Alex Honnold on Romantic Warrior (V 5.12), the Needles, California, last week. Honnold recently arrived in Yosemite Valley and, on September 6, made the first free-solo ascent of the Regular Northwest Face (VI 5.12a, 23 pitches) on Half Dome. [Photo] Andre Kiryanov
Alex Honnold, the young climber whose accomplishments in Yosemite last year (read the October 30, 2007 NewsWire for more information) gained him international climbing renown, made his mark in the Valley again on September 6, 2008 with the first free solo of the Regular Northwest Face (VI 5.12a, 23 pitches) on Half Dome. Perhaps Honnold’s greatest achievement prior was his landmark free solo of Moonlight Buttress (V 5.12+, 9 pitches), Zion National Park, Utah this past April (more information in the April 7, 2008 NewsWire). While his Half Dome accomplishment is easier in technical difficulty than Moonlight and certainly less sustained (one short pitch of 12a and four pitches of 11+), it is about twice as long, and Honnold found it more difficult, physically and psychologically, to free solo. “All the hard stuff is at the very top… it’s uncertain till the very end.”
“[The Regular Northwest Face] is less secure and way harder than Moonlight,” Honnold said. “Moonlight is pumpy, and that’s all–if you don’t get pumped, it’s no issue. Moonlight I had totally dialed, but this was more of an adventure.”
Over the past few years Honnold had climbed the Regular Northwest Face three times as an aid route; last year in the Valley he climbed it once totally free. And after a single, final preparatory free ascent with Brad Barlage two days prior, he scaled the route with no rope, protection or gear of any kind besides climbing shoes and chalk. He also had three bars and a third of a liter of water stuffed into his pocket.
Honnold hiked up to the climb at 6:30 a.m. and began climbing after 8. He took one sustained break, for four minutes on Big Sandy, the ledge below the crux pitches, allowing him to complete the route in 2 hours, 50 minutes.
Notable features that Honnold selected to climb are the Higbee Dihedral (5.12a) and a 5.11c-ish variation that goes around the last corner in the Zig Zags. He also thought about doing the 5.12 sport pitch that goes around the Robbins Traverse; at the last minute he chose to take a 5.10 variation instead. That wound a significant loop–that he had never climbed before–around a fairly blank section of wall before returning to the route. His assessment of that decision was “a huge mistake, because it was loose, chossy, not that fun. It had bushes. No chalk. It just sucked. And the 12c way is actually super good climbing.”
“It’s an awesome route… it’s bigger and more involved,” Honnold said. “And just doing the almost two-hour hike up a hill looking at the huge looming wall is a little intimidating. It’s rad.”
“To me it’s just another step. It’s a little harder mentally but not as hard physically. Just another way to learn.”
Honnold’s free solo philosophy is available in the June 25, 2008 Weekly Feature.