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The Heart-Stopping Climbs of Alex Honnold

Thought Leader: Alex Honnold
March 11, 2015

The master of climbing without ropes spends his life cheating death.

ifteen 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.

Unroped climbing is, of course, the oldest kind, but ropes and hardware can provide such a reliable safety net that nearly all climbers now use them. This is typically done in pairs, with one climber tied to each end of the rope, moving one at a time. Upward progress is made in one of two ways. The first, developed in the Saxony region of Germany in the 19th century, is known as free-climbing. This involves using only natural handholds and footholds on the rock itself, while securing the rope to the cliff with various kinds of hardware to protect against any fall. The second style, known as aid-climbing, emerged in the early 20th century as a means of ascending cliffs too sheer for free-climbing. A lead aid-climber ascends by attaching hardware to the rock every few feet, connecting stirrups to that hardware and standing in those stirrups.

But using gear slows progress. A roped pair, taking turns climbing and fussing with all that equipment, might spend six hours on a climb that a free-soloist floats up in 30 minutes — focusing purely on the pleasure of movement, the tactile sensation of hands on rock. Free-soloing also carries the mystique of self-reliance in the face of extreme risk: On cliffs where even elite climbers employ complicated rope systems, the free-soloist wears only shorts, a T-shirt, a pair of climbing shoes and a bag of gymnast’s chalk to keep the hands dry. Honnold has free-soloed the longest, most challenging climbs ever, including the 2,500-foot northwest face of Half Dome in Yosemite Valley, where some of the handholds are so small that no average climber could cling for an instant, roped or otherwise. Most peculiar of all, even to elite rock climbers, Honnold does this without apparent fear, as if falling were not possible.

When Honnold does climb with others, he often teams up with specialists in other disciplines, combining their unique skill sets to shatter speed records on the world’s greatest cliffs. Allfrey, for example, is one of the fastest aid-climbers. They were headed, that morning last summer, for El Capitan, a flat-topped cliff about 3,000 feet tall and a mile wide that is considered the Mount Everest of rock climbing, with roughly 2,000 people ascending each year. More than 100 separate climbing routes have been established on El Capitan, each starting on the floor of Yosemite Valley and following various cracks and crevices to the top. El Capitan is so sheer and steep that even the easiest of these routes qualify, for advanced recreational climbers, as petrifying and magnificent once-in-a-lifetime adventures. More than two decades ago, when I climbed regularly, I trained for three years — as do men and women all over the world — to prepare for El Capitan. Twice, I climbed with a partner about a third of the way up, only to retreat in terror, as is common among those ascending for the first time. In the summer of 1992, with two partners, I finally overcame my fear. We hauled supplies by rope and pulley, slept on tiny ledges and made it to the top in five days.

On each of the four mornings before I met up with Honnold and Allfrey, they climbed El Capitan from bottom to top before lunch, taking a different route each time. They set speed records on three of those routes, passing dozens of startled slow-moving climbers. They did this roped together, with Allfrey in the lead on aid-climbing sections, moving like a frantic construction worker hammering his way up a skyscraper, and with Honnold sprinting up any terrain he could free-climb. Honnold so rarely attached his rope to the cliff that he risked long falls.

Now, before dawn, Honnold stuffed rope, carabiners and other equipment into a backpack while taking bites of yogurt and granola, preparing for his fifth El Capitan route in five days. To no one in particular he said, “I’m really not that into my breakfast.” He and Allfrey had two more routes planned for the two days ahead, hoping to climb seven El Capitan routes in seven days — and set a record that would elicit, from nearly every other climber on earth, a mixture of exhilaration, bewilderment and envy.

The pair got into Honnold’s van and drove up the unlit highway through the dark evergreen forest. A ring-tailed cat ran across the road, then a fox. El Capitan came into view as a huge jet-black void in the blue-black sky. Little pinpricks of light — stars in a granite night — emanated from the headlamps of people waking up on high ledges, midway through private epics. Honnold and Allfrey parked among a half-dozen vans and pickups with camper shells.

For Allfrey, who has a long-term girlfriend and planned to begin nursing school in the fall, completing the seven routes would probably be the crowning achievement of his brilliant climbing career. For Honnold, it would simply be another in a long list of climbing accomplishments and could also serve as a scouting trip toward what is perhaps the greatest unclaimed brass ring in all of rock climbing: the first-ever free-solo of El Capitan. As the two walked into the forest, they passed directly under the most plausible route for a ropeless ascent: Freerider, a sideways ocean of polished rock so immense that should a free-soloist slip somewhere up high, he might fall for as long as 14 seconds before impact.

Honnold estimates that he has climbed Freerider, with a rope, 10 times — memorizing every move toward a someday free-solo. That morning, however, Honnold and Allfrey were headed to a route called Lurking Fear. Allfrey dropped his backpack and strapped on his harness. “Dude, do you think you’re going to find out you have some kind of superpower?” he asked Honnold. “Like, remember on those old X-Men comic cards, they’d have bar graphs on the back showing what all their powers are? Like strength and agility and all these X-Men qualities? You’re going to realize you can actually move things with your brain.”

Alex Honnold.
Credit: Peter Bohler for The New York Times
Honnold looked up at a silent portaledge — a suspended cot upon which two climbers slept, high on the cliff. He whispered sweetly, “Wake up, sleepyheads.” Then he and Allfrey were gone, scampering into the sky like winged monkeys storming a castle.

Elite climbers, like athletes in any sport, establish reputations by outdoing those who have gone before. For centuries, that meant becoming the first person to reach a particular summit by any route at all, using any equipment necessary. The first ascent of El Capitan occurred in 1958 along the so-called Nose route, which runs up the middle of the wall. Rotating team members, led by a road-crew supervisor and avid rock climber named Warren Harding, spent 45 days — over 18 months — commuting up and down thousands of feet of rope, and they made nearly all upward progress through aid-climbing, hammering hundreds of steel spikes and bolts into the rock. In the years that followed, ambitious climbers explored every square foot of the cliff, establishing the hundred-plus routes that are now recognized — typically in far less time, but always relying on aid-climbing.

Today’s elite climbers focus on setting speed records — as Honnold and Allfrey were doing — and also on making the first free-climbing ascents of old aid-climbing routes. In 1993, for example, a 5-foot-2 woman named Lynn Hill did this on the Nose, squeezing her fingertips into thin cracks to hold on where the world’s most powerful male climbers had resorted to aid-climbing. Tommy Caldwell’s free-climb of the Dawn Wall route this January, the first ever, falls squarely in this tradition — using ropes and hardware to create a safety net while clinging to natural handholds that seemed too small for the previous generation.

At one level, free-soloing can be seen as the most extreme expression of the same progression: One generation aid-climbs a route, the next climbs it in record time, the next free-climbs it, then it’s time for someone to climb it without ropes. But free-soloing is so much more dangerous and frightening, even to highly experienced climbers, that a vast majority want no part of it.

Climbers know that fear itself can cause a climber to panic on the side of a cliff. To get a sense of the experience, try a thought experiment: Picture hanging from a pull-up bar in a playground, with your toes inches off the ground, and feel the calm security of your grip. Now imagine standing on the edge of a skyscraper with that same pull-up bar suspended at eye level two feet in front of you. Lean forward to grab that bar and let your feet swing free, so that you’re hanging by your hands. Look down. How’s your grip now?

Honnold preparing breakfast in the Ford Econoline van that he lives in.
Credit: Peter Bohler for The New York Times

Even if you have perfect confidence in your climbing ability and perfect emotional control in the face of danger, as Honnold appears to, most climbers fear the unexpected: the handhold that suddenly breaks, the bird that erupts from a hidden nest. I was once 50 feet up a Yosemite cliff when thousands of biting ants poured out of the rock to attack my bare arms and legs. Free-soloists also die with alarming regularity. As a result, many climbers frown on climbing ropeless as a kind of aberration. Caldwell, who is probably the world’s greatest free-climber, has said that the only time he ever considered free-soloing was in the winter of 2007, during a painful time in his marriage, which has since ended. He briefly set his sights on free-soloing El Capitan but quickly decided against it. Writing about that time, he expressed a long-held judgment that free-soloing was “selfish, reckless and stupid. . . . I always gagged when I heard self-righteous soloists talking about a ‘spiritual journey’ or saying, ‘It’s not about cheating death, it’s about living.’ . . . That’s crap. They just wanted to look like badasses, and were willing to risk hurting everyone who loved them.”

From the time Honnold was very young, he climbed everything he could — trees, furniture, walls. “He was a terrible child to raise,” says his mother, Dierdre Wolownick, a professor of French, Spanish and English as a second language at American River College in Sacramento. “I was always terrified he was going to fall.” Wolownick says she thinks her son was born with a preternatural capacity for single-minded focus — so much so that Honnold does not remember much of his childhood. “I’ve thought about that a lot, as a parent,” she says. “Alex noticed what he wanted — a handhold on a wall, but not where we were or what we did that summer.”

In a scene from the film “Valley Uprising,” about the history of rock climbing in Yosemite National Park, Honnold climbs a route in Yosemite called the Phoenix.

If Honnold had been born 20 years earlier, before the proliferation of climbing gyms, he probably wouldn’t have found the sport until adulthood, if at all. Instead, he grew up in the 1990s among the first generation of American climbers to have almost unlimited access to good training facilities, a phenomenon that has produced startling leaps in climbing skill. Wolownick first took Honnold to a rock-climbing gym when he was 5, only to have him scale 40 feet when she turned her back. By 10, he was climbing at a gym many times a week, usually with his father, Charles Honnold, whom Honnold describes as “quiet and bookish.” Gym-climbing requires one person to manage the rope while the other person climbs. Honnold’s father provided this service “for, like, a million hours,” Honnold says, “and he drove me all over the state every weekend for competitions. He was super supportive. It’s really too bad that he never got to see what it’s all turned into for me.”

By 16, Honnold could do a one-finger pull-up; by 18, he was among the top competitive gym-climbers in the United States, though he had done virtually no climbing outdoors. Honnold graduated from high school in 2003, and he left home to study civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. On the day before he moved in, his maternal grandfather died; hours later, Honnold learned that his father was leaving home, ending his parents’ marriage. He began to skip classes, climbing small boulders in local parks.

The next summer, Honnold competed in the youth division of the National Climbing Championships, which were held in Sacramento. He finished second among the nation’s top 300 climbers, securing a slot at the World Youth Championships in Scotland. Shortly before he left, Honnold learned that his father, who was 55, died of a heart attack in an airport. A couple of months later, Honnold took 39th place in Scotland and asked his mother for permission not to return to college. She agreed. “He knew it was what he needed,” she says.

Honnold on the Lunatic Fringe route up Reed’s Pinnacle in Yosemite Valley.
Credit: Peter Bohler for The New York Times
Honnold lived at home that fall, in his childhood bedroom, occasionally climbing nearby cliffs. That winter, he took his father’s snowshoes and tried to hike up Mount Tallac in the High Sierra. There were no witnesses, but Honnold thinks he fell down steep ice and snow and struck his head on rocks. “I was pretty badly concussed,” he says. Wolownick recalls getting a phone call — “It was Alex saying: ‘Mom, where am I? Why am I covered with blood?’ ”

Honnold recuperated for several months at home — “playing video games and eating cookie dough, like a dropout,” he says. Then he borrowed the family minivan (not his current Ford) and began to drive between climbing areas. He climbed with partners now and then but mostly spent time by himself and free-soloed — first on easy routes and then, as his confidence grew, on steadily more difficult terrain. Honnold lived this way for two years, continuing to study climbing history and the rarefied lineage of great free-soloists past, a grand total of three people over 30 years. First, in the 1970s, there was John Bachar, who posted a public notice that said, “I will give $10,000 to anyone who follows me for one full day” (no one did). Then, in the 1980s, Peter Croft made a one-day ascent of Yosemite’s Astroman and the Rostrum that at the time was the hardest free-solo ever done. By the early 2000s, when Honnold first climbed in Yosemite, the top practitioner was Dean Potter, who had pioneered a hybrid climbing form on Half Dome, free-soloing immense stretches while employing rope to get through a few treacherous patches.

In 2006, Honnold began methodically repeating the most famous free-solos of all these men, starting with Astroman (1,100 feet) and the Rostrum (800 feet). Each route is so steep and unrelenting — with so few places to rest — that it requires extreme grip strength and muscular endurance. Astroman also has a terrifying “squeeze chimney,” a slot big enough for a climber to slip his entire body inside and so narrow that he cannot turn his head. To move upward, he must wriggle and writhe, always at risk of slipping. Honnold practiced these routes with ropes a half-dozen times. He finally free-soloed them in September 2007, passing astonished roped climbers, who then spread the word. The next spring, Honnold drove to Zion National Park, the site of a 1,200-foot sandstone buttress split by a finger-width crack, which Croft had climbed only with a rope. Honnold’s ropeless ascent was considered the most difficult free-solo to date. Five months later, Honnold surpassed Potter — and guaranteed his own place in climbing history — when he free-soloed the northwest face of Half Dome.

The hardest move on that ascent — the “crux,” in climber parlance — comes just below the summit, within earshot of the many hikers and tourists who reach the top every day using an easy route from the east. With his fingers pressed flat against the smooth face, Honnold raised his right foot and set the sole of his shoe against a faint divot in the cliff. Then, with tenuous balance, he stood up on that foot, very, very slowly, hoping the sticky shoe rubber would adhere. A gust of wind could have blown him off. The index finger of his left hand, he says, was inches from a metal ring attached to an old piece of hardware stuck into the cliff. He found his eyes fixated on it, hoping he could grab it if he slipped. “What was crazy for me is that I could hear all these people talking, hundreds of tourists,” he says. “I was like, This is hard-core.”

When I asked Honnold’s mother how she tolerated her son’s climbing life, she told me that at some point she realized that she couldn’t live with worrying all the time. “Alex is the only one on the planet who knows what Alex can do, and I’ve had to learn to just trust that.”

Honnold on the Mesa Laboratory, designed by I. M. Pei, at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
Credit…Peter Bohler for The New York Times
A 26-minute documentary, released in 2010, about the Half Dome ascent called “Alone on the Wall” helped Honnold build a career as a professional climber. His corporate sponsors include the North Face, and he has starred in commercials for Dewar’s and Citibank. He made a promotional video for Stride Health, in which he free-soloed a seven-story building in San Francisco in exchange for medical insurance. People began asking for his autograph, including young women, occasionally on their breasts. (“Actually, that only happened twice,” Honnold says, blushing. “And both were really nice. I also got asked to sign a really nice stomach once.”) “Alone on the Wall” also led to Honnold’s most serious relationship. “She was my first fan,” Honnold told me. “She’d seen the film, and she posted, like, one line on my Facebook, and I was like, Oh, my God! There’s a cute chick talking to me! I posted back a smiley face, and then she did a winky face, and it was game on.” (They have since broken up.)

Even in Yosemite Valley, where rangers and bus drivers have traditionally treated rock-climbing culture as an unwelcome annoyance, Honnold has become a crossover hero. As he and Allfrey climbed their seventh and final El Capitan route that week in June, I heard the driver of an open-air tour bus, passing below, tell his passengers to look up, where Honnold and Allfrey were about 3,000 feet from the ground, climbing a route called the Triple Direct. As the two neared the top, I joined Allfrey’s parents and girlfriend in the meadow below. Through binoculars, we could see the shirtless Honnold continuously karate-chopping his hands into the crack and kicking his feet in below. A 200-foot rope attached him to Allfrey, but as usual, there was so little hardware connecting the rope to the cliff that had he slipped, he would have fallen perhaps 150 feet — with gruesome consequences — before the rope caught him.

Soon the pair stood at the top of the cliff, and a cheer went up among the onlookers. Allfrey’s mother began to prepare a celebratory picnic, setting out Tupperware containers of pasta salad. A well-wishing stranger presented her with a bottle of chilled Champagne. Not long after, Honnold and Allfrey strolled out of the forest to a round of applause. They dropped their packs, stripped off their shirts in the blazing sunshine, revealing pale, wiry torsos, and then waded into the icy-cold Merced River to rinse off the accumulated dust. After a swim, they sat on the Allfreys’ picnic blanket. Allfrey’s mother poured Champagne for everyone but Honnold — he doesn’t drink. Allfrey’s father presented Honnold with a congratulatory gift: a grocery bag holding four packages of one of his favorite foods, Pepperidge Farm soft-baked cookies.

Allfrey and Honnold’s time on the Triple Direct that day set yet another speed record, and Allfrey was giddy with pride and relief. Honnold, though, was frustrated that they hadn’t gone faster still. At one point during the climb, Honnold said, he forgot about his day pack, left it attached to some hardware and had to backtrack to get it.

Allfrey laughed in disbelief. “That only cost us like 15 minutes!”

“No, it was two punk songs,” Honnold said. “Punk’s a good way to measure time.”

Honnold climbing another building in Boulder.
Credit…Peter Bohler for The New York Times
Allfrey shook his head and said, grinning, “I’m actually pretty psyched we just did seven El Cap routes in seven days and broke the old speed record on our last route by an hour.”

“All I’m saying is our time wasn’t even close to what’s objectively possible,” Honnold replied.

Three days later, I met Honnold in Berkeley near the University of California campus. He looked like an impoverished graduate student, wearing shorts and a faded T-shirt and locking a single-speed bicycle to a parking meter. Strolling among students and faculty members on a quiet footpath between manicured lawns, Honnold pointed to the six-story Life Sciences Addition and told me that not long ago he free-soloed it at night, passing windows behind which people toiled at computers. “I’m not nostalgic for my glory days in college,” Honnold said. “It was lame for me. Probably because I had no friends.”

At Doe Memorial Library, a neoclassical pile of white granite blocks that look as if quarried from Yosemite, Honnold walked around to a secluded alcove. With no mental preparation, he placed his fingertips on the top edge of one of those blocks. He pulled up, reached for another edge a few feet higher and kept going — free-soloing. Ten feet, 20, 30 — Honnold entered death-fall territory with the same casual deliberateness that someone might apply to arranging knickknacks in a bedroom.

The world’s greatest climbers struggle to make sense of this mysterious sang-froid. “Most of us think dying is a really serious, scary thing, but I don’t think Alex does,” says Caldwell, who has climbed extensively with Honnold and considers him a close friend. “He’s wired a little differently from everybody else. The risk excites him, and he knows it’s super badass, but he doesn’t allow himself to go beyond that in his mind. The other great free-soloists always talk about this conversation with death. Alex is like, ‘I’m not going to fall, it’s no big deal.’ That’s what makes him so good.”

Even Dean Potter, an openly spiritual man who describes free-soloing as part of a personal art form that includes base jumping, finds Honnold difficult to understand. “Alex is like Spock,” Potter told me. “I freak out at the top of solos and scream — like, super emotional. Then I’m wasted emotionally for months. Alex just does it and walks away and does another.”

Honnold’s grip; he could do a one-finger pull-up by age 16.
Credit: Peter Bohler for The New York Times

Honnold doesn’t like this kind of talk; he insists that he worked hard to develop his self-control, and he grows prickly at any suggestion that he is unlike other people. “Before Dean solos something, he has to, like, slaughter a goat and fly with the ravens,” Honnold joked, as if Potter drew on magical aid to see him through danger. “I don’t want to slaughter a goat and fly with the ravens. I just want to climb.”

At Berkeley, I watched Honnold scramble out of sight onto the library roof. I heard him talking to somebody, and then he free-soloed all that long way back to the ground. He said a man had popped his head out of a window and said: “Don’t do that! Get down! These are offices, and you’re going to scare the librarians!”

Then a younger man appeared with a walkie-talkie. He said to Honnold: “You can’t do that here. If you’re going to do that, go somewhere else, O.K.?” Chastened and blushing again, Honnold walked away.

In November, Clif Bar, a major sponsor of Honnold and Potter, said it would no longer support them because of discomfort with their extreme risk-taking. Honnold responded with an Op-Ed article in this newspaper, accepting the company’s decision but declaring his intention to keep free-soloing. “If I have a particular gift, it’s a mental one,” he wrote. “The ability to keep it together where others might freak out. . . . Whether or not we’re sponsored, the mountains are calling, and we must go.”

Two months later, Tommy Caldwell’s Dawn Wall free-climb — in which he was roped up and securely protected, risk kept to a bare minimum — received international media attention and was widely hailed as the hardest rock climb ever done. I spoke to Honnold by telephone shortly afterward and asked how he thought about his free-soloing heroes nowadays. Honnold pointed out that Bachar, the original Yosemite free-soloist, remained bitterly committed to purist forms of climbing, even after he fathered a son. Bachar free-soloed until 2009, when he fell to his death from an easy climb near his home in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. Honnold claimed to feel much greater admiration for Peter Croft, “a happily married man” whose “eyes still light up like a child’s when he talks about climbing,” although he does it mostly with ropes these days.

But when I called Honnold on another occasion, he was lying in the meadow below El Capitan, looking up. “I feel kind of directionless,” he said. “Like, what’s my Dawn Wall?” I asked if a free-solo of El Capitan was still on his mind. Honnold admitted that it was the final unclimbed item on his private shortlist of dream free-solos. In 2013, he spent eight days at El Sendero Luminoso, in the desert of northern Mexico, dangling from ropes, memorizing hundreds of discrete movement sequences on tiny holds, before free-soloing it in January last year. This winter, Honnold free-soloed the second route on his list: Romantic Warrior, a 1,000-foot climb up a remote cliff in the southern Sierra Nevada, which had been free-soloed only once, in 2005, by a climber named Michael Reardon, who died two years later when he climbed without ropes down an Irish sea cliff and was swept away by a wave. The third challenge was University Wall, a notoriously difficult climb just north of Vancouver, a route that Peter Croft was the first to free-climb but never climbed without a rope. A young, up-and-coming free-soloist named Marc-Andre Leclerc, who lives near University Wall, was getting good enough to free-solo it. Honnold, who had been eyeing it for years, seized that prize for himself on his most recent trip last August.

But El Capitan is substantially bigger than any of these climbs, and it presents unique logistical challenges. The hardest part is 2,000 feet up, in a feature known as the Teflon Corner. “Anything called the Teflon Corner is not sweet for free-soloing,” Honnold said. He told me that he would consider an El Capitan free-solo only in the autumn, when the summer heat fades, the rock cools and Teflon Corner becomes less slippery. But the days are short then, and Honnold would still want to climb the Teflon Corner before the sun hit it; that would require starting well before dawn and free-soloing perhaps a thousand feet in the dark. If he decided to do it, he would need to spend days or even weeks roped up, climbing the Teflon Corner dozens of times in advance, mastering every move. Meanwhile, the world would be watching. “That would be so much pressure,” he told me. “All my friends would be texting me, like: ‘What are you doing? Don’t be stupid!’ Then some random guy would see me in the grocery store and be like, ‘When are you going to free-solo it?’ ”

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