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Alex Honnold Isn’t Fearless—He Just Accepts Death

Thought Leader: Alex Honnold
January 3, 2016
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Every time he does one of his heart-stopping climbs, Alex Honnold defies gravity – and death. Like Spider Man, he can climb almost vertical surfaces, using only his hands and feet. Widely regarded as the world’s best free solo climber, he holds numerous speed records, notably for El Capitan, in Yosemite. In recent years, he has lost close friends to fatal accidents. He insists that he is no adrenaline junkie. Yet, as he explains in his new book, Alone On The Wall: Alex Honnold And The Ultimate Limits Of Adventure, he is determined to keep pushing the envelope of the sport he loves, despite the dangers.

Talking from his mother’s home in Sacramento, Calif., he explains why he is known as Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold and what a “dirtbag” is; how he copes with the fear of death; and why he wants the Honnold Foundation to give back to the Third World countries where he often climbs.

One of your colleagues has said you are such a fearless climber because you are not afraid of death. Is that true?

A lot of people say I don’t feel fear, or that I don’t fear death, but that’s just not true! I have the same healthy hope of survival as everybody else. I don’t want to die. At least not yet. [Laughs] I think I just have more of an acceptance that I will die at some point. I understand that, but I don’t want to baby myself along the way. I want to live in a certain way, which requires taking a higher degree of risk, and that’s acceptable to me. (Read about Honnold’s closest call.)

Your Yosemite Valley nickname is Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold. Where does that come from?

[Laughs] My friends give me grief for understating the difficulties of things that I’ve done. I say that I’m prone to realistic assessment. [Laughs] Because certain things have always come easy to me. I have a journal of everything I’ve ever climbed since 2005. For the entry about free soloing Half Dome, I put a frowny face and added some little notes about what I should have done better, and then underlined it. Turns out that is one of my biggest climbing achievements. But at the time, I was just like, Ah, that wasn’t quite right, I should’ve done that better. (Read “Has Yosemite’s Iconic Half Dome Become Too Dangerous to Climb?”)

Your mother is on record as saying you were “a terrible child to raise.” Talk about your childhood and how you got into free climbing.

That quote from Mom is wildly overstated! [Laughs] The rest of my family says I was a total angel. [Laughs] But I remember an anecdote when I was a little kid. Mom had told me and my sister that we weren’t allowed to climb on the roof, but one day we went up there and then jumped off. We told Mom and she was like, Oh well, if you’re up on the roof, go ahead and clean the gutters. [Laughs] Ever since then I always clean the gutters when I’m at home. I’m actually cleaning the gutters as we speak. [Laughs]

I’d always liked climbing and when I was 10 or so a climbing gym opened in my hometown. So I started climbing there pretty much all the time. As a teenager, I started making small trips outdoors, but they were limited by the fact that I didn’t have a car. Then, at 19, I dropped out of university and basically started climbing outside all the time.

What attracts you to this insane sport of free soloing?

[Laughs] Why wouldn’t I be attracted to it? I’m going to the most beautiful places on earth and enjoying a rigorous physical activity that I find super fun. What’s not to enjoy about that?

A lot of people assume that I must be an adrenaline junkie, but climbing is actually very low adrenaline, because it is very slow. Climbing is the opposite of gravity sports, like surfing or snowboarding. Those are adrenaline sports because once you step off the edge, it all just happens. With climbing, you have to deliberately move inch by inch up this huge wall.

You are frequently referred to as a “dirtbag.” It’s not an insult, is it?

[Laughs] Dirtbag is just the term we use, like a gnarly dude in surfing. Within the climbing culture it means being a committed lifer, someone who has embraced a minimalist ethic in order to rock climb. It basically means you’re a homeless person by choice. [Laughs] I live mostly in my van. I don’t have a serious girlfriend anymore. I guess I’m trying to lead a life of as little harm as possible and minimize my impact on the world. The amount I travel is kind of ridiculous, so I’m contributing to the carbon output and all that stuff. But every other aspect of my life I try to manage as well as I can. I own very few things. I don’t spend money on anything except food and gas. I’m a vegetarian. I don’t drink or smoke or do any of that stuff. But that’s more because I don’t really like it.

Your book tells the story of seven ascents. Which was the most challenging – and why?

The Fitzroy Traverse, in Patagonia, was the most complicated climbing because it requires every kind of technique and gear. It took us one day just to hike into the mountains, then five days to climb. It’s the polar opposite of free soloing, where you just walk up with your shorts, a t-shirt, and a bag of chalk and climb, just using your hands and your feet to move you upward. For the Fitzroy Traverse you have ice axes and crampons and all this other stuff. My partner Tommy Caldwell and I free climbed the majority of the Fitzroy Traverse, but what makes it so complicated is knowing when to free climb and when to aid climb—which means pulling on gear—or when to do rope work to cheat around different sections. We had to sleep up there, too. When it got dark, we would look for a ledge and dig out a little snow platform. (See why climbers superglue their fingers.)

You recently did a record-breaking ascent of El Capitan, in Yosemite, with a climbing partner. Talk us through it.

I have maybe 10 or 12 speed records on El Cap via different routes. Basically, you just climb the mountain faster than anybody else has. There’s nothing particularly hard about it. A lot of the speed records are just by virtue of the style I climbed the routes, not so much that you’re climbing faster. You’re just moving more efficiently and transitioning more efficiently. Most El Cappers require quite a bit of free climbing and aid climbing with gear. Knowing when and how you should switch back and forth between them is the key.

The record that’s most important right now is “The Nose” speed record, which I actually did with a different guy, named Hans Warring. The Nose is the central line up El Cap, which looks a bit like a human face. Even non-climbers see it and they’re, like, whoa, that’s an amazing wall! You’re mostly climbing up one side, then you switch to the other via a manoeuvre called the King Swing. It’s like this big pendulum where you swing from one side of The Nose to the other.

How long did it take you to climb it?

It took us 2 hours and 23 minutes. Basically, about 20 feet per minute.

Within the last two years, you’ve lost two friends—Sean Leary and Dean Potter. How have those deaths affected you, both personally and in terms of your will to keep climbing at the cutting edge?

Both of their deaths gave me pause for a little bit. You spend a couple days reflecting on things, evaluating your life and thinking about all the big decisions in life. But, ultimately, I’ve already grappled with those issues personally. Just because somebody has an accident doesn’t change the fundamental decisions I’ve already made. But it is good to revisit those decisions from time to time, to think about it all and see where you are.

How do you deal with fear, Alex?

That’s interesting. For the most part, if something seems really scary I just don’t do it. I’m under no obligation. I do this strictly for my own satisfaction. If I’m afraid, I either put in more time preparing or I just don’t do it. I’ve done routes where I’ve climbed 200 feet off the ground and just been, like, what am I doing? I then just climbed back down and went home. Discretion is the better part of valor. Some days are just not your day. That’s the big thing with free soloing: when to call it.

You have recently set up the Honnold Foundation. What’s its mission?

The foundation came about because my sister is the most socially conscious person in the world. She’s always been a huge personal inspiration in terms of living with intention and making good choices. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she does all kinds of community work, like this kids’ bike club where underprivileged kids get a free bicycle once they learn bike safety and they build it themselves. But she makes no money at all, which is kind of how those things always seem to go.

As I’ve become higher profile, I’ve had the opportunity to do commercials. I recently did a car commercial where I made more in two days than my sister would make in five years. I’m just, like, that’s so messed up! That’s just not right. So, the idea of the foundation began from trying to rectify that whole imbalance of sports and entertainment versus actual, useful social work. I travel to all these rural places, often in the Third World, so I wanted to do something that was good for the environment and good for the people in those environments. That led me to home energy-type projects, like off-grid solar.

In Africa, people spend up to 25 percent of their income buying kerosene to light their homes, which is carcinogenic and terrible for their health. Being able to buy a solar lantern or a super simple battery panel setup can drastically change your life. So I’ve been looking for environmental projects like that, which can help boost somebody’s standard of living but also help the environment.

I was recently in Angola, working on an off-grid energy project, which wildly exceeded our expectations. So I’m pretty stoked to continue. I haven’t fundraised. I’ve just been donating, like, a third of my income. But in the future, I may start leveraging my relationships with brands to raise more money.

Philosophers have often found God in high places. Has that been your experience?

Um, definitely not. [Laughs] I’m quite the atheist. But I have probably experienced some of the same emotions that people associate with spirituality: the feeling of oneness with the world and the sense of awe and wonder and our own smallness, which religious people equate with some kind of higher power or god. I just attribute that to the beauty of nature—and my love of the outdoors.

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