The best rock climber on Earth

October 3, 2011 • 5:22 am

I have to admire free-solo climbers: those courageous (some would say foolhardy) souls who tackle huge rock faces without ropes or protection. Last night’s 60 Minutes, the only television show I watch regularly, featured a segment on the best of the free climbers: Alex Honnold, a 27 year old wunderkind from California who lives in a van.

Honnold has set many free-climbing records, both first ascents and speed records. For example, he soloed the Nose of El Capitan, also in Yosemite, in a bit under six hours; it takes regular rock climbers two to four days to do the same route. There is absolutely no room for error in this endeavor: if you fall, you die.

You should definitely watch the 13-minute 60 Minutes segment, featuring the first free-solo climb of the 1600-foot north face of Sentinel Rock in Yosemite, here. Even if you don’t like rock climbing, this video will make you gasp.  The show set up several cameras, including several affixed to the rock itself, to record Honnold’s ascent.

This is Sentinel Rock:

Here’s a video of Honnold free-soloing El Capitan.  He climbed this and Half Dome on the same day.

I suppose if I had my life to live over again, I’d climb big mountains as an avocation; it will be one of my unrealized life’s dreams to summit Everest (I’ve stood at its base twice and had that regret).  But I’d never do anything like this.

37 thoughts on “The best rock climber on Earth

  1. Guys like this amaze me. I find it plenty challenging enough just to walk (or sometimes scrabble) up the gradual ascents of mountains. Going straight up a sheer rock face, freehand, just boggles my mind.

    A few months ago I had dinner with a guy who climbed Everest in 2007. Looking through his pictures and videos, it seemed like a marathon like none I’ve ever witnessed before. Not a lot of technical climbing required, just incredible endurance.

    1. His final fall is also available on youtube if you look for it. As I remember he just wanted to collect the ropes from previous jump but at the last moment he made a decision to re-use them for next try. That was not very prudent since the ropes needed to be inspected for rupture first (perhaps he did superficial visual inspection) or best replaced with new ones.

      1. A documentary containing the footage and story of his final jump: (Don’t worry, it’s not grisly at all. I’ll try to prevent it from turning into an embedded video.)

        youtube dot com/watch?v=wY6YsM5Rh0Y

        In short, he did the jump and got the world record, but was too tired to retrieve all his ropes. Some weeks later, he climbed back up to get them, and decided on a whim (I think) to do the jump again. But the ropes didn’t hold up the second time.

    2. Dan Osman was good, but not as good as Honnold. While Osman *is* free-soloing, and doing it very quickly, the route he’s climbing is many orders of magnitude easier than what you see Honnold doing in Jerry’s video. If Honnold really felt like it, he could probably climb Osman’s route even faster… but climbers tend to revere difficulty much more than speed.

      Honnold is truly one of the best climbers out there right now.

      1. Just to give you some insight, Dan Osman was free soloing long before Honnold came into climbing. Free solo climbing has been around much longer then folks realize. The Line, Lovers Leap was free soloed in 1970, I know, I was there. it;s just that rock climbing has reached mainstream media and makes this generation of climbers into celebreties and rock star status, which is unfortunate for climbing. So Honnold is doing nothing that hasn’t been done before, just doing it on a grander scale.
        Bill Smale, Rock Climber, circa 1968-2011.

        1. Alex is one of the best climbers in the world and it is really annoying to hear people try and lessen their achievements. Also he has solo’d routes NEVER free solo’d before and also holds several speed records… I am pretty sure that means he has done some things NO ONE else has….

          1. Honnold gets more exposure than most climbers. there are hundreds of climbers on Honnolds level that go unnoticed. Not all climbrs clamer for attention, also, Honnold endorses many climbing equipment companies, getting free gear, free transporation to world wide locations. He has kind of sold his soul. I realize you need your hero’s to look up to. Yes Honnold is a good climber, amongst many. Question, After free climbing and setting speed records, where do we take climbing next? We’ve turned it into a “sport” and look at me, look what I’ve done. Climbing was meant to be you, the rock and nature becoming one, testing your character.

        2. Wm Smale I just wanted to say I have followed what little is about you on the internet. I like your work ethic and attitude. I wish I could read more about your adventures, if you could steer me toward some please let me know Thank-you….

    3. No thank you, watched once and it is enough. So I will forgo the pleasure of Honnold’s climb too.

      As I remember it Osman didn’t die from a damaged rope but from a rope burn.

      He tried a different jump angle, perhaps done before but with the ropes placed differently that year. As in chute jumps with some unlucky cord tangles or more often cords going over the chute fabric, the polymer materials will heat, melt and most often fail if they drag along each other.

    4. Apparently I remembered Osman’s wikipedia page:

      “The failure was investigated by the National Park Service with assistance from Chris Harmston, Quality Assurance Manager at Black Diamond Equipment. Harmston concluded that a change in jump site angle probably caused the ropes to cross and entangle, leading to the rope cutting by melting.[3] Miles Daisher, who was with Osman when he made the jump, stated that the ropes used in his fatal jump had been exposed to inclement weather — including rain and snow — for more than a month before the fatal jump, but that the same ropes were used for several shorter jumps on the previous and same day.[2]”

      1. Thanks for clearing that up for those who want to remark without having the facts. Dan and his good friend had already made several jumps that day using the equipment in place. Equipment fatique was part to blame. Dan knowling took a calculated risk using ropes that were exposed to weather for such a long period of time. Dan was /is a legend in the climbing world. Anytime your feeling up to it, Bear’s Reach, Lovers Leap, is waiting to have his record broke But take note, you can never be the ist to do it.

  2. A bit of pedantry. To rock climbers, “free climbing” means climbing only using the hands and feet on the rock (as oppose to “aid climbing” where you would place pitons in the rock and pull on them). Free climbing is still normally done with ropes for protection (you just don’t weight them).

    The term for no-protection-rope climbing is “solo climbing” or “soloing”.

  3. “I suppose if I had my life to live over again, I’d climb big mountains…”

    I assume you mean if you could count on having THAT life to live over again as well.

  4. I DVR’ed the 60 Minutes segment, and may watch it later when I’ve worked up the courage. I got a couple of minutes into it before I had to look away.

  5. A bit of clarification regarding the embedded YouTube vid – he didn’t free solo El Cap. No one has. He used a combination of rope soloing, french freeing and free soloing.

  6. Also apparently Andy Rooney’s last column. I haven’t caught 60 min. in a long time as I haz no TV, but if I recall correctly, Rooney is a self-identified (i.e., “out”) atheist.

  7. “I suppose if I had my life to live over again, I’d climb big mountains as an avocation; it will be one of my unrealized life’s dreams to summit Everest … ”

    If you’re at all curious or adventurous, it is difficult to read a book like Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” (despite the tragedy depicted) and not get the mountain-climbing bug. But Everest? Seems like a slog compared to the others. Still, it is there, isn’t it?

    1. I perused the comments just to make sure Krakauer is recommended. I’d suggest Into the Wild, in which Krakauer details his crazy-young-man solo ascent of the Devil’s Thumb in a way that offers some personal insight into Chris McCandles’s motivations.

      Of course, Under the Banner of Heaven and Where Men Win Glory belong on every atheist’s bookshelf.

  8. I watched it last night – tne odd thing was (unless I zoned out) they never mentioned anything about the guy’s family. He’s been buggy about climbing since an early age, and from the sound of it that’s all he does. Is this the result of a trust fund?

    1. Doubt it. He does get paid for the documentaries & interviews. His adverts for North Face must earn him plenty & he’s only spending $1,000/ month. His bank account is probably very healthy.

    2. Unrelated, but this reminded me of a NYT story from this summer about unseasonably cold weather at Mt. Rainier. It stated that the economy was also a factor in the dearth of climbers, as those who climb Rainier make an average of $90K/yr, and “are probably invested in the stock market.”

  9. South African Lara Logan , the beautiful, intelligent & well educated presenter/ correspondent in that CBS 60 Minutes programme, is a bit special herself & I’m sure she would understand Alex Honnold’s weighing of risk versus the joy of life at the edge.

    Lara is/ was an ‘up-at-the-sharp-end’ battlefield reporter. Here is an extract from the wiki I linked to above:

    On 15 February 2011, CBS News released a statement that Logan had been beaten and sexually assaulted on 11 February, while covering the celebrations in Tahrir Square following Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. CBS 60 Minutes broadcast an interview with her about it on 1 May 2011; she said she was speaking out because of the prevalence of sexual assault in Egypt, and to break the silence about the sexual violence women reporters are reluctant to report in case it prevents them from doing their jobs.

    She said the incident involved 200–300 men and lasted around 25 minutes. She had been reporting the celebrations for an hour without incident when her camera battery failed. One of the Egyptian CBS crew suggested they leave, telling her later he heard the crowd make inappropriate sexual comments about her. She felt hands touching her, and can be heard shouting “stop”, just as the camera died. One of the crowd shouted that she was an Israeli, a Jew, a claim that CBS said, though false, was a “match to gasoline”. She went on to say that they tore off her clothes and, in her words, raped her with their hands, while taking photographs with their cellphones. They began pulling her body in different directions, pulling her hair so hard she said it seemed they were trying to tear off chunks of her scalp. Believing she was dying, she was dragged along the square to where the crowd was stopped by a fence, alongside which a group of women were camping. One woman wearing a chador put her arms around Logan, and the others closed ranks around her, while some men who were with the women threw water at the crowd. A group of soldiers appeared, beat back the crowd with batons, and one of them threw Logan over his shoulder. She was flown back to the U.S. the next day, where she spent four days in hospital. She was contacted by President Obama when she arrived home. CBS said it remained unclear who the attackers were, and unlikely that any will be prosecuted.

  10. I’m gonna say just two words: John Bachar. Oh, how about two more words: Derek Hersey.

    The free soloing of long, difficult climbs is old news; Honnold has increased the difficulty somewhat, but not much. The visionary free solo of Sentinel was accomplished by Henry Barber in 1973 (the Steck-Salathé route). While the S-S route is easier by today’s standards, the sheer audacity Barber’s free solo climb, the first of a Yosemite big wall, created an international sensation in the climbing world at the time. In the ’70s, Barber was featured in a segment of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” climbing on British sea cliffs and free soloing a difficult route there.

    Since then, many climbers have done free soloing of routes of extreme difficulty. Bachar and Hersey illustrate that a steady diet of this sort of risk level can catch up to you. In particular, Bachar’s vast appetite over many years for difficult free soloing was the stuff of climbing legends.

    Barber survived his exploits. So has Honnold, so far.

    1. I’m glad to see those who have been around and are knowledgeable enough in the climbing world can educate this new breed of climbers and bring them back to reality. It;s all been done in the past, their just doing it faster and getting media exposure and filling their ego. I never climbed for the sake of having my picture taken. Oh, and for those El Cap climbers who leave their garbage in the cracks, and shit down the route, you give rock climbing a bad name and step on the souls of those who opened the door of rock climbing, Harding, Chinnard, Frost, Robbins, etc. etc. You wouldn’t make a pimple on their ass.

    1. It’s only a matter of time, one mistake and it’s all over. I find it hard to admire this sort of thing. If they want to do it well good luck to them, but I find intellectual adventure more exiting and of far more use to humanity. The ability to run faster, swim further or climb higher than most others is no doubt hard won, but it just doesn’t interest me that much. The idea that suffering is somehow beneficial is too religious for my liking.

      1. Hasn’t there been some hypothesizing that some are born with natural propensities for thrill-seeking? Mostly males, of course. No doubt adaptive for the species to have a certain proportion of daredevils…

        Leaves me cold, too, tho I thought the story was compelling to watch. I’ve done some rock climbing with ropes and enjoyed some of it…

      2. It’s a shame you don’t have the capacity to “admire” ones courage. Where would we be if Lewis and Clark hadn’t the courage to scout the unkown to expand this great country. The courage our serviceman demonstrated to keep our freedoms and keep you safe in your small world.

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