Alex Honnold does a dangerous climb

December 14, 2021 • 1:15 pm

I truly can’t fathom the mindset of someone like Alex Honnold, the world’s best “free climber” of big walls. That means he uses no equipment save his arms, legs, and a bag of chalk to climb up vertical cliffs. (He does scout his routes using ropes and the like.) But once he sets out to free climb a difficult route like El Capitan in Yosemite, as he did four years ago, there’s nothing between him and death save his fingers and toes.  One slip and he’s dead.

But he likes it! I can appreciate that mastering something dangerous can give you a real rush, but what he does seems to me to be about the most dangerous thing anybody can do, and takes as well an enormous amount of skill. He lives to climb. Moreover, he’s godless, as this Wikipedia snippet note says, describing his life after he lived in a van for ten years.

In 2017, Honnold bought a home in the Las Vegas area. “I didn’t have any furniture at first, so I lived in the van in the driveway for the first couple weeks. It felt more like home than an empty house did.” Around the same time, he replaced the Ford Econoline van he had lived in since 2007 and put 200,000 miles on with a new 2016 Ram ProMaster, which he still lives and travels in for most of the year.

Honnold is a vegetarian, and he does not drink alcohol or use other drugs. He is an avid reader with interests in classic literature, environmentalism, and economics, and he describes himself as a militant, anti-religion atheist and a feminist.

His free ascent of El Cap was the subject of a great documentary movie, “Free Solo,” which you’ll probably like even if you’re not into climbing, for it’s not just about climbing but about Honnold himself a fascinating character. He did the Yosemite ascent in a bit less than four hours, and lived to tell the tale. Further, the movie won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Documentary, and deserved it.

But I came across another site by accident (well, I like to watch climbing videos), and it lists ten well known free climbers, along with videos. Click on the screenshot to read:

Honnold, of course, is listed as #1, but it shows a climb that’s truly terrifying (the six-minute video is below). The article precedes his climb of El Capital, so I’m not sure whether the climb below, of a cliff in Mexico, is still “the most difficult rope-less climb in history”, as asserted in the YouTube notes.  Still, it’s fascinating (and horrifying) to watch, and if you want the technical details given for non-free climbers, have a look here. El Cap is 2900 feet, while this wall is 1500 feet.

The YouTube note:

Check out the video [below] from The North Face showing Honnold taking on El Sendero Luminoso in Mexico, arguably the most difficult rope-less climb in history.

53 thoughts on “Alex Honnold does a dangerous climb

  1. Another really good rock-climbing doc, available on Netflix, is The Dawn Wall, about the ascent of El Cap by Tommy Caldwell (an interesting guy who escaped from rebels in Kyrgyzstan and who lost a crucial fingertip in a sawing accident) and his climbing partner, Kevin Jorgenson,

    1. +1 for The Dawn Wall. That was a fantastic movie. I couldn’t get over how long it took them (and especially Jorgenson) to get past that one incredibly difficult feature.

      1. I agree. Dawn Wall was equally compelling as Free Solo. In Free Solo you prayed that he wouldn’t fall; in Dawn Wall you wondered just how often he would fall.

  2. I gather there’s an evolutionary explanation for the sweat I get in my palms – just from looking at the picture? I don’t even need to watch the clip. I ‘watched’ Free Solo – but felt such tremendous discomfort that I had to look away a lot. So which genes are more likely to survive and prosper? The ones that make me sweat and cringe – or the ones that allow Honnold to do his thing?

    1. Why would Honnold be sweating a lot? He has done literally thousands – tens of thousands, more likely – of these moves at elevations from 3cm off the deck to a kilometer above his impact point, with the large majority being at “jump-offable” degrees of exposure. If he thought that he was going to slip, he wouldn’t do it. (Plus, of course, the tricky moves, he has rehearsed on rope.)
      The weather is the thing that is most likely to kill him. That, or a blob of birdshit applied after he has started a move sequence. And the weather is something that you can do a moderate amount of prediction about.

        1. That’s something you can test for. And I’m sure he does, in his rehearsal climbs.
          When I was still doing rock climbing, there were persistent arguments about the ethics of pre-climb inspection of a route, the removal (while roped) of loose rock, and (in some cases) the removal of lichen and moss from the rock with a wire brush. The wire brushes have pretty much disappeared now, but “cleaning” a route of loose rock does still happen. but the “gold standard” on the crags of the UK is the “on-sight solo”, where the FA (first ascender) walks up to the cliff for the first time, solos the route, and that’s that. Any subsequent ascent in a less “pure” style is considered a failure.
          But that’s an ethic that applies to a 15m climb on a 16 m roadside crag, not a 300m climb on a 400m crag with a 10km walk-in. and it’s very difficult to apply to a popular crag, where people have been eyeing “that slab/ corner/ crack system” for several generations, even if no-one has “got it” previously.
          I’m trying to remember who wrote the essay “The Games Climbers Play” (ISBN 9780906371015 for the compilation). As relevant today as in the 1970s. (Ken Wilson, editor ; died not long ago it seems, I don’t know if it was boots-on or -off.)

              1. “There are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are no old, bold climbers.”
                s/climber/outdoor sportsperson/

      1. Where did he say Honnold would be sweating a lot? He was talking about his own response vs Honnold’s, which presumably does not cause him to sweat, else he would struggle to be the greatest Free Solo climber in history.

    2. It’s a sympathetic nervous system response. I get it too, in what feels like a full body response of tingles and butterflies. The video is hard for me to watch, and yet I can’t look away! Honnold’s athleticism and his ability to override the normal fear response is a marvel to behold.

  3. After reading this, I am almost too scared to comment. I don’t even want to watch these documentaries. Sometimes when a movie shows someone being exposed to great heights, I skip the scene or the entire rest of the movie. I used to ride my bike past a well-known climbing wall when I lived in Boulder, CO. Many times there was an ambulance there treating someone’s injury or collecting a body. No thank you!

    1. Using one’s evolved brain, it’s quite straightforward to avoid serious injury while climbing.

      One must be willing to use the right PPE (helmet!) and use ropes and anchors properly, avoid bad conditions (avalanche, falling rock, etc.), and use the brain.

      I never had a serious injury climbing almost every weekend from age 20 to age 35. I turned back in the high mountains many, many times because of conditions.

      I (foolishly) did take silly risks by free soloing some routes when I couldn’t (or just didn’t) scare up a partner: But all those routes were very well within my skills and strength. I never pushed it. That said: At any time a falling rock from above (or a key hold pulling off) could have done me in. I was careful to look out for such threats (punch or kick the hold before using it); but no guarantees!

      1. I turned back in the high mountains many, many times because of conditions.

        One of my group when I was a student would propose giving up on the day by declaring “Turn your back and walk away / And live to die another day.” When I introduced him to caving he stuck with the same line. He never did take up cave diving.

        Last time I talked to him (at another friend’s funeral) he was a team leader for one of the busiest Mountain Rescue Teams in the country. Good man for the (unpaid) job.

  4. Free Solo is great. For another side of climbing/mountaineering, I highly recommend Dirtbag the bio-pic of the legendary Fred Beckey.

    Honnold is, of course, an amazing climber.

    I do hope he knows how to figure out when enough is enough and he stops pushing it solo. The alternative is that he will continue until he dies doing it.

    One note on terminology. Most people recognize “free climbing” as climbing without using artificial means to ascend: You can only use hands (and ice tools) and feet (with shoes/boots/crampons) and only use them on natural features of the landscape. That is: You may not raise your body by holding onto a man-made rope or hold or anchor. “Free solo” is what most people recognize for climbing without the protection of a rope.

    You can free climb with a rope protecting you (and almost all climbers do this). You can’t free solo using a rope. Some climbers do solo climbs while using a rope and “protection” (small machines/objects that anchor in rock or ice) to protect themselves: This is not free soloing.

    I used to free solo everything up to low 5th class rock (in moderately high mountains), back when I was young and crazy. But nothing (nothing!) like what Honnold does! A few times I free soloed routes that Beckey rated as Class 3, only to read a later revision of his book and he then rated them 5.2 or 5.3. No wonder they seemed harder than Cl 3!

    1. Thanks for explaining the difference between ‘free climbing’ and ‘free soloing’ – I was about to make the same point. The term ‘free climbing’ arose in contrast to ‘aid climbing’, which is when you’re supported by some man-made object (piton, nut, skyhook, etrier/ladder, etc.) that’s attached to the rock.

      I know that jblilie has been climbing long enough (like me) to remember the days when, on finding out that you were a rock climber, someone would always say ‘You must have a death wish!’. Now it’s “Oh, yeah, I do that at the gym after work”.

      1. Yes, your last comments! For sure. And mostly those people have never been on the “sharp end” of a rope, of course, or ever “placed pro” or cleaned it. 😀

        1. Nothing beats that feeling when you look down and you watch your last piece of gear fifteen feet below you come out and slide down the rope to the previous piece of gear another fifteen feet below that.

        2. Or ripped it, and come to appreciate the aspect that it may not stop you, but it sure as hell slows you down.

          Unless you’re on ice, when it barely slows you down.

      2. There are a few climbers amongst the younger people in my company. None of them have ever climbed on real rock. I find that a little bit sad, especially as we live in one of the few English cities that has good access to reasonable crags.

    2. I’ve seen enough interviews with Honnold to know that I’d be saddened to hear about him dying on a climb. He’s a very likable person.

  5. That means he uses no equipment save his arms, legs, and a bag of chalk to climb up vertical cliffs.

    You’re forgetting the amount of technology that goes into modern climbing shoes. There’s some very sophisticated elastomers (“rubber”) that goes into the soles (and welts and rands) of climbing shoes. Different blends, consistencies and stiffnesses in different parts of the shoe, depending on the differing stresses imposed by (e.g.) wedging your toes into a crack, versus standing on a 5mm wide sloping ledge.
    In the 90s, a climbing friend (he used to lead to E6 6b before he broke his back and retired to industry) was choosing a new set of shoes when I bumped into him in the gear shop. His consider/ reject criterion was if he could twist the soles of a pair together and they’d stick well enough to support the weight of the free shoe. If they didn’t do that, he just didn’t consider them. That was pushing 30 years of development ago – I doubt that would be a useful discriminant these days. Everything would be that good.

    Of course, the medical technology that goes into repairing broken backs, legs, etc is significant too. You might not hobble away from a multiple-breath final scream, but you do an awful lot more falls from 10m off the deck than you do from 1000m.
    Ah, the simple pleasures of youth – like peeling the fingers – one by one – of an aspirant bungee jumper from his grip on the edge of the bridge.

    1. Re: Peeling fingers: I had a work colleague who was a big-time skydiver. (I forget how many hundreds of jumps he had at age ~25.)

      When training new jumpers, they had them stand on a strut and hold onto a bar just behind and below the wing (high-wing plane).

      Sometimes, a new jumper would freeze. The instructor would stand in the door of the plane and offer a hand and say, take my had, I’ll pull you back in. Of course, as soon as the person let go with the one hand, they barn-doored in the rushing wind and off they went! Screaming, usually.

      1. Oh yes. Getting a novice “SRT”(footnote) trainee to let go of the rock and trust the rope would involve much fingertip peeling too.

        In your other comment,

        I do hope he knows how to figure out when enough is enough and he stops pushing it solo. The alternative is that he will continue until he dies doing it.

        We both know with high probability how this is going to end. The guy is big enough, old enough and (I assume – I’ve never even seen a picture of him) ugly enough to make these choices for himself. It’s unlikely – but not impossible – that he’ll stop at anything other than 32ft/s/s.

        (footnote) Depending on who you ask, “Single Rope Technique” or “Silly Rope Tricks”. As a mountaineer, jblillie will know the basics from his crevasse-safety techniques if nowhere else. It needs practice.

    1. But free climbers somehow don’t seem like that.

      They’re not. Free climbing is all about control. Control yourself, control your movements. Stow your adrenaline in your adrenals, not your bloodstream.

      1. +1. And the ultimate of “being in the moment”.

        One of the things I loved about technical climbing was the empty mind (normal brain chatter snuffed out; fully in the zone) state it evoked.

  6. Lots of fun stuff like this at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. They do shorts (some as long as 30 minutes) for a very reasonable price. Used to be in-person only, but not they do virtual as well.

  7. I think I can understand the mindset of people like Alex Honnold, though of course I’ve never reached the heights he has. But I’ve had some experience with doing routinely dangerous things. And some experience with pushing limits in a methodical way, sometimes until failure, and the thrill that comes with it. Sometimes even crashing is thrilling.

    I spent a summer in my youth swinging and repelling down tall buildings to perform maintenance on wall areas that couldn’t be reached by built-in swing systems. It was fun and it paid well since it warranted “danger” pay. Something I discovered, perhaps for the first time, is that you can get foolishly acclimated to doing very dangerous things. Like hopping up onto a 10 inch wide parapet wall 300 + feet above ground, picking up a heavy cable draped over the wall and walking it down the parapet, without a thought or concern for the no-doubt-about-it deadly consequences of a mishap. After recognizing this I had to work hard to pay due attention and respect to the danger.

    Though I may have never equaled the fortitude of someone like Alex, let alone his skill, I think I can see how he is able to do it. But, I second Jblilie above, I hope Alex knows when to quit. No matter how skilled chance will catch up with you given enough chances and when the consequences are so likely to be deadly one mishap is often all it takes.

  8. Honnold is now an expectant father to be. It will be interesting to see if this changes his risk tolerance. I suspect it will not.

    1. Internally, he probably doesn’t account the risks high. If he does his preparation on a climb, takes the weather seriously, and is in condition … there isn’t much risk.
      From his point of view.
      Other parents may differ in their assessment. That almost uniformly ends painfully – either the climber stops, and is miserable, or the parenting stops and several people are miserable.

  9. I recently watched “The Alpinist” on Netflix. Marc Andre Leclerc is the main focus, but Honnold and several other climbers are in it. The footage is exquisite, and Leclerc is quite the character (he shuns almost all attention, usually goes alone, does not own a phone)

    1. From Wikipedia:

      Marc-André Leclerc (October 10, 1992 – March 5, 2018) was a Canadian rock climber and alpinist. Known for his solo ascents of numerous mountains in several parts of the world, he completed the first winter solo ascents of the Torre Egger in Patagonia, and the Emperor Face of Mount Robson.

      This guy was out there.

      The Emperor Face 2200m gain from the lake: (left face in the photo):

      And here, face-on, the face of the peak on the right:

  10. Great article about one of H’s climbing partners, Tommy Caldwell in a recent The New Yorker by William Finnegan. After severing an important finger–all are–Caldwell has learned how to use that hand. It took a lot of hard, repetitive work.

    Best? We all seem to want to know who is the winner of the horserace and I doubt it is something H is interested in. He has another choice for the best because of his overall impact on current climbing.

    1. I highly recommend Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.

      If anyone wants to see inside of an obsessive male risk sport and why guys get obsessed by it, this book is excellent.

    2. Best? We all seem to want to know who is the winner of the horserace and I doubt it is something H is interested in.

      Gravity wins, eventually. The only uncertainty is if you get out of the game before it wins.
      Or change games.

  11. Thank you for sharing that! Never rock climbed, but I get it as a horseback rider who just got out of the hospital from a fall. Being alive is more than just being safe and eeking out as much time in your body. I realize that when I see my 90-yr-old mother with dementia. A long life is not necessarily a fulfilling one or one where you have been more alive. And to me, to be alive is to allow some truth in yourself to live at all costs, at all risks even death.

  12. I’m more terrified of that drone they’ve got buzzing around Honnold to get those aerial shots of him climbing. One wrong move on the controller and looks like it could careen into him or crash into the rock wall above him and tumble right onto his head or arms.

  13. I like how Jimmy Chin – principal photographer for Free Solo- expressed it (paraphrasing): Given that no one has ever run a marathon in under two hours, imagine how it would seem to learn that someone had just completed a marathon in one hour. To hard core climbers, Honnold’s accomplishment soloing El Capitain seems almost that above and beyond what anyone could believe possible.

  14. “No matter how skilled chance will catch up with you given enough chances …”

    I wonder if it’s possible to give an a priori estimate of death probability for Hannold’s solos. Even at 1 in 5, doing 3 of them makes it barely better than 50-50 before the 3 or however many less he gets to survive for—4/5, then 16/25, then 64/125 (~1/2) are the probabilities before starting of surviving.

    Was that Mexican climb about 1500, or about 2500, feet?

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