Arguably the world’s most prolific rock climber makes a return home to Sacramento.
Alex Honnold has conquered some of the most dangerous climbs without using any equipment or support. His avid "free-solo" style of awe-inspiring climbs has led to profiles in the New York Times, 60 Minutes and National Geographic, along with international acclaim from the climbing community.
But the 31-year-old said he doesn’t relish in the spotlight; he’s much happier living out of his van and taking on the next climbing adventure.
This weekend, Honnold is back in Sacramento to be honored at the San Juan Unified School District’s Evening with the Stars alumni event.
On free solo climbing
Freestyle climbing is climbing without a rope, but that makes up a very small percentage of my overall climbing. The majority of my climbing is with partners, with ropes. It’s social. It’s fun. So the majority of it is totally normal. It’s just that the occasional thing that I do is free solo.
I grew up climbing in the gym here in Sacramento, so I was pretty deeply immersed in the climbing culture from my whole childhood. There are a bunch of people that I found super inspiring as I grew up and so I thought that I’d want to try that. So I started climbing outside more - with things that was 8,200 feet. And it feels pretty big when you first started out, but eventually you’ll start to build up to proper bigger walls.
On childhood in Sacramento
I was maybe 10 or 11 when I first started climbing. I did climb outdoor a bit when I was a kid but that was during Easter vacations or spring breaks, when we would go out and climb for a few days. Basically, I used to climb a few days a year. It wasn’t until after I dropped out of university that I began climbing full-time. I probably climbed four to five times a week throughout high school. I biked to the gym quite a lot and occasionally I went with my dad.
My father died when I was 19 so he didn’t get to see my whole transition (from indoor) to outdoor climbing, which is too bad because he spent so many hours with me in the gym. It’s unfortunate that he never got to see me becoming a professional climber.
On the historic Moonlight Buttress free solo climb in Zion National Park in Utah
It was like a 1,000-foot pillar of sand dunes. It’s quite hard. The statistic doesn’t do anything to the average person, but envision a one-inch crack that just split this entire buttress for 1,000 feet. Basically you just put your fingers right through the cracks and turn them to the side and they’re wedged in there. It feels very exposed. You only have a tiny amount of skin inside the crack - like half of two fingers, and your toes are just pacing around the wall. So very little of your body actually touch the wall and it was all air around you.
On keeping his mind together
For free solo, that’s the most important thing: keeping my mind together. It’d be nice to think that there’s a happy place I can go to that centers me, but it’s not really like that. It’s more that I just have to stay focus on what I’m doing and that’s all there is to it.
Ideally, you’d rehearse the route a little bit before you go on so there’s not much second guessing going on in the background. When you talk about climbing (a) 1,000-foot wall, what that actually comes down to, move-by-move, is like hundreds of thousands of discrete movements where you would subtly shift your weight a little bit left or right, where to adjust your foothold in a precise way. There are quite a bit of intricate movements going on, and so to be able to remember all those movements and execute them in the right order and everything, that’s the nuts and bolts of soloing.
On achieving the Yosemite Triple Crown
A week or two before that, Tommy Caldwell and I free climbed, climbed with my hands and feet but not free soloing, the triple walls at Yosemite. That actually took us longer than when I soloed it. That took me less time. When I did the soloing, it wasn’t exactly free solo either. I was cheating a little bit here and there to assist me. There are very little distinctions for non-climbers. Even very experienced climbers don’t fully understand what I do.
On what danger means to him
Danger means falling off and dying. A researcher did an MRI on my brain and and my amygdala never really fired throughout any of it, which I guess is unusual. Had they actually put a poisonous snake in the tube with me, I probably would have experienced something.
I’ve experienced tons of fear in the past, so I think that’s why the imaging shows my amygdala not firing up. I feel like I’ve desensitized myself to things that aren’t true danger. If I’m not actually at risk of death, then what’s there to be afraid of.
On his next adventure
I do think about having a home someday, having a family in the distant future. For now, most of my next adventures are to plan the next climbing trips, reaching climbing goals and how to maintain fitness. I have a trip to Kenya approved next.