"There's no real secret."
To call the free solo climber Alex Honnold anything less than awe-inspiring would be an insult. A fearless adventurer who for the last twenty years has taken on risks that many of us would deem nothing short of death-defying.
But Alex Honnold doesn’t view his work in that way. He reduces his powers very much down to the art of exposure and severe preparation. Ever since his majestic ascent of Yosemite’s 3000ft El Capitan people have been mythologising him down to a god, something Alex would refute sharply.
In fact, before he became a celebrity he was anything but, a self-described college dropout from the suburbs living a homeless existence out of a trailer. However, in the span of 20 years, he has become a poster child for the sport of free soloing, which is essentially climbing without any aids.
Alex puts his work profound work down to expert preparation but at some point, I think we would all agree that when you are out there you would hope the climbing gods are looking kindly down on you. Having said that, Alex is an extremely pragmatic and self-effacing individual, there is nothing deep and meaningful about what he does by his own standards.
It’s simply one man on a rock doing what makes him joyous. In fact, as we were wrapping up this interview he was beginning his daily workout at a climbing gym in New York. Perhaps he finds this all merely a distraction. What continues to motivate Alex Honnold to stand out on a ledge? We find out.
How would you describe the frenzy that’s ensued since you climbed El Capitan?
You know I don’t want to diminish it too much because obviously, it’s nice to be acknowledged for something I worked so hard on, but it doesn’t mean that much to me. When I did the actual climb, a lot of my friends were impressed by it. Beyond that, I don’t care. It’s the kind of classic experience where you do something, and there’s no commentary, and then there’s a great film about it and a lot of commentary. I think it has more to do with a great film than the actual act itself.
Do people recognise you in the street now that the film is out there?
Yes, but certainly more so since the film, but that also happened well before the film. A lot of my feats were on YouTube and there were also interviews of me.
I was telling a couple of people that I was interviewing you for the magazine and showing them pictures of what you do. Many people who don’t have an understanding of free soloing, their first initial reaction is to look away because they can’t bear the anxiety and that’s just looking at a picture of it. Would you say that’s a conditioned response or would you say that is in general that is a normal response to death-defying acts such as yours?
Yes, I think so. I mean it makes sense. If I watch my friends free soloing, I find that unnerving, but when I see my friends big wave surfing on enormous waves, I think that seems pretty scary or extreme downhill mountain biking such as someone just bombing down a mountain bike, to my eyes that is crazy.
Photo by Jimmy Chin, Alex Honnold climbing in Chad, Africa
So you’ve watched the movie Free Solo since then?
Yes, many times.
Is your heart pumping when you see yourself on screen?
No, in general, there wasn’t that much adrenaline pumping when I did the feat. That is the whole point which is that it took years of preparation, that’s one of the things that comes across in the film, that it’s not an adrenaline force. It’s slow, contemplative and methodical. When I first saw the film in theatres, I thought it was a pretty good movie, but it didn’t quite have the same effect than it did on audiences as perhaps when I watched it on IMAX. It’s much more immersive, it put me back in the same position again. It evokes those same emotions.
I’m fascinated when you say it’s not an adrenaline pumping sport. By definition, anyone getting even 5 per cent into El Capitan would have their adrenaline pumping?
No, its the opposite, I mean nobody could get 5 per cent into El Capitan if their adrenaline were pumping. You have to prepare to the point where it’s just not scary at all.
So would you say that’s a type of exposure therapy? If you expose yourself enough to a dangerous situation and understand it then you won’t be fearful of it.
Yes right. I mean that’s exactly how I felt on my comfort over time, it felt more comfortable on El Capitan or just free soloing in general.
"A lot of my friends were impressed by it. And then beyond that, I don't care."
I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of mythologising about you, I feel in a way that’s our way of dealing with what you do because it is superhuman or least that’s the way it’s been described. Humans have a way of romanticising superhuman abilities would you agree?
I think you nailed it right there. I believe that what I’m doing is a result of a lot of practice, a lot of hard work and a lot of intentional living. Living along a certain path, focused on a certain goal.
Most people rather than looking at it and thinking I could live the same way if I work as hard at it or try to put in the same kind of effort prefer to say, ‘that’s insane’. When you call something crazy or insane, it’s a way of setting it apart, out of your reach, so you don’t have an obligation to live in that way. People are more comfortable calling you crazy, so they don’t have to think about it in their own lives.
So would you admit that most humans in pockets of society live within a status quo, that we live within the median, we don’t take enough risks?
I mean by definition most people live within the average, it makes sense because we’re hardwired to seek out comfort and stability and enjoy our lives, there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that the whole spectrum of human activity makes sense. It makes sense for most people in the middle, even for me, I’m sure I’m just like a standard deviation out to one part of the other.
It’s interesting because the interviews that I’ve seen with you, they want to know what motivates you to do this. Do you find that awkward?
I mean that stuff doesn’t bother me, it makes sense that anybody doing something unusual would need an explanation. On the spectrum of human behaviour it makes sense that if you’re doing something that nobody else does, it’s a bit of a curiosity.
Regarding your early career, you’ve defined yourself as homeless at one point living out of a van. What was your motivation early on for climbing?
I’d already been climbing for years in the gym, so I was already quite heavy into rock climbing, living in the van was the easiest way to travel and climb outdoors full-time. I didn’t look at it as a hardship for me, living in a car was this amazing opportunity to be able to climb all the time.
"If you spend 20 years of preparation on something then eventually you're comfortable doing things that used to seem insane."
Alex Honnold on dealing with fear
Alex Honnold in his van, Photo by Peter Bohler
Did you feel like you got addicted to climbing that you just wanted to explore it further at a certain point?
I think it’s just the activity that gives me the most joy in life. In some ways, some people love to go running or swimming. There’s a certain elemental or base appeal to the activity.
People I have noticed are often expecting deep and meaningful answers from you about what you do; maybe they can apply it to their own lives. Do you know what I mean?
Do I think that they’re expecting too much? Well yes, if you consider that I am basically a random dude from suburbia who dropped out of university and was living in a car for a long time. Yes, then they are probably expecting too much. I’m not necessarily the most profound person; I’m not going to provide the most profound answers. As I said, it makes sense that people ask you I don’t know if I can give the best answers.
In some ways, they’re deifying you, if you’ve done this unparalleled feat you must have worked something out about the human condition?
Yes I know what you mean, I mean to be fair, I’ve been guilty of that same thing throughout my whole life. When I look at the people that I looked up to as a kid – two of my biggest heroes are actually in the film by coincidence, Tommy Caldwell and Peter Croft, the legendary soloist from the last generation.
When I was young I deified them as well, we all need inspiration in our lives for various reasons. It helps us get out of bed, it’s helpful for various reasons, to take on the challenges that we’re facing whatever ups and downs, to stay motivated and do whatever work we’re trying to do. We’re always building somebody up.
But I’m just thinking people might look to you for a cheap and quick kind anecdote or advice about how they should prepare for life. But sometimes there is no secret. You have to prepare, do your shit and if death happens then you’re dead, right?
Yes, I hear you on that. That’s actually pretty funny. People often ask me about fear and managing fear, and I say to them, if you spend 20 years of preparation on something then eventually you’re comfortable doing things that used to seem insane. There’s no real secret.
So what is the question that comes up most from people?
Probably questions about fear and death or mortality. Are you afraid? After 20 years I’m afraid but less so. That’s why with El Capitan I put two years of preparation into it because initially it was too scared and I thought I would probably die if I tried or at least there would be a serious chance. With enough work, it no longer seemed scary, my chances of death was much lower in the end.
Since death is a big part of the way people interpret what you do, what scares you about life?
Intimacy, connection, relationships. Or you are wasting time, squandering it. I mean in some ways living with regret that you didn’t do the right thing or you could have done something better.
Alex Honnold, El Capitan, Photo by Jimmy Chin
I didn’t expect that answer. So you’re scared of not living every day to the fullest in a way?
Well, don’t you think that we are all like that? I mean in some ways the deepest fear for a lot of people is getting to the end of their life and think that they did it wrong.
I mean it depends how at peace you are with yourself. If you’re at peace with yourself, you could sit in a cave on your own and not be bothered by that at all. But perhaps could that be part of the conditioning that we face as humans on a daily basis?
I reject the idea of just sitting contentedly in enlightenment because I feel like there’s there’s some real value to doing something, having a real impact on the world. I am moving the human experience forward.
How do you view the idea of chaos, not knowing all the variables even though you’re entering an unknown environment? There are so many things that can go wrong. How do you deal with that?
It’s not unknown. That’s what preparation is all about so that you learn about the unknown. To some extent, there’s always going to be something unknown. There’s always a degree of randomness or chaos. That’s the part that you have to accept. There are random risks to climbing like getting hit by a rock or getting struck by lightning. I mean there’s a degree of randomness to normal life as well, getting hit by the subway or getting hit by a bus crossing the street. I think everyone accepts a base level of risk in their day to day life and that’s just the way it is.
"I slipped unprepared on the ice, and I fell down this mountain. It was probably one of the few times where was sure that I was about to die."
Alex Honnold on coming close to death
Don’t you think it would benefit all of us to embrace the irrational a bit more or not to be so risk-averse in a way?
I think that on any given day everybody is confronting risk and there’s always a degree of randomness. Everybody is facing death each day. We just put it out of our minds and never think about it.
You said the hardest part about climbing El Capitan was doing this karate kick into an adjacent corner. Did you feel like you didn’t have the tools to be able to do that? Or did you feel like you could cope with every step of the way?
I felt like I had practised that specific move a hundred times. I felt like I knew exactly what to do there. In the film a big focus of the whole operation was progression. It’s hard at first but most definitely became a big part of my focus.
What’s the closest you have been to death in terms in your career?
It was probably before my career, I had an accident when I was younger, I fell down a mountain, it was a little bit ridiculous but, I slipped unprepared on the ice. It was probably one of the few times where was sure that I was about to die.
What were you doing, were you climbing?
I was hiking. I was trying to get to the top. I was out for a winter hike but turned out to be worse conditions than I thought. It was my first and last time, after that I was like I should learn how to ski instead.
Finally, has your relationship with nature changed? I mean you’ve built a very close bond throughout your life with nature. Up close and personal, more than a lot of us so how would you define your relationship with nature in a way.
That’s an interesting question. I’ve never really thought about it. I mean in some ways I’d say that I don’t see a huge difference between nature and non-nature. It’s all just part of the same world. I feel comfortable in the outdoors and in the bush. Typically if you’re raised in a city or the suburbs you think of nature as something else, you are like, ‘oh those wild spaces, that seems dangerous’. But I don’t feel that way anymore.
Free Solo will be released on the 5th of February on iTunes