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Speed Series Part I: Alex Honnold

Alex Honnold [Photo] Corey Rich

Outdoors enthusiasts love to quantify their pursuits. Kayakers measure difficulty with a I-VI class system; BASE jumpers use meters and seconds; even skiers have the D System for quantifying risk, difficulty and length. But no outdoors-person loves to quantify his or her feats more than climbers. From length and commitment to medium and style, climbers have a classification for everything. The growing popularity of speed climbing has brought to the forefront an entirely different way to quantify our sport: time.

Recently, we at Alpinist picked the brains of the speediest climbers to learn more about speed climbing and how it fits into our grade-crazy community.

This week, we open the Speed Series with an interview with Alex Honnold. Honnold climbed The Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome and The Nose in a day last summer and has made waves in the climbing world with his impressive solos.

Please tell me about your first speed climb. What about it inspired you to continue speed climbing?

I did my first big wall “in a day” and have never looked back. My first main trad partner, Josh McCoy was way into the whole “in-a-day” style, and even though we certainly weren’t climbing very fast it became the only conceivable way to climb. It’s not that we were tying to “speed climb,” we just didn’t know how to haul or do any of the labor normally associated with wall climbing.

What is climbing “about” and how does speed climbing fit into that philosophy?

I have no idea what climbing is “about,” but speed climbing is all about getting down in time for dinner. It’s just a nice way to get tons of climbing into one day. To me speed climbing just means efficiency; it’s not about climbing fast, it’s about climbing smoothly and not stopping

How does speed climbing contribute to our sport as a whole?

Well, I guess it broadens what people consider possible. Lynn Hill couldn’t have freed the Nose in a day if Long, Bridwell, and Westbay hadn’t made the whole concept possible. And learning how to speed climb walls in a place like Yosemite allows people to climb real mountains more safely and efficiently.

What does one need to be a successful speed climber?

I think speed climbing is mostly mental. It’s all about strategy and efficiency. You don’t really have to climb any faster than normal, you can just never stop or waste any time.

How does big-wall speed climbing differ from speed climbing in other environments?

I wouldn’t know since I don’t think I’ve ever speed climbed in any other environment. I don’t really see the point in climbing a single pitch super fast. Speed-climbing competitions seem sort of silly to me, though maybe they’re fun to do. I just don’t like feeling wildly out of control as I bounce up a wall super fast. I prefer climbing more smoothly, or trying at least.

Alex Honnold on El Capitan, Fall 2010. [Photo] Corey Rich

What kind of compromises to your safety do you make when you’re speed climbing?

Well you don’t necessarily HAVE to make and compromises to your safety to speed climb, but it seems like you always do a little bit. Simul-climbing is obviously a little bit riskier than having a normal belay. Short fixing is for sure more dangerous. Honestly, all the stuff we’re doing when we try to climb really fast is kind of dangerous. But the whole key is to not fall. It’s all super safe as long as no one falls.

Speed climbing is criticized because it attracts a lot of media attention without developing any new terrain. What are your thoughts about this?

That’s a fair criticism. I think the same thing all the time: “who cares if someone shaved a minute off some big wall?” Really, they’re still just climbing the same route in virtually the same way, but a tiny bit faster. But for whatever reason it sure is a lot of fun to do.

But I do agree that speed climbing is not nearly as exciting as free climbing new routes or other new developments. Unless someone really shatters a speed record or pioneers a brand new way to climb the route.

Alex Honnold on El Capitan, Fall 2010. [Photo] Corey Rich

Speed climbing adds an element of competition by quantifying an ascent. How do you think this quantification affects the quality of our sport, whether positively or negatively?

I don’t think it makes any difference. The sport is fully quantified already – everything is rated – speed is just another way of looking at it. Ultimately everyone is only trying to climb their best. If beating someone else’s time is motivation to push yourself harder, then fair enough. I think quantification is as good a way as any to motivate yourself.

What are your greatest speed-climbing achievements?

I think I’m most proud of the speed record on Moonlight, because I broke a team record by myself by climbing it in a different style. It feels more “new” to me than simply climbing a route a little quicker, which is what all my other speed records are.

You’ve recently broken speed records all over Yosemite. What’s on your 2011 ticklist?

Actually, I sort of swore off speed climbing after Sean and I did the Triple this summer. I feel like free climbing is more worthy, and certainly a lot harder. So I kinda want to work on climbing harder before I play around speed climbing any more. But you never know, since speed climbing is really fun, it’s always easy to get into it again.

Speed Series Part II: Sean Leary and Dean Potter“We’re always filled with the knowledge that if we fall, it’s a minimum 100-footer and probably way more. You’re going to kill your friend and probably mutilate or kill yourself.”

Speed Series Part III: Ueli Steck“I think it is nice to be able to climb a peak in several hours instead of several days. You don’t have to suffer so much.”