Alex Honnold on Expertise, Night Swimming, and What Worries Him the Most
By now everyone knows that Alex Honnold is the best free-solo climber in the world.
We know he scaled Yosemite’s Half Dome (VI 5.12b) alone and without a rope. We’ve seen him on the cover of National Geographic, Outside, on 60 Minutes, and in a Citibank commercial that ran way too many times.
We’ve also heard of other groundbreaking climbs, like his free-solo of Zion’s Moonlight Buttress (5.12d) and his so-called “Triple” linkup (Mt. Watkins, Half Dome and El Capitan) in Yosemite, which he did twice—once all free with Tommy Caldwell and later, by himself.
But what most people don’t know about are the every-day climbs, solos, and adventures that, over nearly two decades, have made Honnold who he is. So forget what you think you know about Alex and why he’s such a big deal. Here’s the real story behind climbing’s biggest badass.
I interviewed Honnold in Las Vegas, where I had just crushed him in a game of pool. My wife and a few friends were at our place with drinks and loud techno, so Alex and I snuck upstairs to a quiet room. He immediately threw a foam roller on the floor and began massaging his legs.
“At what point did you know that climbing is what you wanted to do?” I began.
“Awwww God,” he said. “It’s hard to take this seriously with you. I already did this, like, twice today with different journalists.”
Fair enough. After all, Alex and I have been friends and climbing partners since 2007, back when he was a no-name kid without a single sponsor.
“I started climbing in the gym when I was 11 years old …” he said, as if for the thousandth time (it probably was). Then he cut himself off and quipped, “Dude, I’ve never wanted to do anything more than climbing, so I just keep climbing all the time.” Alex, now 29 years old, lives in a highly customized white, Ford E150 van, complete with propane stove and ample storage for gear. And he really does climb all the time.
“But I think people misunderstand it in a lot of ways,” he said, more seriously. “People see me and they’re like, ‘He’s just some young kid trying to kill himself.’ They don’t appreciate the amount of time and effort that go into attempting to master something. I’ve been climbing for 18 years. I frickin’ work hard at it. I train hard, and I’ve taken it seriously for a long time. It’s not exactly like, ‘Uhhh, I’ll just see how it goes.’ I think people, in general, misunderstand expertise.”
Even CLIF bar, a major supporter of Alex and his adventures with The North Face (like Sufferfest 2 with Cedar Wright), seems to misunderstand. In a surprising announcement last November, Clif bar fired Alex and four other athletes (including Cedar) claiming, basically, they didn’t feel good about benefiting from free-soloing, highlining and BASE jumping because it’s all too dangerous. A few of the athletes raised a big stink, but being dropped didn’t seem to faze Honnold. He penned an Op-Ed piece about it in the New York Times.
Jonathan Siegrist is a friend of Alex and one of only a few Americans to climb 5.15.
“Most people think Alex is some kind of lunatic,” Siegrist told me. “But his risks are extremely calculated. He’s one of the smartest dudes in the pro climbing world.”
Alex lay on his back to align the foam with his spine. It had been a typical Honnold “rest day” where he’d free-soloed two moderate, 1,000-foot routes in nearby Red Rock Canyon, just west of the city.
“It didn’t even feel like I was transitioning from hiking to climbing,” he said, retracing the steps of his day. “I hiked up the trail and then I kept hiking up the vertical part. It all feels the same, you know? I don’t think people appreciate that baseline.”
Alex has racked up so much baseline mileage at every climbing area where he’s spent significant time—Yosemite, Squamish, Red Rock, Tahoe, Jailhouse, Bishop, etc.—that he’s “ticked” more routes (up to 5.14c!) than most locals ever will.
And did you know that Alex has climbed in 33 different countries?
He spread his long arms out to the side and described two of his crazy, international escapades: one in Oman that ended with him swimming nearly a mile at night in the Arabian Sea toward the catamaran where the rest of his crew waited (“I mean, what else was I supposed to do?”). And the other in Jordan where he was stranded, at dusk, atop a sandstone big-wall he’d free-soloed [Spoiler alert: he survived].
I asked whether he recorded these climbs for posterity, but he said he didn’t bother. “I have random adventures like that from every expedition I’ve done,” he said. “By the time I got home I was on to the next thing.”
Things like the “Seven In Seven” on El Capitan, where he and Dave Allfrey climbed seven different routes in one week, most of them in record times. Or the seven El Cap routes he’s free-climbed in as many years. Or the ultra-endurance Fitz Traverse in Patagonia—the climb Alex says he’s most proud of. Next time you’re wearing your Patagonia sweater, take a look at the logo: you’ll understand the climb-scramble’s knife-tooth profile.
And, of course, his ropeless ascents. In 2014 Alex completed three of his most difficult, long free-solos to date (though not the hardest rated): El Sendero Luminoso (5.12d) in Mexico, Romantic Warrior (5.12b) in California and the University Wall (5.12a) in Squamish, Canada.
Alex stopped rolling and sat upright, as if to think harder.
“I’m also proud that I’ve basically been able to offset my existence,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people worry about that, but I do.”
He does this in part through his non-profit, the Honnold Foundation, which focuses on sustainable ways to improve people’s lives worldwide, like solar energy. He also lives an almost ascetic day-to-day life. Alex has been vegetarian for over two years; he avoids alcohol and caffeine; he has few possessions and he only orders clothes from his primary sponsor, The North Face, when his current outfit is so destroyed it’s no longer functional.
“Alex has values that he stands by: his diet, lifestyle—everything,” said Jon Glassberg, producer and filmmaker at Louder Than 11. “He doesn’t compromise himself. Ever. That’s a sign of greatness.”
This year Alex plans to climb in destinations like Patagonia, Yosemite, Australia, and Morocco. He will also release his memoir, Alone on the Wall, written with David Roberts, in November.
Perhaps most crucial to understanding Alex Honnold is what he said while sitting on the floor at the end of the interview, in his typical, understated way: “If I died tomorrow I wouldn’t have left the world a worse place, you know?”