Alex Honnold on free-soloing El Capitan

It’s a warm, mid-August evening in Haringey, North London, and there’s a hint of something like Beatlemania in the air. Alex Honnold – the first man ever to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes or safety gear – is in town to spend a day with London’s climbing community, and the queues are really starting to build up outside the Castle Climbing Centre.

To most people wandering alongside the vast edifice that sits incongruously amidst the 70s apartment blocks and more traditional London terracing, Alex Honnold is indistinguishable from any of the other climbers milling about, but to get a sense of what this man means to those thronging around him, you only need to look up. A young woman in the midst of scaling one of the centre’s highest walls is now dangling from a rope, her footing well and truly lost. All it took was a glance of recognition as her hero came around the corner. Thank goodness she wasn’t free-soloing.

As any climber worth their salt will tell you, Alex Honnold is pretty much the king when it comes to shimmying up things unaided. To some, what he does is a heroic display of presence of mind coupled with complete athletic precision. To others, the man’s a lunatic. Either way, his talk on free-soloing the 2.3km of vertical rock-face that make up Yosemite’s El Capitan is gripping stuff, and you’re left feeling rather meek in his very humble presence.

As the only non-alcoholic drinks provider at the event, we were delighted to support North Face and #NeverStopLondon, not to mention having the chance to meet Alex Honnold himself. While we recognise that he appears to drink little more than water, we can think of few better beverages to compliment a climbing expedition. After all, it’s not the kind of activity you want to undertake with a bleary head, and Real Kombucha is all about maintaining that quality of mind and adventure.

Here, then, are a few of the questions and quotes we particularly loved. We can’t wait to see the feature-length documentary on his climb that is coming out next year.

Alex Honnold vs El Capitan 

We should note that the random nature of these questions come from the fact that this was not an official interview. This is a transcript of a Q&A between Alex Honnold and his audience. 

You’re here for the #WallsAreMeantForClimbing campaign. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

Yeah, so I was here yesterday and all day today. #WallsAreMeantForClimbing is North Face’s initiative to help bring people into gyms and help build the climbing community. Wall climbing is a big part of North Face – their logo is Half Dome, which is a pretty iconic wall in Yosemite.

We feel that a big part of climbing is coming together with your partners and community to work towards something difficult – to trust your partner and have that experience together… So all day yesterday I was here doing media, and doing masterclasses today, and then this presentation tonight, but it’s all about bringing the climbing community together to show that walls can bring people together. The campaign makes more sense in the US, perhaps, because at the moment walls are… more of a thing [laughs].

Can you tell us a bit about your strategy to conquer fear? 

Yes, so a lot of people ask me that. It’s not so much about overcoming fear as much as it is about getting prepared to the point that it’s just not scary anymore. When the route I’m climbing has a lot of question marks over it still, it’s like, “No, I don’t know what would happen if my foot slipped on that hold.” There’s a lot of uncertainty, so that makes you afraid of soloing your route. But by the time I’ve knocked off all the question marks, I know exactly what to do; I know exactly where to go, so then it’s like I’m not scared anymore. So my best strategy for dealing with fear is to get comfortable to the point that it’s just not scary.

That said, occasionally things will happen that are really scary, and then you just have to deal with it using deep breaths and composing yourself. Getting focused.

Do you take a phone up with you? 

Yeah, but I have it on airplane mode so I don’t get distracted [laughs]. Actually, I have it to listen to music. When you’re climbing for four hours it’s just nice to listen to tunes. I listen to hard rock [laughs], but a lot of that is to do with pacing because each song is about three minutes and that gives me a good sense of how long I’ve been on pitches and how fast I’m going.

Now you’ve free-soloed El Capitan, what’s next? How do you top that? 

I get that question a lot: ‘what’s next?’ I’ve been working on this film project [filming the El Capitan climb] for the last year and a half. I’ve pretty much ignored all sponsor obligations. For the full three weeks before I did this route, I just stopped answering emails… to the point that I stopped getting emails [laughs]! I was getting like one email a day, and I was like, “Huh! Have they forgotten about me?!” But I totally dropped off the map. Now I’m back on the map, so I’m involved in a few events. I’m catching up on real life a little bit.

Do you have a new goal, though? 

Everybody asks me that, but this climb was just like two months ago! It’d be like training four years for the Olympics and then as soon as you finished you start training for the World Cup. I gotta relax! But I’m going to Antarctica this winter for a North Face expedition, and that’ll be a change of pace and an outrageous life experience. Then there’ll be the film premiere this winter, and that’ll be quite a crazy experience for me, too. While I do that stuff, I feel like I’ll start to develop some new climbing goals and see what that’s about.

Can you tell us about climbing with Ueli Steck, and how his death affected you? 

Well, [his death came] when I was in the midst of all this preparation for El Capitan, and it did give me pause. Ueli was always doing some of the most dangerous things that have ever been done, but for some reason I always thought he’d be OK. I always thought Ueli was beyond that. And then you hear about him dying in what appears to have been a totally trivial accident. You hear that he just slipped, and it makes you think.

Ueli was, like, The Man… Climbing with him was supper inspiring because he’d be like in full training mode – running, paragliding, doing other things – and it’d all seem like no problem. It was like, “Oh, this is just your casual rest! You’re not even trying to be a rock climber and you’re still better than me.”

What does your family and girlfriend think of you doing things like soloing El Capitan? 

My girlfriend was part of the film process – she was living in my van with me. None of my family or friends knew much about it. They might’ve known that I was interested, but none of them knew what was going on day to day. My girlfriend knew the deal, and she left the van about a week before to give me some space. A big part of it was sitting in that van by myself and having the time to process it and think.

It felt a bit like going back to the good old days, like 2008, when I had no friends, no girlfriend – I was just a total loser in this tiny little van. I had nothing going on. So I’d just sit in my van with nothing to do except think about sequences. I had no computer, smartphone or anything, and that gives you a lot of time to focus on my routes. You sit there and peace out.

It was funny once she wasn’t there, though, because she’d been with me for the whole process. To not have her there at the top to celebrate… but she understood what I needed. It would’ve been strange to leave the van that morning and be like, “OK then, see you tonight!” knowing that she’s super nervous. She trusts me, but it’s still weird for her to be thinking, “Oh, he’s just off to solo El Cap.”

All that stuff if super weird. It’s definitely better the fewer people that know. I tend to keep it to myself.

Do you have any desires to compete for Team USA, now that climbing is an Olympic sport? 

Me, climbing for the US Olympic team? I’m too old, too heavy and too bad! [Laughs] The people who are going to be climbing in the Olympics are all around 15 to 18 right now. I’m actually kind of hoping that they might ask me along as a kind of commentator, or something [laughs]. I’d love to go and see it. I wish!

Did you have any near-misses or strange experiences on El Cap? 

I didn’t exactly zone out, but I did have a strange experience on the third or fourth to last pitch. It’s only like a 6D crack, but half your body goes inside it. It’s a really hard style to climb in. I was climbing it really quickly because I realised that I might do it in under four hours, and I was just raging up there. And then I had this really strange moment where I thought, “this is the best this pitch has ever been climbed! That’s awesome!” But then I was like, “Wait a minute, buddy. Rein it back in.” Because that’s when you’re going to miss your foothold and fall to your death. So, it’s like, “Don’t get ahead of yourself. Take a deep breath. Relax. Keep focusing. No need to get cocky.”

So it’s not exactly zoning out, but it was like, “This is awesome! You’re The Man!” And then, like, “No, no, no – you are definitely not The Man!”

Did you have any exit strategies when you were climbing El Capitan? 

No, I didn’t really have anything like clinging to trees. The reality of El Cap is that there are ledges that I can sit on, even if they’re the size of this podium. And then it’d be like [cups hands to mouth], “HELP!” [Laughs] I could always take my phone out of airplane mode and start sending some texts: “No cause for alarm, but could you rappel down and bring a harness, please?” [Laughs]

That’s the thing about soloing El Capitan: it’s not that committing. [Laughs] No, actually, it is committing – if you fall off, you’re gonna die! But if you get tired you can just sit anywhere. You know, I passed people at the bottom of the route – two or three parties – and they’d have all gotten to me in a day or two [laughs]. It sounds bad, but in the grand scheme of things, sitting on a little ledge for a day is better than dying.

What drives you to free-solo? 

What drives me? I dunno. I think a big part of it is where and when I grew up, and the culture of it. Growing up in California, it was the accessibility – growing up on granite, with granite cracks. Soloing on granite feels secure in a way that soloing on the limestone here in the UK just does not feel secure. If you growing up climbing on Raven Tor, you’re not going to end up being a soloist. It’s like the most slippery rock in the world. Nobody would solo there. It’s terrible. But with granite, the rocks feel natural and safe. So there’s a lot more history of it, and it feels cool.

What’s your most nerve-wracking solo climb? 

Have you heard of Romantic Warrior in California? It’s probably the best of its kind in the entire world. It’s probably about a 250-300m crack system. There are all these open, sweeping corners – very committing, very technical. I climbed up by myself and rappelled it over the course of a day to memorise sequences until I knew how to do it. So I worked on preparation for it over a full day, went back to my van exhausted. To get there, it’s really remote, and it turned out I was off-road without any food, and I was like, “Oh, this sucks!” I’d been planning on taking a rest day and then going up the day after, but then I realised I had nothing to eat and I couldn’t just sit there all day without eating. So I decided to solo it the following morning and just get it done so I could eat [laughs].

I woke the next morning feeling totally pooped. Also, the route is at about 2,500 metres, so it’s pretty high, and I’d come the previous day from sea level. Everything about it was basically bad, but I was like, “Well, I’ve memorised all the sequences – I know how to do it so I might as well go up there and get it done.”

So I did it, but it wasn’t great. I didn’t feel like, “I’m a hero!” I felt like, “I’m an idiot.”

But the story I was going to mention was that I climbed the first few pitches and then I was like, “Oh, I really need to take a dump!” So that was kinda nerve-wracking. I ended up having to traverse off route, fully just hanging on, and… [laughs]. It was crazily exposed – about 300, 400 ft off the ground already. It was like, “Nooooo!” Good story, though.

For more information on Alex Honnold and his experiences climbing El Capitan, head to www.alexhonnold.com. The Alex Honnold talk was held at Castle Climbing Centre, and hosted by the North Face Never Stop London community. To try Real Kombucha, look out for us on our kombucha UK map

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *