The Heart-Stopping Climbs of Alex Honnold

THE NEW YORK TIMES

By Daniel Duane

03.12.2015

Fifteen miles outside Yosemite Valley, a beeping iPhone alarm awakened Alex Honnold at 4 a.m. in the white Ford Econoline van that he has called home for the last seven years. Honnold, who is 29 and one of the two or three best rock climbers on earth, sat up on his cheap foam mattress and switched on his headlamp in the darkness. The nearby Merced River made a soft rushing sound, and crickets hummed in the grass in the dry heat of June. Honnold rolled back his van’s sliding side door to greet his ponytailed friend David Allfrey, who was also 29, emerging just then from an old VW camper van parked 10 feet away.

Honnold could afford to buy a decent home, if that interested him. But living in a van — a custom-outfitted van, in his case, with a kitchenette and cabinets full of energy bars and climbing equipment — represents freedom. It also represents a commitment to the nomadic climber’s ideal of the “dirtbag,” the purist so devoted to climbing that he avoids any entanglement that might interfere, stretching every penny from one climbing area to the next. Honnold, who graduated from high school with a 4.6 grade-point average and who has big ears and wide-set brown eyes — “cow eyes,” his mother calls them — has been the king of the dirtbags for the last decade. When he’s not climbing overseas in places like Patagonia, France or Morocco, he lives an endless road trip through the Southwestern desert, Yosemite Valley, British Columbia and points between. Along the way, he has turned himself into the greatest living free-soloist, meaning that he climbs without ropes, alone.

 
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The Calculus of Climbing at the Edge

The New york times

By Alex Honnold

11.19.2014

Seven years ago, when I started free soloing long, hard routes in Yosemite — climbing without a rope, gear or a partner — I did it because it seemed like the purest, most elegant way to scale big walls. Climbing, especially soloing, felt like a grand adventure, but I never dreamed it could be a profession. However, over the years sponsors came to me one by one. I assumed that they wanted me to represent their companies because they supported what I was doing.

So it came as a shock last week when I came off a four-day climb of El Capitan in Yosemite to learn that Clif Bar, which had sponsored me for four years, had fired me along with four other well-known climbers: Dean Potter, Steph Davis, Cedar Wright and Timmy O’Neill. What was going on? Was Clif Bar terminating its sponsorship because I was doing exactly what I thought it had signed me up for in the first place?

Within the climbing world, we are all known for taking risks in one form or another. Our careers as climbers have been shaped by free soloing. Dean Potter and Steph Davis have taken the game much further with BASE jumping and wingsuit flying — parachuting off cliffs — but at heart they are still rock climbers who are inspired by the mountains. The fact that the adventures that we seek out are dangerous is part of what makes them interesting to the public and to sponsors.

 

Fearless ‘Solo’ Climber Scales Daunting Peaks Without Ropes

Nightline ABC

The mountain is Mexico’s El Sendero Luminoso, “The Shining Path.” That guy in the red shirt climbing the rock wall, without a rope, safety equipment or even a helmet, is Alex Honnold.

During his solo climb in January, the 28-year-old extreme free climber made it 2,500 feet up to the summit of El Sendero Luminoso in little over three hours, his life suspended by just a few toes and fingertips, and incredible concentration.

“Generally, when you’re soloing you’re just so focused on what you’re doing or you’re just sort of empty and you’re just executing what you have to do,” Honnold said.

Honnold is easily regarded as perhaps the world’s best mountain climber. He holds a number of speed records for climbing sheer faces in Yosemite without ropes. But surprisingly, Honnold is pretty mellow, especially for a guy who has to constantly talk about fear, danger and death – all topics he would rather avoid.

“All the soloing I do without a rope, it looks crazy, like, ‘oh wow, you’re on the edge of a cliff. But seeing a photo like that doesn’t give any indication of how likely I am to fall off,” he said. “It just shows that if I did fall off it would be a disaster.”

 

Alex Honnold: Rock Climbing's Rising Star

KQED Radio

Hosted by Dave Iverson

Rock climber Alex Honnold has scaled some of the world's toughest mountains, and he's done it without a rope or harness. The Sacramento native and former UC Berkeley engineering student earned international renown for climbing one of the steepest parts of Yosemite's Half Dome in world record time — 82 minutes — and later won Climbing Magazine's "Golden Piton," one of the sport's highest honors. Honnold joins us to talk about tackling some of the world's scariest climbs, and his plans to scale one of the world's tallest buildings in Taiwan.

 

Alex Honnold: Inside The Life Of The World's Most Extreme Climber

Men's Fitness

By Josh Dean

Imagine if the prevailing narrative about your life was that you were professionally suicidal, that the thing you’d dedicated yourself to doing—and loved more than anything else—was going to kill you, perhaps soon, and that it definitely wasn’t a matter of if but when. That’s basically what it’s like to be Alex Honnold, a 28-year-old rock climber whose fate is exacerbated by the fact that he’s really the first climber to rise from the margins of this lonely fringe sport to become a “kind of” celebrity.

Honnold will readily admit that he’s not the strongest or most technically gifted rock climber in the world, but he happens to be extremely competent and cool-headed. He has, according to mountaineering veteran Conrad Anker, “really strong hands,” but it’s a steel-trap mind that sets him apart. An ability to subsume fear is a quality that all climbers must possess, Anker notes, but “Alex is off the charts.” This enables Honnold to climb in a way that most people, professionals included, think is sort of crazy—that is, without ropes or other climbing aids. It’s known as “freesoloing” and is a pursuit attempted by only a very tiny group of humans, especially when it’s done on the kinds of towering rock faces where you tend to find Honnold, plodding along as calmly as if he were 10 feet off the ground.

Honnold has been famous in the climbing community since 2007, when accounts of free-solos in Yosemite National Park signaled his from-nowhere arrival as a rare talent, but the myth went mainstream in October of 2011, when CBS’ 60 Minutes brought his story to the millions of American homes that didn’t follow niche adventure sports. Honnold’s climbs are “so remarkable that it defies belief,” CBS correspondent Lara Logan said, before sprinkling on some breathless melodrama: “The penalty for error is certain death.”

Honnold politely disagrees. His view is that he has every intention of living to a ripe old age, and so he only free-solos routes he’s certain he can handle. The one he did for 60 Minutes—up the face of the iconic, 1,600-foot Sentinel in Yosemite National Park—“is not that hard.” The way Honnold sees it, he climbed that route numerous times with ropes and never fell, so why should it be any different once the rope is taken away?

“Is he crazy? Is what he’s doing unsafe?” asks Hans Florine, an experienced climber who, with Honnold as his partner, shattered the speed record for the 2,900-foot ascent of the famed Nose route of Yosemite’s El Capitan in 2012. (They used safety equipment, but only a bare minimum.) “I say this: When your dad gets on the ladder to put up Christmas lights, is he crazy? That’s the same with Alex.”

 

National Geographic

January 2014

By Mark Synnott
Photograph by Jimmy Chin

“Do you mind if I look around?” Alex asks the villagers.

We’re standing with a group of fishermen in front of a small mosque in northern Oman. A row of whitewashed buildings lines the pebbly beach. Behind the village rises a sheer 3,000-foot cliff that shimmers under a blistering midday sun.

“You can do as you please,” says Taha Abdullah Saif Althouri, speaking for the group.

There are no roads in the village, which lies at the head of a deep fjordlike waterway on the remote Musandam Peninsula. The only way to get here is by boat, which is how we arrived.

Jutting deep into the world’s busiest oil shipping channel, the peninsula lies only 24 miles from Iran and is one of the most strategic military locations in the world. Yet for centuries the peninsula was inaccessible, little known, and seldom visited by outsiders. The sultanate created a Ministry of Tourism in 2004 hoping to stimulate the economy, but so far it has had little effect in the region.

As Alex wanders off, we explain to the fishermen that we’re professional rock climbers on an exploratory visit. The men, dressed in white and tan dishdashas, puff on their pipes and nod. The mountainous peninsula on which they live is an intricate maze of bays and fjords, called khors. Few climbers have ever touched its sheer limestone cliffs. We had learned of the area’s potential from some British climbers who visited in 2005.

There are six of us on our team, including two of the best young climbers in the world, Alex Honnold and Hazel Findlay. Alex, a 28-year-old from Sacramento, California, made headlines in 2008 when he scaled the 2,000-foot northwest face of Half Dome in Yosemite without a rope. Hazel, 24, who grew up climbing in Wales, in 2011 became the first British woman to free climb the 3,000-foot wall on Yosemite’s El Capitan.

Taha tells us that this village, known as Sibi, is home to about a dozen families that all share the same last name, Althouri. Besides fishing, they make their living primarily as goat herders.

Suddenly one of the men stops in his tracks, points up at the towering cliff, and starts shouting. A thousand feet above us Alex is climbing, antlike, up the rock wall. The Althouris are beside themselves.

“What are they saying?” I ask our translator.

“It’s hard to explain,” he replies. “But essentially, they think Alex is a witch.”

 

Alex Honnold Isn't Afraid Of Skyscrapers

Outside Magazine: November 17, 2013

By Grayson Schaffer

In October of 2012, Alex Honnold, 28, and filmmaker Peter Mortimer, 39, were talking about making a new kind of climbing film: one that featured Honnold scaling an immense skyscraper. "We thought, Wouldn't that be a rad next thing to do," recalls Mortimer, a founder of the production company Sender Films, "soloing a big building?" Then Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner leaped from the edge of space in a Red Bull spacesuit on live television, and the pair got a better idea. They started discreetly calling networks with a bold plan: Honnold wanted to free-solo—climb without ropes—the exterior of one of the world's great skyscrapers on live TV. The National Geographic Channel bit, and in July, the station announced that Honnold would scale what turned out to be the 1,667-foot Taipei 101, in Taiwan. The climb, originally scheduled for November, was delayed, so the team could shore up the details, and is now set to take place in 2014.

The plan is to follow a routine that Honnold and Mortimer honed in Yosemite National Park: Honnold will start from the ground with little more than his climbing shoes and a chalk bag. Meanwhile, Mortimer, Sender cofounder Nick Rosen, and a team of top cameramen and riggers from the climbing world will track his progress while ascending ropes using mechanical jumars. All of which they hope will translate into a ratings bonanza. "You say it in a sentence on the elevator and someone gets it," says Mortimer.

Honnold is the biggest name among a group of adventure athletes engaging in high-risk live action-sports spectacles that seem pulled from the Evel Knievel playbook. First came Baumgartner's Stratos leap. Then, last June, highwire walker Nik Wallenda crossed a quarter-mile cable strung over the Little Colorado River while 13 million people tuned in on the Discovery Channel, setting a 13-year ratings high. In September, BASE jumper Miles Daisher announced that he'd try to complete Knievel's failed motorcycle jump over the Snake River Canyon. Meanwhile, "Sketchy" Andy Lewis—the slackliner who made his name performingin a toga during Madonna's 2012 Super Bowl halftime show—announced plans to walk a 360-foot line strung between two towers of Las Vegas's Mandalay Bay resort.

In many ways, these projects represent a return to an old form of entertainment. "This idea of doing spectacular stunts goes back to the age of the circus," says Syracuse University communications professor Robert Thompson. "And it's pretty consistent with the needs of contemporary digital media." In an era of diminished ratings and fractured attention spans, what could be more compelling than an athletic feat accentuated by the very real prospect of televised tragedy? "When you get someone who's really pushing the absolute limits of human capability, that taps into something very aspirational in our viewers," says Discovery executive producer Howard Schwartz, who was behind the Wallenda walk. "And, to be completely frank, there's will-he-or-won't-he-make-it appeal."

 
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The World’s Most Famous Climber Pushes The Limits In Yosemite

Outside Magazine: JANUARY 4, 2013 

By Joe Spring

In less than a month, during the spring climbing season in Yosemite, Alex Honnold notched more impressive, big wall speed feats than most elite climbers will capture in their careers. On May 19, he and Tommy Caldwell finished the first free ascent of Yosemite’s three biggest walls in less than 24 hours. On June 6, he soloed the park’s three biggest walls in less than 24 hours—climbing mostly without a rope. On Sunday June 17, he paired up with Hans Florine to set a new speed record up the Nose of El Capitan, scaling the famous 2,900-foot face in 2:23:51, breaking the previous record by roughly 13 minutes.

The solo was Honnold’s biggest moment. He linked up Mount Watkins, El Capitan, and Half Dome, roughly 7,000 feet of climbing, in 18 hours and 50 minutes. Expert climbers might take several days to copy the feat in teams. Dean Potter and Timmy O’Neill first completed the route in 2001, but as Outside’s Adam Roy wrote earlier in the year, they aided their way through difficult sections, using gear to support their weight rather than pulling on holds. The route had been dubbed The Triple Crown, but Honnold preferred another name. “I’ve always just called it the Triple,” he said.

Honnold began his climb around 4 p.m. on June 5. About halfway up the roughly 2000-foot Mount Watkins, wingless insects called silverfish swarmed his ears, mouth, and neck while he held on to the rock with his fingertips. “It was heinous,” he told The New York Times. “At any given point I had dozens of them on me. But what are you going to do?”

He free-soloed—climbing alone without a rope—roughly 95 percent of the time, continuing up through the night. “Not scary, just lonely,” he said.

He finished around 11 a.m. on June 6. On the way down from the climb, on a path toward pizza, he took some time for reflection. “It was kind of hardcore,” he told an interviewer from The North Face. “It was probably more hardcore than the other one.” He was referring to the Triple he had completed with Tommy Caldwell roughly two weeks earlier. The interviewer asked him to explain what he meant by hardcore. “Well, just the fact that if you fall off most of it, you will die,” he said. “It makes it more exciting.”

 
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Solo Climber Reaches New Heights

New York Times: June 15, 2012

By Tim Neville

As a professional rock climber who often scales cliffs with nothing to save him should he fall, Alex Honnold has encountered plenty of harrowing moments. But early this month Honnold, a 26-year-old from Sacramento, found himself high on a face in Yosemite National Park in a creepy situation.

Alex Honnold in Oregon in 2010. The triple is perhaps Yosemite’s most spectacular enchainment, or “link-up” in climber lingo, and only a handful of people in the world — if that many — are capable of doing it in a day.

Honnold was attempting something no one had done before: climb the three biggest rock faces in the California park in succession, alone, and in less than 24 hours. Dubbed the triple, the task would mean scaling the sheer walls of Mount Watkins, El Capitan and Half Dome for a total of about 7,000 vertical feet of rock. For all but about 500 feet of it, Honnold planned to climb with no ropes or safety equipment at all. One mistake and he could die.

“There is nothing in sports that compares to this,” said John Long, who in 1975 was the first to scale El Capitan in a day with his partners Billy Westbay and Jim Bridwell. (Most people need about five days). “The physical exertion alone is amazing.”

Yet about halfway up the 2,000-foot-high south face of Mount Watkins, the first of the three big walls, Honnold faced another problem. Hordes of wingless insects called silverfish poured down the rock in biblical proportions. There Honnold was, dangling by his fingertips, with inch-long arthropods wiggling into his ears, tickling his neck and probing his mouth with wispy antennae.

“It was heinous,” he said. “At any given point I had dozens of them on me. But what are you going to do?”

The swarm hardly slowed him. By the time Honnold reached safe ground, he had climbed the route in a blistering 2 hours 20 minutes, believed to be a record. Most parties need several days.

The encounter with the silverfish was the latest twist for Honnold, whose feats over the past few years have made him the country’s most renowned rock climber. He has been featured on 60 Minutes, pictured on the cover of National Geographic magazine, and now earns six figures a year from speaking engagements and sponsors like The North Face, La Sportiva and Black Diamond. Honnold has become the closest thing to a celebrity that American rock climbing offers, with fawning fans who rush in to take pictures and get autographs.

Honnold invited me to shadow him for a week in the park. Together with Sender Films, a Boulder, Colo.-based production company that specializes in rock climbing videos, we would have exclusive behind-the-scenes access to what many observers said could be a milestone in the history of climbing in Yosemite, a major epicenter where the elite come to push the bounds of their sport.