Q&A: Alex Honnold, Simply "Pysched"
Alex Honnold competes in a sport more commonly covered by National Geographic than ESPN. Yet he's likely garnered more media attention than any other climber before him, for an obvious reason: He climbs giant, sheer walls (such as Half Dome and El Capitan) without using ropes or protection. It's called "free-solo," and it's the most dangerous kind of climbing. Photographed extensively by Jimmy Chin, fawned over by Lara Logan in a 60 Minutes special, and subject of an award-winning Peter Mortimer documentary — Honnold is the poster boy of The North Face, the rock star of Yosemite dirtbags, and the doe-eyed heartthrob to even the most callused climbers.
Last week, Honnold added yet another seemingly impossible achievement to his free-solo climbing resume, ascending 1,500-foot limestone wall of El Sendero Luminoso in El Potrero, Mexico. And though Alex "No Big Deal" Honnold might shrug it off as another awesome day of rock climbing, fellow Yosemite virtuoso Cedar Wright dubbed his effort, "one of the most cutting-edge, big-wall solos of all time."
Understated triumphs, simplicity, and humility: This is not just Honnold the climber, but Honnold the global humanitarian. His nonprofit initiative, Honnold Foundation, strives for succinct solutions in providing green energy to gridless populations. The foundation's mission: "Helping people live better, simply."
We met up with Alex at a Sacramento climbing gym back in November, the day after Thanksgiving. Topics included: graduating from "full dirtbag" to only "kind of dirtbag," planning his skyscraper climb in Taipei, his nonprofit foundation, and the surprising backstory behind an iconic photo.
In recent news, you've settled on climbing one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, Taipei 101, in Taiwan. When will you get to climb this behemoth?
The building is willing, and I'm psyched. The only holdup has been the TV networks, which I have nothing to do with, so we'll see how it plays out. We're just waiting for the pieces to come together.
I could've done it already except we're trying to do it all legit. To go and poach the building would be pretty poor form. It would be pretty discourteous to the building because they've been really nice about letting us scout it out, and putting us up in a nice hotel.
What climbing features would you expect to encounter, besides a lot of glass?
I've scouted the building twice, so I know exactly what the climbing feels like. Mostly big edges and pinches. And really cool roofs. It's a fun style in a really cool position. Hopefully I'll actually get the opportunity to climb it. It's crazy with TV how complicated everything is.
I take it you won't be climbing in the fashion of French climber Alain Robert, who often climbs skyscrapers illegally around the world.
He's poached a lot of buildings, yeah. And he's climbed Taipei 101 with a rope. It was raining, so he had to jumar big sections of it.
Are you going to be the first to climb this building free-solo?
If I get the opportunity, then yeah. Hopefully it'll come together.
Are you shifting your focus to scaling huge buildings?
No, I'm not shifting my focus. It's just a cool opportunity. This summer I went to Alaska and climbed these huge walls in the Ruth Gorge. I mean, I'll never be an alpinist. I'll never fantasize about being one. But Ruth was also a cool opportunity. It's the same kind of thing where I get to climb something different. And with the building stuff even more so because they're willing to pay me.
And this February I'm thinking about going to Patagonia for a month. [Alpinism] is not my true love, you know? But I think it'll be a cool trip. And I'm going with Tommy [Caldwell]. He's really, really good at that stuff so he's willing to teach you in a cool place. You can't pass that up.
Are there any other places you dream of traveling and climbing?
I've never been to New Zealand or Australia, never been to Southeast Asia, never really toured Italy. There are still a lot of places I've never been.
If you can think of one spot—
I really want to go to the Grampians in Australia, climb the Taipan Wall. It's supposed to be the best rock in the world. Super-hard sandstone.
Recently you went to the Middle East, too.
Oman, and the UAE I've been to twice this year.
Those places aren't known to be rock climbing destinations. Why so much travel in the Arabian Peninsula?
So, we scouted [skyscrapers to climb in] Dubai, which is why we went to the UAE twice this year. And then I also went to Oman this year — it was a National Geographic trip.
You were also in South Africa during the Yosemite closure and government shutdown. Could you describe what it was like, hearing this news abroad?
Reading the news from Africa was crazy. I was embarrassed for America. And trying to explain how our government works — or doesn't as the case may be — just made me sad. I wasn't even really that worried about climbing, because honestly there are tons of other places to climb, and I could use the break anyways. I was much more distressed that our government could be so ridiculously short-sighted and petty.
Are there other perks to being a world class climber besides getting to travel all over the world and climb?
I mean, that's basically the biggest perk, being able to travel and climb around the world. Making a living off of climbing is obviously a big perk because I actually get to save a little bit of money. The main thing is, I get to do what I love to do all the time.
"Saving money" — Does this mean you're done living every day off of Easy Mac and tuna?
Yeah. Well, I'm still into the simple eating, but a lot of that — I've just outgrown the taste. I used to shop at Walmart to get my 80-cent pasta dinners, and now I'd never go to Walmart, it's so gross.
So your tastes have changed.
Yeah my tastes have changed. That's kind of standard, you know? When you're "full dirtbag" and you're all young, you're just like, "I don't even care." But now I'm only kind of dirtbag, so I care a little more.
Ok, you're still "kind of dirtbag." How so?
I'm still living in a van, basically. I still live half a year out of a duffel bag in various towns, or living in tents and wherever else.
How does that differ from going "full dirtbag?"
Full-on dirtbag is if you're living in the dirt because you have to, because you have no money. I spent like 10 days in the Grand Hyatt in Taiwan this year — super swank hotel with a super swank spread of food — and I was there for work. It's not like I was paying for the Grand Hyatt. So it's not that dirtbag.
But then I go to South Africa where I'm living in the dirt. We climbed at this place called Blaauwberg, which is this big wall near the Zimbabwe border. It was like 100 degrees when we hiked up to the plateau, and then the next day this fog rolled in and it was like 40 degrees in fog for the next three days. And we were just in tents on this plain, in grim conditions. It was pretty gross. So I still get my adventures.
You recently hosted a lecture with Peter Croft. What do you learn from an older free-solo climber like Croft?
You don't learn that much in terms of climbing because the soloing — all of that is a personal journey. You learn at your own pace. Peter's inspiring. That was the biggest thing about hanging out with him and doing that [lecture]. Even though we both [accomplished] similar things, we both have a very different approach and mindset. We came from very different places, different generations.
Yeah, you came from the flatlands of Sacramento.
I came from the gym scene in Sacramento. And he came from the full mountain experience. And the gym scene didn't even exist when he started climbing.
How has Sacramento shaped you as a climber?
Certainly growing up near Lovers Leap, Yosemite and Bishop — that really informed some of my soloing technique. And then learning how to climb on granite and good cracks makes it more likely to learn how to solo. Whereas growing up in Barcelona surrounded by limestone sport climbing I'd be a fully different climber.
The thing about the gym setting is that you get super comfortable. The footwork, the technique, you get physically fit. Granite Arch [a climbing gym in Sacramento] has all those sculpted cracks, and I taught myself how to place gear and rope-solo and aid climb on those cracks. And then you take those skills outside. Obviously I still went through the learning curve outside, where I epic'd up a bunch of big 5.11's in the valley and did my first 5.12. I had that exact same progression as everyone else.
Do you think gyms rate their routes to seem harder than they actually are?
I think it's the opposite. I get worked in the gym. I fall off everything, the 5.13's at least. Then I go outside and it's no issue. 5.13b I can do outside, second try, no problem. But in the gym there's no chance.
Perhaps a lot of that is mental?
That's fair. But the mental part only gets you so far. You still can't will yourself to climb 5.13 if you're not strong enough and your tendons can't take it.
You have other passions aside from climbing, like your burgeoning Honnold Foundation. What's that all about?
In a nutshell, I just wanted to do something positive in the world, and so far that's meant supporting clean energy projects. I personally think that energy use is at the base of all human activity. Ensuring clean, available energy goes the furthest towards improving quality of life. It's all very much a work in progress though, since I'm sure we'll learn a lot over the next few years. I told myself I would contribute to it for at least the next five years and see what we learn and what we can accomplish. We'll see.
What's your main goal with the foundation?
It's my way of giving my own money to charity. The idea is to improve people's lives through clean energy. One of them is solar lights in Africa. Allowing people to study at night. It's at the base level of improving lives. We support a nonprofit group called Solar Aid. And we also support grid alternatives.
Among your accomplishments, like setting "The Nose" speed record with Hans Florine on El Capitan in 2012 or soloing the Yosemite Triple (climbing Mt. Watkins, El Capitan and Half Dome in one day), what feat are you most proud of?
Soloing the Triple in Yosemite (pictured), I was pretty psyched on, just because it was a big day with big walls.
That's a bit of an understatement — you free-soloed 90 percent of that!
Yeah, but I mean, the 10 percent that I skipped was the hard part [Editor's note: See sandbagging]. I did the Double — El Cap and Half Dome in a single day — the year before, and just doing that seemed impossible beforehand. But then I realized "Oh wow, I can actually do it!"
Speaking of Half Dome — there's that iconic picture of you standing on "Thank God Ledge"— what do you think about when you see this picture? Do you even recognize yourself?
It's funny because when I see photos of myself or videos, I don't see what everybody else sees. I see the day that we shot it. So I think of my friend Jimmy [Chin] hanging off to the side, shooting.
What's the story behind this shot?
So that Half Dome shot, the one on the cover of Nat Geo — if you remember the Nat Geo spread or saw the article, [the issue] had the photo of people base jumping off of Half Dome. So they shot that photo an hour after [Chin] shot me on the ledge, and then he jugged up to the summit.
I just sat there on the ledge with no harness just chillin' for an hour and a half. And then four of my friends just flew off the top of Half Dome, and I was like "Whoa!" It's crazy seeing people fly by over your head while you're sitting on the ledge. And then the sun set because they were waiting for light for the photo. I'm just sitting there in the dark, and a single rope comes slithering down to me. It had a harness with jumars on it. And I'm like, "Ok, I guess it's time to leave."
People look at the photo and they're like, "What a crazy climbing accomplishment," when actually that same day I took my mom up Snake Dike [a moderate climbing route leading to the top of Half Dome]. She hiked down with a friend of hers while I stayed and did this photo shoot. So it was like, the actual experience of shooting this photo was so much different than what they're trying to convey.
Your mom was there? Wasn't she worried sick?
No. See, nobody worried because nobody actually knew what I was doing until they saw me on the front cover of Nat Geo. And then they were just like, "Yeah, he knows what he's doing."
You often say in interviews, "I know what I'm doing." Do you have to tell people this frequently?
Not really. Well, mostly I don't really care. If somebody says you're going to botch it, you say, "Alright, we'll see." I'm not that worried about it.
--Images courtesy of Alex Honnold
J. Scott Donahue is an editorial intern at Sierra. He was a freshman in Mr. Hancock's English class when he first read Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Now, he's currently working on a graduate thesis composed of travel essays. Topics include substitute teaching kindergartners in Nepal, drinking rice beer with a Tibetan porter, and running a marathon from Everest Base Camp