Man at His Best

What I've Learned: 'Free Solo' Climber Alex Honnold

The first man to climb 3,000-foot up the sheer El Capitan cliff face without ropes talks fear, death and Oscar nominations

BY TOM NICHOLSON | Feb 5, 2019 | Fitness & Health

JIMMY CHIN

I first thought of potentially soloing El Capitan in 2009, but then it took me another eight years to actually do it. Why? You frickin’ look at the wall, and it’s so scary. I mean, it’s one thing to think, oh, I should do that, that’s the next obvious challenge. It’s another to actually do it.

Starting in 2013 or '14, the plan was all listed in the back of my journal with initials, none of it actually written out. It seemed too daunting to actually write "Free solo El Cap". Too crazy. And you don’t want any of your friends to see it.

El Cap holds an amazing mythology within the climbing world. It was such a significant thing when it was first climbed in 1959; it always represented this impossible next step in big wall climbing. When it was first free-climbed in the '80s - which means with a rope but with your hands and feet - that was a huge step. A lot of history has been written on El Cap.

Everybody has their own reasons for doing free solo attempts. In the film, you see [Canadian free soloist] Peter Croft, who’s one of my heroes. Peter and I are very similar as climbers, but we actually have pretty different motivations: I grew up in the gym and I’ve always seen climbing as a more athletic endeavour; he grew up climbing outdoors and always saw it as more of an adventure.

In some ways I wound up a climber because I didn’t want to be anything else. I was going to university to study engineering, but I wasn’t really passionate about it and it felt like the default: I graduated high school and now I have to go to college. The only thing I was really passionate was climbing.

I’d wager I’ve spent more time thinking about my mortality than you. But we’re both going to die.

I laid my breakfast out the night before El Cap, so it was already mixed in my bowl.All I had to do was pour some hemp milk in. My clothes were already laid out. My bag was already packed. Everything was there so as soon as I got out of bed I just performed. You don’t want any big decisions the day of.

Ideally, fear doesn’t intrude on my thoughts at all while I’m doing theclimb. You can see on the failed attempt [Honnold turned back early in his first attempt to free solo El Capitan] that it did, obviously. But in theory, I deal with all the fear ahead of time. But that’s all an ideal.

Jimmy Chin

Rockfall is always a danger in the mountains, although less so in Yosemite than most places because the walls are really clean. But in other parts of the world - say the Dolemites in Italy, where it’s limestone - it’s not uncommon for rocks to fall off a cliff, or for animals up on the summit of the mountain to walk around and knock little rocks off. Things like that can potentially kill you.

Basically, we’re all going to die. Honestly, I think everybody should have that attitude. I don’t know for sure, but I’d wager I’ve spent more time thinking about my mortality than you have. But we’re both going to die the same.

You could be hit by a car while trying to cross the street, you know? I almost got hit by an ambulance yesterday. We all take risks in life, and you never quite know which one is going to be your last. Ideally, you’ve thought about them yourself and chosen the ones you care about.

In the 14 months since the climb, the satisfaction had definitely waned. And then the film has come out, and I’m just awash in the satisfaction of El Cap every night. It really does prolong the whole experience. But hopefully the film tour will die down soon and I’ll go back to being dissatisfied.

Obviously if I fell and died, I knew that my girlfriend would be bummed.

I’ve always felt that you shouldn’t read too much into George Mallory's quote about why he climbed Everest ["Because it's there"]. It was at the end of some long press conference and he was probably totally over it, trying to go back to his room.

But I think his answer was fair, you know. People often ask 'why do you solo, why do you do whatever' and my answer’s often: "Why does any human do anything difficult? Why do we take on challenges? What is human drive?"

I definitely didn’t realise the full impact that my climb was having on my friends.Obviously if I fell and died, I knew that my girlfriend would be bummed.

I don’t know if my relationship with my girlfriend Sanni has changed my perspective on free soloing. I think that her opinion matters more now, and I would take her opinion more into account. Or at least I’m certainly open to hearing it more.

The Best Documentary Oscar nomination is an honour. It’s a life experience, for sure. I don’t want to say I don’t care – obviously it’s really nice – but I don’t care that much. I think that for the filmmakers it’s really great to be recognised by their peers for the hard work they did in making a beautiful film. I already got the recognition of my peers when I did the actual climb.

I don’t know if I want – or should want – that kind of validation from the Academy.There’s a scene in the film where Peter Croft is talking about soloing for the right reasons and making sure that you’re doing it for you. And despite the fact that we made this film, I was always doing it for me.

'Free Solo' is up for Best Documentary at the Oscars and the Baftas, and is showing on National Geographic soon.

 

From: Esquire UK


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