Dangerous heights

Rock-climbing sees heightened popularity as a new movie documents Sacramento native’s rope-free ascent of El Capitan

Alex Honnold climbing in Kenya.

Alex Honnold climbing in Kenya.

Photo courtesy of The North Face / Ted Hesser

More than a year after Alex Honnold did what no one ever had, the rock climber’s death-defying ascent to the top of El Capitan in Yosemite will be detailed in the upcoming movie, Free Solo.

The 32-year-old Sacramento native scaled the nearly 3,000-foot granite wall without ropes on June 3, 2017. Only a few close friends, including husband-wife filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, knew when Honnold was going to attempt the climb, which took a harrowing three hours and 56 minutes to complete. But the voyage had been in Honnold’s sights for eight years. He planned for more than a year and trained in a half-dozen countries.

Since accomplishing what has been cited as the greatest rock-climbing feat in history, Honnold has been in demand. He traveled to finish the movie. He worked on a second book. He made public speaking appearances for corporations and at universities. He gave a TED Talk.

Rock climbing has long been a niche activity. But Honnold’s exploits, which first gained mainstream notoriety in 2011 when his solo climb of Half Dome in Yosemite was featured on 60 Minutes, have kindled new interest. With the increased fascination come frequent reminders of rock climbing’s dangers.

Nearly a year after his El Capitan milestone, Honnold and climbing partner Tommy Caldwell pursued the team speed-climbing record (with ropes) on El Capitan. They shattered the record several times while challenging different routes, including the Nose and Zodiac. On June 6, the longtime friends became the second twosome to break two hours, by completing the 3,000-foot climb in 1 hour, 58 minutes and 7 seconds.

Four days before that record was set, veteran climbers Jason Wells and Tim Klein fell to their deaths while climbing a Freeblast section of the Salathé Wall on El Capitan.

A few weeks earlier, previous Nose record-holder Hans Florine fell during a planned, one-day ascent of the same climb and broke his legs. Last autumn, Caldwell’s close friend, elite climber Quinn Brett, attempted the women’s speed record on the Nose. She fell more than 100 feet, hit a ledge and is now paralyzed from the waist down.

Climbing deaths have also occurred this year on the daunting mountain K2 in Pakistan, as well as in Colorado, Oregon and Wyoming.

“With social media, you hear about these climbs more often, that’s bringing more people out there,” said Ken Yager, president of the Yosemite Climbing Association. “Climbing is pretty scary if you haven’t done it before. I do worry about it. Like climbing El Cap in a day [with ropes] is pretty much the norm now. Not that long ago, it was pretty rare. I do kind of worry about people taking it lightly.”

In the 2015 climbing film Valley Uprising, Honnold talks about his admiration of friend Dean Potter, a renowned climber who also favored BASE jumping off cliffs in a wingsuit. Potter died in 2016 during a wingsuit jump in Yosemite.

The Foresthill Bridge in Auburn has been the site of illegal BASE jumps as well as suicide attempts.

Photo courtesy of the Placer County Sheriff's Office

Three BASE jumpers, all Northern Californians, were arrested for trespassing and resisting arrest in mid-July after leaping from the 730-foot Foresthill Bridge just outside of Auburn. In recent years, the Placer County Sheriff’s Office reports it has arrested or cited 88 people for either trespassing or BASE jumping off of California’s tallest bridge.

Earlier this year, Honnold traveled to Antarctica for a six-week expedition with The North Face, his primary sponsor. He has a five-year contract with the adventure company and often wears its clothes. The company is also prominent in the pending full-length documentary. The movie initially had the title, Solo. But a conflict arose when the movie Solo: A Star Wars Story was released.

“We found out the Star Wars movie was coming, so we were like, ’Oh, no,’” Honnold said earlier this year while appearing on a popular lifestyle video podcast hosted by Rich Roll. “Solo is a better name, but how are you going to compete with [Han] Solo?”

The National Geographic Documentary Films’ feature is listed as in-post-production on IMBd.com, and is expected to debut by the end of the year. But a prevailing rumor among the climbing industry is that Free Solo will debut during the Toronto Film Festival beginning September 6.

Climbing’s increasing popularity and perils haven’t gone unnoticed by Yager, a former Davis resident who has lived in Yosemite since 1976.

“There are just so many more climbers now,” said Yager, who was employed for years as a climbing guide. “Climbing gyms have opened up people’s eyes to rock climbing. There are a lot more people out there and when they get tired of the gym, they decide they want to branch out and go outside.

“Climbing gyms are getting better, but I compare it to a stationary bike to a bike out on the road. There’s a lot more going on outside.”