even though it’s not rated hard, it’s super-insecure. It’s like walking up a polished mirror, and that (section) had always been a big mental block. It’s physically easy to do, but when you get on there it still feels like you’re going to fall off. It just feels so insecure.

SDN: How about when you were actually on the wall: Were the hard sections hard and the easy sections easy, or did you have some surprises?

AH: Everything went perfectly according to plan. In some ways, I over-prepared for it. The feature documentary we filmed, that required me — forced me — to spend more time dialing everything in. As a result of that, it was perfect by the time I did. In my life, there have been routes I’ve done that I’m not totally sure about, but I wanted those to be an adventure, a time to rise to the occasion. El Cap was not like that. It was more rehearsed, more deliberate.

SDN: You’ve done plenty of filming over the years. What kind of distractions or other elements does a film crew add?

AH: It’s a big of a distraction, or at least it complicates the process. There are more moving parts, but at the same time it can be helpful because you have people there to literally help you. On El Cap, the film crew stashed water and food for me — I could have done that a few days before when I was repelling the route — and I figured as long as they were there, I would use them and that really helped. I was using a lot of rope to rehearse ahead of time, so it was nice to have people help carry rope and equipment.

It also made the experience nicer. If it had of been just me by myself, I might have been tempted to go for it a little early, but when I knew people would be watching I wanted to be perfect. That made it more deeply satisfying for me, like a moment of greatness, rather than thinking, “Oh my god, I got away with it.”

SDN: What’s the definition of a perfect wall for you — your Zen place?

AH: El Cap is pretty close. Walls in Yosemite are some of the most comfortable I’ve been on, climbing big, granite cracks. Those are the most Zen for me.

SDN: I’ve interviewed Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to summit Everest, and he relies on a team to not only be his eyes, but also to just be there with him. It’s his lifeline. Do you agree, or do you prefer climbing without a huge team?

AH: It has its ups and downs. For sure when I summited El Cap, I was happy to have my friends with me. It felt good that they had been involved in the process

SDN: What friends were out there on the wall with you?

AH: Jimmy Chin was directing the film (and) we’ve traveled together plenty with The North Face. The filmers have spent lots of time with me, and then Sam Crossly, who is a climbing filmmaker. He’s a longtime friend. It was just really cool to have everyone up there.

SDN: Was El Capitan always the big “white whale” of your career, or are there other, lesser-known walls you still haven’t climbed that might be more intimidating?

AH: No, I’ve actually worked through those on the way to El Cap. Maybe four years ago I had a list of four routes, and El Cap was the biggest and hardest of them. I’m now done with that, so I’m looking to start some new lists.

SDN: Have you started the new lists yet?

AH: No, not really. It’s a little too soon. I haven’t really satisfied any sponsor obligations in the past year, so now I have to do some work. It’s time to repay favors, get some stuff done (…) make some money, do some events — all of that.

SDN: After the El Capitan attempt, the headlines were bombastic: “Most dangerous route ever,” “most dangerous rope-free climb,” more “most dangerous” talk. As the person who did it, do you agree?

AH: No, I wouldn’t say it’s the most dangerous thing ever. It’s interesting… (pause). I’m not going to apply any superlatives, but certainly in my mind I built it up as the most inspiring, most crazy thing to think about. But after having thought about it for so long, and then doing it, I can’t really say it’s the wildest thing ever. I still dreamed of it that way and it’s still an amazing route, but anyone who sees that wall can appreciate what it means. I would hope that the wall speaks for itself. It’s the most athletic wall in the world and that’s something.

SDN: Other than events and talks and sponsor obligations, what else is on your calendar this summer?

AH: Focus on climbing harder grades, (the) physical training. Part of the process of climbing El Cap had me doing so much volume that I was too tired to train the intensity for hard sport (climbing) stuff. Now, I hope to catch up on that.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.

Now more than ever, your financial support is critical to help us keep our communities informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having on our residents and businesses. Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.

Your donation will be used exclusively to support quality, local journalism.

For tax deductible donations, click here.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User