Free climbing: no rope, no help, no plan B

Alex Honnold is the world’s most daring free climber, scaling sheer rock faces without any support. What makes him take such risks?

It’s the middle of the night, and Alex Honnold, 30, is hurtling towards Yosemite Valley in his van. He’s taking it as fast as possible, attempting to allay the boredom of these three-hour commutes from his mother’s house in Sacramento to the valley where he came of age as a climber and which remains his favourite spot. “I’m paying at least 70 per cent attention to the road,” he tells me as the engine whines. “I’m usually eating pistachios or reading on the phone, taking care of texts. I’m actually driving mellower now for you. Driving into the valley last night, the tyres were squealing on every corner.”

Honnold didn’t invent the idea of rock climbing without a rope – that goes back to the origins of the sport – but no one before him has even contemplated climbing the highest, longest and most intimidating rock faces in the world alone, with no protection, betting everything on supreme self-confidence and skill. Over the past seven years, his free solos of rock faces including Yosemite’s Half Dome and Mexico’s El Sendero Luminoso have redefined what can be done in climbing and sparked a debate about whether it should be done at all. No rope, no gear besides rock slippers and a chalk bag, no plan B. You slip, you fall, you die.

Honnold has become the face of climbing by, paradoxically, embracing a blood sport version of it that is unthinkable to almost all his fans, who are perfectly content to climb risk-free in the gym or outdoors with proper safety gear. A new memoir, Alone on the Wall, out in November, is set to inspire multitudes more. Honnold has made climbing cool: he is the bona fide rock star.

It’s his solo climbs that grab most of the glory. Back in 2008, Honnold pulled off what may still be his most momentous ascent: a free solo of the northwest face of Half Dome, which, as Honnold and I chat, stares at us from across the Merced river. Imagine a tiny figure suspended 2,000 feet above the ground on a vertical ocean of granite. Just shy of the summit, Honnold balked at trusting his life to a glassy ripple of rock that he had to stick with his right foot before he could push his body upward and finish the climb. His compromise with mortality was to touch an old carabiner hanging from the face with his index finger. He figured that if he began the fatal slide off the face, he could probably snag the ’biner with his finger on the way down. The important thing for him was not to grab the piece of gear unless he absolutely had to. “I didn’t want to invalidate the 2,000 feet of [free] climbing I’d done up to there,” he says.
Honnold grew up in Sacramento, just a few hours from Yosemite, but, amazingly, he barely touched rock until his late teens. Instead, he spent almost every afternoon at a nearby climbing gym, spending hours on demanding holds just a few feet above the floor.

As Honnold describes it, family life was on the chilly side. His parents had stayed together for the sake of the kids, divorcing only after Alex and his older sister, Stasia, had finished high school.

The teenage Honnold was shy, smart and nerdy. (His high-school classmates had no clue he was building himself into a world-class athlete.) He says the source of his teen angst wasn’t so much home life. “I had a poor complexion and was kind of gangly-looking – not cool at all, with, like, no real prospects, no real future,” he says. “And you just want to be somebody, you know. You want to do something with your life.”

Over time, the looks took care of themselves. He’s now a lanky 11st 3lb of ropey muscle that endears him to the climbing-groupie set. He’s got that sense of purpose he discovered during his freshman year at Berkeley, when “some random dude” took him rock climbing for the first time at Yosemite. He was a natural, the gym strength and technique transferring almost perfectly to rock. The heights, which rattle many gym climbers, acted like a drug on his nervous system.

In every other respect, Berkeley was a disaster. He was living by himself and his sense of being a depressed outsider was so strong, he says, he remembers walking around the campus at night and entertaining the impulse to scale the outside of a dorm building, crawl inside a room and make off with a computer. “I was like, ‘Well, that would be easy!’” he says. “And it would have been pretty exciting.”

That’s a little sociopathic, I venture.

“There has been more than one person who’s asked if I was a sociopath or if I had Asperger’s or something,” he says.

That craving for adventure and risk found a more wholesome outlet in climbing. A family catastrophe opened the door. The summer after his freshman college year, his father, Charles, a professor, keeled over from a heart attack while running to catch a plane at Phoenix airport. “Every time I walk through the terminals there, I think, ‘What a horrible place to die.’”

With the financial cushion provided by his father’s life insurance, Honnold borrowed the family van and embraced the lifestyle of the climbing nomad. Living on $300 a month, he followed the weather to the rock-climbing meccas of Yosemite Valley and Bishop in the Sierra Nevada, Joshua Tree in southern California, Zion in Utah. After the van gave up the ghost, he continued on a bike in the Sierra. “My first season in Bishop, it had just dumped 3ft of snow,” he recalls, “and the campground was like this abandoned wasteland. It was me and my tent and my bicycle. I spent three weeks there. In the morning I’d be eating a little muffin with a little trickle of ice water. Pretty grim conditions.”

It was in places like these that Honnold honed the mental habits of self-reliance and self-sufficiency that would serve him so well as a soloist. He often climbed without a partner or a rope. He started slow, with hundreds, maybe thousands of climbs in the moderate range, building the confidence required to tackle tougher routes with no exit strategy if a foot or a hand pops off a hold.

In 2007, he completed ropeless ascents of two major Yosemite climbs, Astroman and the Rostrum. By the following year, he became a climbing celebrity with his free solo of the sandstone Moonlight Buttress in Zion and then, to even more fanfare, Half Dome.

The North Face added him to its roster of sponsored climbers; the less than $20,000 a year he received more than took care of his modest needs. Mainstream fame took another three years, with an appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes in which the television presenter breathlessly narrated Honnold’s real-time solo on Yosemite’s Sentinel.

Now, he’s a star. A month before our meeting, Honnold’s allure is on full display at Manhattan’s Symphony Space theatre, where he and his sometime climbing partner, Cedar Wright, are promoting their new documentary, Sufferfest 2. After the screening, a queue of mostly twentysomething fans, nearly half of them young women, snakes down Broadway. Some wait for up to an hour for an autograph and a selfie. “I love the butt shot,” one fangirl says to her friend, referring to a scene in the film where Honnold takes a tumble on his bike, tearing the seat of his spandex shorts. “His chest and butt are very pale,” her friend replies. “I hear he never takes off his shirt.”

During the screening, the climbers hang out in the green room. Wright tries to pump up Honnold for the post-film Q&A, because there are so many important TV executives in the room. I bring up Walter Bonatti, a pioneering alpine soloist of the Fifties and Sixties and one of Honnold’s early heroes, who regarded every major climb as a mortal struggle for self-vindication.

“That reminds me of somebody,” Wright says, with an exaggerated nod in Honnold’s direction. “It’s all about approval. For Alex, it’s all about trying to prove to his mother that he actually is good enough.”

“It’s weird, though,” Honnold says. “Because now my mom is my biggest fan. She’s like, ‘You’ve done good, but you know you could do better.’”

Honnold describes his mother as “formidable,” as disciplined and goal-orientated as he is. Just retired from teaching languages at the same community college where her ex-husband worked, Dierdre Wolownick (she reclaimed her maiden name after the divorce) is a near concert-level pianist and an author of two travel books and two novels.

Preoccupied with her own demanding life, Wolownick wasn’t much interested in her son’s climbing. But when he started getting written up in climbing magazines, she emerged as his biggest booster. “For years, my sister was the favourite child because she was graduating college and doing well, whereas I was just living in a van, homeless.”

Inspired by her son, Wolownick, 64, learnt to climb when she was in her late fifties. She’s a regular at the Sacramento climbing gym where Honnold trains when he’s in town, and she often climbs outdoors on the local crags on weekends. For the past three years, to celebrate her birthday, Honnold has taken her into the High Sierra for day-long ascents. He pushes her to her limits, even to the point of collapse. In one instance she had to grab hold of the handle on his pack so he could hustle her off the mountain in the rain and the dark. “Each of these trips,” Honnold says, “I’ve guided, I’ve chaperoned, I’ve cajoled her the whole time, and she’s, like, barely survived. It’s kind of outrageous.”

Can you hold her if she slips on one of these climbs?

“Probably,” he says. “Almost certainly.”

It’s tempting to think of Honnold as fearless. But that’s not really the case. The difference is that his fear is overpowered by his faith in his abilities. That confidence is often the result of painstaking practice and intense planning. Before his astonishing 2014 free-solo ascent of El Sendero Luminoso – 1,500 feet straight up a face of smooth limestone – Honnold spent days assiduously stripping the route of vegetation and, with a rope, rehearsing moves over and over again. It was only then that he was able to banish the anxiety about the climb and start moving upward without gear. “I’m the thinking man’s adrenaline junkie,” he says.

Tommy Caldwell, who has climbed with Honnold, says, “Most of us are ruled by our emotions. When something attracts us, we gravitate towards it; when we’re afraid of it, we run away. But Alex seems to treat his emotions like a car stereo. When the music gets too loud, he just turns down the dial and keeps driving.”

On our last night in the valley, we have a cosy dinner inside the van, which is parked in a friend’s driveway just outside Yosemite. The van’s ergonomics have been refined over 150,000 miles of driving, eating and sleeping, the rear passenger seat long since removed to make room for the thoughtfully organised basics of everyday life. In such a contained space, the propane-fuelled stove cooking up our macaroni cheese nicely warms up the chilly night.

Paradoxically, this low-carbon-footprint guy has proved to be a highly effective corporate salesman. Honnold has appeared in ads for Range Rover, Citigroup – even Dewar’s whisky, an odd choice for a lifelong teetotaller. In each case it’s less about selling the product than selling Honnold as the embodiment of limitless freedom and astonishing courage. As for the booze ad, he parses the morality of it as an economist would. “No one is going to buy seven cases of whisky because they saw an ad,” he says. “Maybe I’m shifting market share from vodka to whisky. In some ways I feel worse about clothing ads, because it’s like, ‘Buy more stuff!’ You don’t really need more stuff.”

There are lines Honnold refuses to cross. He recently said no to a giant soft drink company that offered big money for an ad campaign. (“Soft drinks are, like, heinous,” he says.) Any guilt he does feel, he assuages by tithing a chunk of his annual income to his Honnold Foundation, which helps underwrite sustainable energy projects. For the past three years, he’s put in about $50,000 a year, about a third of an annual income that is enviable by pro-climbing standards.

This year, however, will be different. Honnold recently signed a six-figure North Face contract. “It’s a five-year, full-on, professional athlete-style contract – like, whoa!” he says. The money will come in handy because, for the first time in his life, Honnold has assumed some debt, a loan he took out to buy his grandmother’s cabin in Lake Tahoe, California.

The next morning we load up the van and head down to Sacramento. When we pull up at Wolownick’s house, Honnold announces that we’ve beaten his previous Yosemite-Sac drive-time personal best by five or six minutes, depending on how you calculate the stop for petrol. “I’m slowly paring it down,” he says. “Kind of exciting.”

As Honnold scrolls through his emails on his laptop, Wolownick shows me the four climbing essays she’s published in the past few years, some of which explore the mother-son theme. Eventually we head off to our respective quarters for the night: me in the guest bedroom; Honnold heads back to the van parked at the curb.

Soon, Honnold won’t be sleeping in the van quite so much. He plans to expand his Lake Tahoe cabin and make it a proper home base. As the outlines of a new adult life become visible, the person, it seems, is catching up with the climbing résumé. His ex-girlfriend, Stacey Pearson, says that Honnold used to talk about his “JOPG”, or “Journey of Personal Growth”, a little irony-leavened self-consciousness. As it turned out, the JOPG did not include settling down with Pearson. She chalks up the break-up to his not being fully ready to commit. “He is so confident as a climber,” she says. “But I’m not so sure how confident he is in himself as a human being.”

Post-break-up, Honnold has embarked on a journey of on-the-road hook-ups in a logical, even somewhat chilly-sounding way. “I’ve actually adopted a very frank attitude, like, ‘We will never date, we will never see each other again, but if you’re looking for some fun, I’m totally psyched.’ Most chicks actually find that sort of flattering.” At the Symphony Space event before the screening of Sufferfest 2, Honnold’s face lit up every time he encountered an attractive woman. “There were a couple of really cute chicks down there,” he said. “But I don’t have the energy right now.”

For all the activity in his personal life – he’s since found a more serious long-distance love interest – this past year has been relatively quiet in terms of headline-grabbing climbs. The exception was an ambitious climb in Patagonia during which he and the noted young alpinist Colin Haley attempted all four peaks of the Cerro Torre massif in a single all-day, all-night push, only to be stopped 250ft below the summit by ferocious and near lethal freezing winds. “For somebody like me, who’s used to rock climbing in Yosemite, I’m not really used to considering dying from the weather,” he says. “I was like, ‘This is kind of f***ed up.’” (Although he doesn’t consider himself an alpinist, two years ago in Patagonia he and Caldwell linked all seven peaks in the Fitz Roy massif in a single four-day push. It was the first successful Fitz Roy “enchainment”, which won them the alpine world’s highest honour, the Piolets d’Or.)

Next year he expects to push himself harder. He may even let himself be persuaded to take a go at a Himalayan peak, Thalay Sagar in northern India, which is rife with the sort of objective dangers – avalanches, crevasses – that a rock climber like Honnold seldom encounters. “I mean, falling into a crevasse would suck,” he says. “But I’ve sort of accepted that there is a chance that I could die that way. Like it would just happen.”