World-renowned athlete Alex Honnold, star of the new National Geographic film "Free Solo," talks with NPCA about his historic rope-free climb, his passion for Yosemite, his leave-no-trace ethic and his connection with the natural world.
Last year, Alex Honnold amazed the world by climbing one of Yosemite National Park’s most famous landmarks, El Capitan, without any ropes or safety equipment. This style of climbing, known as free soloing, meant that every step he took needed to be perfectly rehearsed and executed — every move meant life or death.
The athlete, then 31, had already broken records and established himself as one of the brightest talents in his field. By ascending the 3,000-foot granite monolith carrying only a bag of chalk, Honnold secured his legacy as one of the greatest climbers in history.
A new film by E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin captures the tension and triumph of Honnold’s breathtaking climb. National Geographic’s “Free Solo” premiered in theaters last month, giving viewers insight into Honnold’s passion and personality, as well as vertigo-inducing footage of the historic ascent.
Honnold spoke with NPCA about his historic rope-free climb, his passion for Yosemite, his leave-no-trace ethic and his connection with the natural world. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
How did you first become inspired to climb El Capitan?
I’d come to Yosemite as a kid camping. My school did one of the conservancy programs there when I was in maybe fifth grade, so I spent a week [there] in elementary school.
I spent a lot of time there over the years. Yosemite occupies such a strong place in climbing history. I’d been reading stories and hearing legends about it for basically my entire climbing life.
My first season [as a climber] in Yosemite in 2005, a partner and I climbed El Cap with a rope for the first time, and that was the culmination of our season. It was our big goal for the whole year, to be able to climb El Cap. Then, I had new goals on El Cap each season, to climb it faster, to free climb it, to do better on it. By 2009, I was dreaming about potentially free soloing it, but it took much longer until it actually became possible.
Was part of it overcoming your fear?
Yes. Or you could phrase it differently. I was afraid of it because I was totally unprepared — I probably would have died. It wasn’t just, “Oh, I need to overcome my fear.” It was, “I need to actually become a better climber and be prepared and learn how.”
Was this preparation about getting better technical knowledge of El Cap, or honing your skills more broadly?
Both. For the first many years, it was broadening skills more generally, broadening my vision and just getting stronger. For the final year and a half, the time frame in the film, it was the more specific preparation of actually working on the route itself.
What was most memorable about your free solo climb of El Capitan?
About half the climb was really difficult. I was totally focused, and my mind was pretty empty — I was just executing the moves. The other half of the climb was relatively easy, and I was able to look around and appreciate the view and enjoy being there, which is the point of free soloing to begin with. So, for half the solo, I was looking around the park, just marveling in where I was, what I was doing and how beautiful it was. I definitely had moments of gratitude.
Which half is the easy half?
It depends on the width of the cracks and things like that. There are some places where the rock is really sheer, and other places where there’s plenty to hold on to.
I’ve only ever stood at the base of El Capitan and looked up, but it didn’t seem very easy to me.
After 20 years of preparation, there are some easy parts.
How does your environmental ethic affect your climbing? Are there things you do differently to have less of an impact on the land?
It’s a broad ethic. Leaving no trace is important, in both being in the outdoors and in actual climbing. Free soloing to some extent is an extension of that ethic. It’s simple, it’s minimalist — it’s very low-impact. It’s just nice to feel like you’re doing no harm.
What about when you’re not free soloing?
I prefer not to “siege” anything — not to leave ropes all over the wall. In general, I’ve always been into the fast and light style, which is generally low-impact because you’re on the wall for so much less time. A lot of the big climbs I’ve done in Patagonia, we’ve done in a single push over a couple of days, or some in a single day, versus previous ascents where people would leave ropes on the mountain for a whole season — sometimes even bolt ladders to the wall and things like that. By going a little lighter and faster, you have less of an impact on the environment.
So, when you go faster, you need less infrastructure on the mountain to support you?
Yes. For example, a partner and I, Tommy Caldwell, climbed the Fitz Traverse in Patagonia, which is the traverse of the seven biggest peaks in the Fitz Roy massif. We spent four and a half days climbing continuously along these peaks, climbing big vertical walls up and down, and then when it got dark, we would camp and just keep doing it the next day. It was just the two of us with no backpacks.
To put it in perspective, the first ascent of all those peaks [took] weeks or months at a time with thousands of feet of rope left on the walls. … One of the faces on Fitz Roy still has old aluminum ladders bolted to it from climbing parties that did the first ascent. When you’re up there climbing the rock, you’re like, “Oh, there’s a frigging aluminum ladder on the wall.” That’s pretty heavy-handed.
Much of the work that we do at NPCA is about balancing the need to protect natural spaces and the desire to explore these same spaces. Do you feel these things are in conflict?
I know exactly the tension that you’re talking about, but I don’t know that they’re necessarily in conflict. Yosemite is a perfect example. Yosemite Valley accommodates, what, like 3 million visitors a year, and they’re mostly just on the valley floor.* People complain that the valley floor is too crowded and there’s too much traffic and it’s too crazy, but the reality is that 3 million people get to come and have this terrific outdoor experience. As a result, the rest of Yosemite National Park is protected, and the rest of the park is vast.
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This last year, I backpacked from Tuolumne to Hetch Hetchy to the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and I basically didn’t see any other humans for 45 miles. And it’s amazing. It’s all beautiful territory. So many people come to Yosemite, have a beautiful nature experience, care about the outdoors and hopefully want to protect it as a result. There are still wild places you can go to if you want. You just have to walk farther into the park.
Yosemite has been my biggest source of inspiration for a decade or more. I’ve been spending three months a year there for the last 11 or 12 years. I really think it is one of the most beautiful and inspiring places on Earth.
You also started a foundation to fund international solar projects. What inspired you to start the Honnold Foundation?
At the time, I was reading too many books about climate change. I felt like I should do something about the environment and didn’t really know what. As I was looking into it more, I came to the realization that any kind of environmental work that wasn’t also improving people’s standard of living was ultimately not going to be that successful. … So I started to look for projects that supported both, and that led me to solar. And now it’s been five or six years supporting solar projects around the world.
I know you have a very rational approach to climbing — that you overcome fear with knowledge. Does this cross over to environmental issues such as these?
I think it’s exactly the same approach — it’s taking something that seems like an impossibly large problem and breaking it down into smaller pieces and working on the little pieces. That’s exactly the process with free soloing El Cap, to take something that seems insurmountably huge and break it down into the pitches that you need to work on and work on them until it all seems possible.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out on being a good climber and a good steward?
I would encourage anybody to go outside and go climbing — it’s just a beautiful way to interact with your environment. It’s important for people to go out and have beautiful experiences in nature. That will make them better stewards overall. … If we want people to protect the environment, they need to actually go out and enjoy it.
*Editor’s note: Yosemite National Park hosted more than 4 million visits in 2017 and more than 5 million in 2016.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.