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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