Rock Star: Alex Honnold scales epic rock walls with nothing but his hands, feet and heart

El Capitan can take advanced climbers four days. A Sacramento mountaineer completed his free solo ascent in under four hours.

Free solo mountaineering puts the climber at constant risk of death. Alex Honnold, pictured here in Kenya, doesn’t seem to care.

Free solo mountaineering puts the climber at constant risk of death. Alex Honnold, pictured here in Kenya, doesn’t seem to care.

Photo courtesy OF The North Face/Ted Hesser

Alex Honnold was scrambling. This was five years ago, five years before the 31-year-old from Carmichael accomplished the greatest feat in rock-climbing history. It was mid-summer, 2012, and Honnold was on North Palisade in the eastern Sierra Nevada, in trouble. The fourth-highest summit among the 15 peaks in California with 14,000-plus-feet of elevation, North Palisade isn’t considered particularly technical. But it’s challenging—especially when something goes wrong.

Honnold’s plan had been to negotiate all the California 14ers in a two-week span. But he got sidetracked when he pulled off a big chunk of rock, and it was heading his way fast. He recalls the occasion over breakfast at the recent Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City. He’s done thousands of climbs, but his issue on the Southern California mountain was still fresh in his mind.

“Basically, this rock was falling on me, and I sort of Super Mario-styled it, and triple-jumped down some ledges, and I stuck this ledge,” he says. “It was six feet, then 5 feet, then four feet farther. The rock went down my arm and scraped my leg. But I was fine. I was a little shaken up and a little concerned. But I didn’t fall off the mountain. That kind of stuff happens sometimes.”

Through his 20 years in the sport, Honnold has had other near misses. But they’re infrequent. In free soloing, the climber uses no ropes, no harness and no protective gear. The percentage of accidents is small, because a mistake of any consequence is likely a climber’s last. At least 13 prominent climbers have fallen to their deaths while free soloing since 1980.

Although he confronts death as a vocation, Honnold doesn’t dwell on it. “It’s unusual, or else I wouldn’t solo as much,” he says, without apparent emotion. He says free solos on long, steep walls make up about 5 percent of his treks. “But there have certainly been plenty of occasions when something unexpected happens.”

Honnold is famous in the world of outdoor sport, where he is often referred to as “NBD:” No Big Deal. When, in 2011, he became the first climber to free-solo Half Dome, he might have high-fived a friend or two. But there’s no chest-beating, primal screams or overt gesturing of any kind. For him, that isn’t part of a sport in which reaching a mountaintop is the celebration. It requires no further embellishment.

The Height of Heights

In his first decade as a professional climber, Honnold has set records in several disciplines: sport-climbing, bouldering, single-pitch and, especially, big-wall. You name it, he’s won it. On June 3, he surpassed all of that: His free solo ascent of El Capitan was the first in history. Most agree that it stands as one of the crowning achievements of climbing, and some have called it the greatest achievement in the history of sports.

Some context: The iconic granite wall in Yosemite, which rises just less than 3,000 feet, generally takes advanced climbers using ropes and other equipment four days. After studying the route known as Freerider for more than a year and climbing the wall several times with ropes, Honnold cpmpleted the climb in three hours and 56 minutes. He drank two liters of water, urinated often, and ate energy bars and electrolyte chews he’d previously stashed in crevices on the wall.

When he finished, Honnold galloped on an easy descent route for an hour on the other side of the peak. He grinned as he told me he arrived where he’d started with most of the day remaining and considered doing the climb again. It wasn’t bravado, just exuberance. No big deal.

“I felt amazing,” Honnold recalls. “When I got to the top, I said something like, ’I could go down and do it again if I had to. I feel so good and so strong.’ Actually, I did my normal training routine that afternoon.

Honnold clearly feels more at home on rocks than most humans do in the suburbs. And El Capitan is his favorite rock.

“I feel extremely comfortable on the wall, he says. “Climbing on a mountain like El Cap, there are probably less objective hazards than there are while driving. The mountain is a more stable medium than the highway. That’s not true for all mountains; some have avalanches and stuff happening. But El Cap is like such perfect rock. The air is clean and the Sierra has a perfect climate.”

Word has gotten out about the wonders of the Sierra. El Capitan and the many other routes in Yosemite have become climbing nirvanas. In the past 20 years, the American Safe Climbing Association and other organizations have replaced hundreds, if not thousands, of bolt-like anchors on Yosemite climbs. Route details, climbing difficulty, pitch classifications, weather norms and live cams are all readily available online. But it’s not Honnold’s way.

“There’s this typical route that everyone who climbs El Cap takes, and the route is limited to where there’s protection,” he says. “That has a lot to do with how they did the first ascent, and where they drilled the bolts, and so that’s how you protect yourself. I sort of realized about a month-and-a-half before I soloed El Cap—I didn’t need to limit myself to where the protection, because the way I was going to climb, I didn’t really have any protection.

“People often feel when you are climbing with a rope you don’t mind doing a really hard move if there’s a bolt right in front of you. I realized all those hard moves that have bolts right there—I was going to go around them. I started broadening my gaze a little bit and looking on either side, 30 feet to one side, 50 feet to the other side. Nobody else has ever looked. Anybody else is out there with a rope. Nobody has ever been up there thinking about free soloing.”

Bringing Up Alex

Honnold family legend includes tales of a shy, thin boy sitting on top of the refrigerator at age 2. Young Alex advanced to outdoor ascents to the family’s roof within a few years. Honnold’s mother first took her son to the Rocknasium in Davis when he was 5. When he was 10, Honnold’s father began taking him to Granite Arch Climbing Center in Rancho Cordova as often as five days a week.

Honnold is renowned as much for his laid-back, generous spirit as for his fearlessness.

Photo courtesy of The North Face/ Clayton Boyd

“They used to make fun of my dad,” Honnold remembers. “I would climb to the top, come down and climb again. My dad was the belayer [holding the rope]. He would have this epic loop of rope stretched across the floor. It was like a joke at the gym, but he would be like ’whatever.’’’

With the young Honnold’s skills quickly improving, he traveled around the state with his father for junior competitions. Mainstream sports were never part of Honnold’s youth. He remembers P.E. classes and running some, but he had little interest in anything except climbing. Team sports were never a consideration because “I’m not really a team sports kind of guy,” he says.

Honnold’s mother, Dierdre Wolownick, a long-distance runner and former language teacher at American River College, wasn’t immersed in her son’s youth climbing although she climbed as a youngster. She retuned to the sport in 2009 and now climbs often, training at local indoor facilities. Honnold says they do “good little adventures” together, but that she’s not much of a climber. “No, she’s not very skilled, not at all,” he says, chuckling. “By any measure—she’s done marathons and climbs—she’s amazingly fit. But in the climbing world, if you’re looking at elite performance, no.”

Wolownick laughs while recalling her son’s early curiosity with heights. “It was very difficult to raise a kid like that because he was dedicated to getting vertical when he was born, just as he is now,” she says. “If I had known what he was going to wind up being, it would have been easier.

“Alex and his sister kept wanting to go up on the roof and I was saying ’no, no, no.’ He was only 5. Who lets their 5-year-old go up on the roof? I knew he did it. He went up and he came down and he was safe. So I said, ’The next time you go up there, get all the leaves out of the gutters.’ So now every time he comes home, he goes up on the roof and cleans out my gutters.”

The little adventures Honnold and his mother share will reach a new level next month when they visit El Capitan together to celebrate Wolownick’s birthday. They visit a different location every year, and it will be her first time visiting the spot where her son made history.

“You have to go with the gift,” Wolownick says. “He was going to get vertical no matter what I wanted. It was going to happen anyway, so you might as well get the good out of it.”

After graduating from Mira Loma High School in 2003, Honnold attended UC Berkeley for one year but dropped out to become a full-time climber. His parents had divorced and within a year his father, who taught English as a Second Language at ARC, died after suffering a heart attack.

Traveling seemed like the best option, so Honnold set off in his family’s 2002 van. He remained nomadic in the same vehicle for nine years, traveling to climbing locations around the country and logging nearly 200,000 miles. He was a professional climber by definition but often made less than $1,000 a month. He talks about his days visiting Walmart for 69-cent bags of pasta and being perfectly content at dinnertime.

Until recently, Honnold officially used his mother’s Carmichael home as his base. But in recent years, he’s visited less frequently, sometimes only a few days a month. This spring, Honnold purchased a home in Las Vegas where he lives with his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless.

A new customized Dodge Ram Promaster has replaced the family relic. In a recent video for Outside Magazine, Honnold extolled the simplicity of living out of a van. While giving a tour of the comfort and convenience of his tiny house on wheels, he holds up a plastic container. He explains that when having to visit the bathroom in the middle of the night, it’s usually far across the room. He smiles, holds the bottle up to the camera and says, “This is a lot more convenient.”

Home Sweet Gym

Honnold visits the climbing facilities of his youth when passing through Sacramento, often while en route to and from the Bay Area. He’s well-known to regulars and staff and he’s a celebrity to others who’ve viewed his videos or television appearances.

Robert Hallworth and Isha Lloyd were working out one recent Saturday afternoon in Sacramento Pipeworks, the indoor climbing center located in a massive 94-year-old building on North 16th Street, where steel pipe was once manufactured. Hallworth, a yoga and meditation instructor, and Lloyd, a paramedic for the Sacramento Fire Department, are veteran recreation climbers who understand the difficultly of Honnold’s accomplishments.

“When I first met him, he was probably 16 or 17,” says Hallworth. “He was shy, actually. He was quick in his workout and just got it done. He didn’t waste any time with talk, which a lot of people seem to do, myself included. But when he started to get some notoriety, he never talked it up. He was always mellow. It’s a quality I admire in him. We need more people like that.

“He might not agree with me on this, but I think Alex has the most meditative awareness, focus and concentration of any person I’ve ever known. He can focus on a single thing for two, three or four hours. I think he has remarkable physical ability and strength, but more than all of that is the mental thing, the meditative awareness.” 

Lloyd adds: “He’s just a normal person. He doesn’t show off at all. But if you don’t look fast, he’s done his workout and he’s gone.”

Fame In 60 Minutes

Honnold’s under-the-mainstream-media-radar life changed shortly after a 13-minute segment about his solo free-climbing prowess appeared on 60 Minutes in October 2011. The show set up his ascent of Half Dome, a two-hour free solo trek which was a world’s first at the time, and has not been duplicated since. The broadcast, with Lara Logan as the interviewer, was compelling and vertigo-inducing —too difficult for some viewers to watch.

Before he fell in love with rock, Honnold loved climbing. He visits Sacramento’s Pipeworks when he’s in town.

Photo courtesy of The north face/Clayton Boyd

Cameras from a half-mile away showed him as a speck on the wall. Additional cameras positioned in several places along his route showed a focused, relaxed athlete composed enough to smile and even whistle. An up-close view showed Honnold with a look on his face that beamed, “I got this.”

Honnold said the segment, which aired three times, had a viewership estimated at 20 million. “At the time, the producer was like, ’This is going to change your life,” Honnold recalls during breakfast. “I was like, ’No way. How can a TV program change your life?’ And it kind of did change my life. All of my social media exploded. [And] I did get a lot of corporate and public- speaking-type offers. All of a sudden, I just had a lot more public exposure.”

That explosion of fame is likely to be repeated next year. The climber’s El Capitan effort was filmed for a full-length feature film by National Geographic. With a working title of “Solo,” it’s scheduled for national release next summer.

Honnold has five sponsors, including a five-year contract with The North Face. “I love the stability of it because being a professional athlete is inherently an unstable job,” Honnold says, seemingly without knowing the irony of his words. “I’m an independent contractor with all of these companies and they can drop you at any time if they need to. If I got hurt or injured, they might hang on to me for a year or two, but it’s really up in the air.”

Success has helped Honnold support his philanthropic ideals. He reportedly gives one-third of his income to the foundation he began five years ago. Its mission is to “seek simple, sustainable ways to improve lives worldwide. Simplicity is the key; low-impact, better living is the goal.”

As his climbing stature grew, he says he decided to use his bigger platform for “something positive.”

His goal is to fund sustainable environmental programs to help people get out of poverty, with another program to preserve public lands,

The Honnold Foundation supports a program that puts solar panels on off-the-grid homes in the Navajo Nation, and is creating an entrepreneurship program that will be self-sustaining. Another project delivers solar power to remote areas in Kenya (one of Alex’s climbing destinations). Closer to home, his foundation’s funding helped GRID Alternatives install more than 550 photovoltaic solar energy systems in the Central Valley. And Honnold’s New Dream project “seeks to cultivate a new American dream—one that emphasizes community, ecological sustainability, and a celebration of non-material values.”

“Basically, my foundation is to do something good in the world,” he says. “Obviously, I care about preserving wild space and protecting the outdoors. I care about public lands. I spend all of my time on public lands. So I use my platform as athlete to talk about that and sort of push protecting public space.”

Passion Play

The line is 20-deep, maybe longer, at the La Sportiva booth at the Outdoor Retailer show. The Italian manufacturer of climbing shoes and other outdoor equipment and apparel is featuring Honnold and his close friend, the famed climber Tommy Caldwell, in a meet-and-great and autograph session. It’s late afternoon and the climbers have both remained 45 minutes longer than their one-hour commitment. Honnold had already spent two hours across the aisle in the same role for another sponsor. 

The next morning during breakfast, before another day of business obligations, the climber explained his generosity. 

“In general, I always figure if someone is willing to wait in line for more than an hour, I’m willing to wait the few extra seconds to sign their poster or say hello or whatever,” he says. “I aspire never to be the guy who’s looking at the clock to leave, especially if there’s a line. If they’re psyched, then I’m psyched.”

Honnold has attended his share of outdoor conferences and corporate speaking engagements. At Outdoor Retailer, he greets fans, the CEOs of sponsoring companies, and even journalists with in-the-moment enthusiasm. He’s a gentler version of the scientist Christopher Lloyd played in Back To The Future. Or perhaps the climber is constantly viewing a personal performance of Cirque du Soleil no one else can see.

He carries 155 pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame dominated by a muscular upper back, perfectly unkempt dark hair and darker eyes. During his 60 Minutes interview, much was made of Honnold’s large hands. They aren’t that big. But his fingers are wide and his distal joints, crucial for gripping rock where there’s little to grip, are muscled and calloused.

Free solo mountain climbers are often viewed as eccentrics with a death wish—limelight-seekers and daredevils. Honnold doesn’t care.

“I’ve gotten comments like that over the years,” he says. “People have said that they shouldn’t be paying for search and rescue for idiots like me who are going to get themselves killed. In reality, most of the ssearch and rescue money is spent on obese people who rolled their ankle or forgot to take water on their hike. It’s always because they weren’t prepared or they weren’t really in shape.”

Beyond defending his sanity and motivation, Honnold is repeatedly asked a simple, but hard-to-answer question: What’s next? Climbers often keep goals private to lessen outside expectations. Honnold has never even told his mother his free solo plans.

“I don’t know; I’ve been trying to focus on more difficult, harder climbs and more principle,” he says. “We’ll see. I have the opportunity to climb in the Dolomites in September. I’ve always wanted to go there. It’s historic and good climbing. But one of the reasons I don’t really know is that after doing El Capitan, well … it’s only been a month and a half. I need some hunger to return.”