Alex Honnold swore his friends to secrecy for almost two years while he prepared to carry out the unthinkable: a free ascent of El Capitan without a rope. At approximately 5:30 a.m. on June 3, a handful of those friends readied their cameras as Honnold laced his climbing shoes, fastened a chalk bag around his waist and started up Freerider (VI 5.13a, 3,000′).
“Secrecy was the key here as we didn’t want Alex to feel the pressure of a big crowd watching the climb,” photographer Tom Evans wrote in his blog. “I was somewhat hesitant to shoot the event, as Alex is a close friend, and if I were to witness something awful it would be with me for the rest of my life,” he said later in an email. “But I figure I have a duty as the de facto historian for El Capitan in recent years, so I…concentrated on the shooting most of the time….”
Honnold started earlier than usual to avoid other climbers who might be on the popular route. He only encountered a couple of parties in the bottom third of the climb. Asleep, they woke up when he reached them at Heart and Lung ledges. Evans documented the climb through a telescope on the ground and captured an image of one man who was wearing a strange, pink costume.
“Not the standard sleeping gear for El Cap!” Evans wrote in his blog.
While Evans, Jimmy Chin and other photographers followed his progress over the next 3 hours and 56 minutes, Honnold smeared his way up blank slabs where only the friction of his shoes held him to the water-polished granite. Other sections required him to down climb highly technical moves as hard as 5.12a to access features that would allow him to traverse into the next crack system. (Most climbers use ropes to pendulum across these traverses.) The rest of the climbing involved everything from finger-size cracks and a 200-foot 5.11 offwidth–known as the Monster–to the Boulder Problem’s powerful 5.13a sequence (originally rated 5.12d but now considered harder after a hold broke) and 180 feet of 5.12d liebacking up a flaring, rounded crack in the most exposed part of the route, known as the Enduro Corner. A hanging belay at the top of the Corner allows roped climbers to get a good rest before the next crux, a 5.12a/b hand traverse to the left, around the roof of the Salathe headwall. Honnold obviously didn’t have that option.
“There’s a no-hands stance at the top of the corner before the traverse, but your calves are getting pumped,” he said. “It’s definitely harder linking those three pitches together. Soloing it was easier than doing it with a rope, because the rope drag is really bad.”
After the traversing crux, he finally gained a true reprieve at Round Table Ledge. From there, only five pitches remained–four of them rated 5.10 to 5.11, including a notorious offwidth. The last pitch to the top is 5.6.
“From the Round Table to the summit it was celebratory climbing,” Honnold told National Geographic writer Mark Synnott at the base of El Cap immediately after the climb. “It was like taking a victory lap. I was karate chopping hand jams, just flying up.”
Honnold’s rise from obscurity
About 10 years ago, Alpinist interviewed a 23-year-old who had gone from a mostly unknown climber living in his van to a worldwide inspiration/oddity to climbers and non-climbers alike in the span of five months. Honnold was asked if he thought that the aim of free soloing was for recognition or for a personal quest.
“It’d be hard to be psyched enough if you were doing it for other folks,” he replied. “It’d be scary. It’s all about the personal quest to know exactly what you can do.”
Between April and September 2008, Honnold had casually free soloed Zion’s Moonlight Buttress (V 5.12+, 1,200′) and then the Regular Northwest Face (VI 5.12a, 2,200′) of Yosemite’s Half Dome. About the only other contemporary rock climbing free solo that compared in terms of scale was Hansjorg Auer’s 2007 ropeless ascent of Via Attraverso il Pesce (The Fish Route: 7b+/5.12c, 37 pitches, 850m) on the south face of the Marmolada in Italy’s Dolomites, which he did with extremely little preparation (an accomplishment that received little recognition). When people saw the photo of Honnold with his back against the wall on Half Dome’s Thank God Ledge, praise, admonishment and questions were heaped upon his name, as they are still: praise for his bold vision and self-belief; admonishment for what he may inspire others to do by his example; and questions about why he would do such things.
I already knew him by then–he’d parked his van in Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado, for a few weeks in 2007 and I connected with him as a fellow shy and awkward soul in need of a partner. That summer, he belayed me when I sent my first 5.13 sport climb–an important moment for me that he shared with enthusiasm, even if the same route might have seemed casual to him. In those days it was already obvious that there was something special about his climbing. Two months earlier, he’d done a one-day free ascent of Freerider. I remember watching him smoothly sloth his way up several testpiece Rifle climbs, including an onsight of The Eighth Day (5.13a, 120′), a slightly overhanging blue streak that leads to the rim of the canyon. In the style he’s become known for, Alex appeared to walk up the looming route, pausing in the middle of the high crux, two-thirds of the way up the wall, where the foot holds disappear, to shake out on the one sloping hold. He took his time and looked around, as if wondering where the hard moves were. The rest of us shook our heads and marveled at how someone could hold on so long and stay so unflappably calm.
About eight months later, he made headlines for soloing Moonlight Buttress on April 1–his climb was initially dismissed as an April Fool’s hoax–but I knew it was real. I sent him a Facebook message and urged him to be careful. I was a few years older and had gone through a bout of “free-soloing addiction” when I was in my early 20s. But Alex was quite a bit different from me (and from the rest of us), as we were just beginning to realize.
“I don’t think I’ve ever fallen off of a 5.12 finger crack,” he later told Alex Lowther for a feature story that appeared in Alpinist 35 (2011). After a pause, Honnold added: “That might actually be true. Whoa.”
One of the questions posed to him in the 2008 Alpinist.com interview was if he saw himself soloing 10 years from then.
“Probably,” was his reply. “Maybe not trying to push myself the same way, but I can’t imagine not soloing some easy routes. It’s just a waste of time to put on a rope and carry all that shit around.”
I shared the quote with him over the phone on June 6, three days after his El Cap solo.
“That’s funny, because I would say the exact same thing today,” he said while munching on a snack. He was back on top of the Captain for the obligatory interviews and photos, and he was helping the crew clean up the equipment they’d used to film his ascent. “I don’t even know where my rack is,” he mused, seemingly unaware of the irony.
Even his previous big wall free solos pale in comparison to this, yet he told National Geographic that this solo felt easier than the others because he rehearsed and prepared for it more than anything else he’s done.
“This is the most I’ve worked any route,” he told me. “This is the first thing where I was like, ‘Yeah, that was worth the effort.’ I don’t know if I’ve ever been more inspired by anything else.”
Honnold had rehearsed the route extensively before the solo, and he had even called off previous attempts when things didn’t feel right.
“Between the Salathe and Freerider, I must have done [the general route] about 15 times,” he said. (At 5.13b, the Salathe follows the same line as Freerider until the roof and headwall near the top where Freerider goes left.)
None of the first 10 pitches of the route are rated harder than 5.11b but they are among the most insecure sections, as they ascend the water-polished slab. The rock is so slick there that when my partner and I aid-climbed the Salathe in 2005–each of us confident at onsighting 5.11–we both took sliding falls with our shoe rubber screeching like a dry squeegee on a windshield. One of the harder slab cruxes occurs where a thin finger crack fades out in the middle of Pitch 4. Only a precise foot sequence–entirely dependent on friction and a bit of steady, carefully balanced momentum through a series of undulations in the rock–will allow passage for a free climber. Honnold said he changed his sequence for that section shortly before his solo, which is rare for a climber to do when he’s been climbing a route in a particular way for so long. The new “beta” proved effective.
“When I was practicing I did the pitch five times in a row without using my hands,” he said. “That gave me a lot of confidence, because I was like, if I can do this without my hands, I should be fine.”
Tommy Caldwell joined him for a quick lap to rehearse the route about a week before his solo. Honnold said they simulclimbed from the Boulder Problem to the top, which made for good practice because of the continuous climbing and the added burden of heavy rope drag.
“It felt so much easier without a rope,” he said.
It rained a few days later, so Honnold rappelled the route to inspect for wet sections and mark key holds with dabs of chalk.
“It’s been changing this year, with seeps coming and going,” he said.
Then it was time to relax and steel himself for the solo of a lifetime. He told Synnott that on the day before his attempt he stuck to his usual workout routine and did some bouldering “to break in his shoes,” and then hiked with his mom, who had no idea what he intended to do (more on that later).
“You don’t want to be coming off bed rest,” he said in his post-climb interview that National Geographic posted June 4. “You want to be coming off light exercise. Because physically [the climb] is not that hard to execute. It’s more you have to be in exactly the right [mental] place, so I was trying to create the right place.”
He said he still planned to stick to his workout regimen and do some hang boarding. (He confirmed on June 6 that he had indeed followed through on the training plan.)
“You’re going to go do a hang board workout?” Synnott asked.
“I mean, in a bit, yeah,” Honnold said. “I mean I want to eat some lunch, I want to get in the shade and then I’m probably going to hang board in a bit. I am perfectly warmed up, I just did four hours’ light exercise, you know?
“The whole pursuit of this dream has allowed me to live my best life, that makes me hopefully the best version of me. Just because I’ve achieved a dream doesn’t mean that I just give up on the best version of me. I want to be the guy that trains and stays fit and motivated. Just because you finish a big route doesn’t mean that you just quit.”
In Alpinist 35, climbing journalist Alex Lowther had asked Honnold his thoughts on free soloing El Cap: The necessity of privacy, Honnold said, is one of the main reasons that free soloing El Capitan (which he knows people are waiting for) would be such a problem. There are climbers–and eyes–all over the wall all season long. There’s no way to find an outer or inner space free of expectations.
Even earlier, a May 2009 OutsideOnline.com article titled “Yosemite Roulette” posed the topic to Honnold and Dean Potter, another renowned free soloist who died BASE jumping in 2015. “Both say it’s on their minds,” wrote the author, Dougald MacDonald. Honnold was quoted at the end: “The hardest part would be getting off the ground.” The article quoted a “gadfly” from an Internet forum who predicted Freerider would be soloed “in the next five years.”
Flash forward eight years and one month: Honnold said his mom knew that he had some kind of project going on, but he kept her in the dark about his plans to free solo El Capitan until the news broke.
“She was glad I didn’t tell her until afterward,” he said.
Evans described what it was like for him watching Honnold through the telescope: “I know where the hard parts are and found myself shaking from time to time as he was on the really difficult pitches. Excitement increased toward the end and I sort of knew he had it in the bag after the Traverse pitch high on the route. When he topped out, I came close to tears with relief, as did many of us in the know.”
I figured that Alex would one day do it, but didn’t know whether I should encourage him to follow through on his plan, or discourage him from taking the risk…. As one of his closest friends and an El Capitan addict myself, you would think I would have a handle on what it would mean to free solo the Freerider. But I don’t. No one does. Except Alex….
We occasionally talked about the Freerider; we knew it would be the ultimate goal for him. But he always expressed hesitation about it. The route was a bit too insecure in a few spots, and too many people were expecting Alex to do it. He wanted to do it for himself, not the expectations of others….
Free soloing El Cap has been the most anticipated climbing feat of our generation, but only because of Alex. There have been very few people potentially capable of accomplishing this, and sadly most of these individuals are no longer with us. In the past I’ve equated the possibility of this climb to the moon landing of free soloing. Today, knowing that it has been done, I think that is a fair assessment of the significance. It’s a generation-defining climb….
In an article on Evening Sends, entitled “Is Alex Honnold’s El Cap Free-Solo the Greatest Sports Achievement–Ever? Probably,” climbing writer Andrew Bisharat summed up many people’s sense of astonishment: “We’ve all stared up at stars, and wondered what’s out there in the universe. It takes a once-in-a-generation visionary to figure out how to actually go there.”
“We knew that Alex was silently working on his plan to free solo El Capitan,” said Alexander Huber, who was the first to free climb every pitch of the Salathe on lead in 1995, when he took notice of the possible variations that later became Freerider. “So it was not a complete surprise that he finally made his dream come true. Still, it is mind-blowing that it finally happened. When I discovered the Freerider in 1995 as well as when Thomas and I free climbed it in 1998, a free solo ascent was still way out of the visible horizon. It was hard to imagine that El Capitan would be free soloed one day. With this, Alex raised free soloing to the next level. Another landmark in the climbing universe. But there are not many landmarks for which you could say: there is no other climber who would be able to repeat this performance these days. There are no other words: he is ahead of his time! Chapeau bas, Alex!”
Other notable free solos by Honnold include the Rainbow Wall (V 5.12a 1,150′) in Red Rocks and The Crucifix (IV 5.12b, 700′) on Higher Cathedral Rock in Yosemite, in 2010; El Sendero Luminoso (V 5.12d, 1,750′) in El Potrero Chico, Mexico, in January 2014 (which he wrote about in Alpinist 47), and, in September 2014, the University Wall (IV 5.12a, 900′) in Squamish, followed by Romantic Warrior (V 5.12b, ca. 1,000′), in the Needles, California.
Lowther described some of the public responses to Honnold’s climbs in Alpinist 35:
Although the actuality of what Honnold does lies beyond all but a few people’s understanding, the theory is simple: Holy crap. No rope? If he falls he dies? That wall is huge! Those holds are tiny! Amazing! Horrifying! What do his parents think? Whether you dismiss him as stupid or crazy or irresponsible (to his family and friends or to his duties as a role model), Honnold’s accomplishments are undeniably, adfuckingverbally impressive and oddly magnetic. Maybe because in some way his climbing represents an ideal–something simple and uncompromising and absolute. Which (1) are qualities that we don’t get a lot of these (post- or post-postmodern, overwhelmingly relativist) days, and which (2) make him eminently marketable, turning him into a commodity and hence threatening the very object of our admiration….
It’s this What’s next? question that becomes especially problematic. Fame brings the weight of expectations: of oneself, from the public and from sponsors; of time, professionalism, performance and future feats. Expectations can be dangerous, and they only become more so when what you are famous for is risking your life.
If he’s not careful, we could admire Alex Honnold to death.
Caldwell wrote in his Outside article:
In terms of mental mastery, I am convinced that it is one of the pinnacle sporting moments of all time. I hope others are inspired by Alex’s dedication to excellence and ability live without fear, and less by his willingness to accept risk. We have lost far too many in our world already. In terms of talent, preparedness, and climbing composure, Alex is a true outlier. He brought an element of sanity to this climb that no one else could, or probably ever will again.
Honnold has said that he now plans to enjoy climbing on a rope and pushing his sport climbing ability to 9a (5.14d).
“It’s so exciting to work on something hard,” he told National Geographic, adding, “I’m pretty stoked to not be focusing on free solo projects for a while.”
National Geographic’s original exclusive breaking news story can be found here.