Alex Honnold – El Cap Free Solo Interview
On June 3, Alex Honnold completed the first-ever free solo of El Capitan in Yosemite—one of the greatest climbing feats in history. Rock and Ice caught up with Honnold to learn more about his motivation for the climb, how it went, and what’s next.
On June 3, Alex Honnold completed the first-ever free solo of El Capitan in Yosemite, California—one of the greatest climbing feats in history. He climbed the Huber brothers’ Freerider (5.12d), a popular 3,000-foot route on the Southwest Face of El Cap, ropeless, in 3 hours 56 minutes.
“I don’t think it’s really hit me yet,” Honnold says. “I’m so freakin’ tired now.”
Rock and Ice talked with Honnold on the phone, while he was on the summit of El Cap yesterday—where there is surprisingly good cell service, he says—to hear more about the experience:
Q&A with Alex Honnold
First off, huge congrats. This ascent was mindblowing.
Yeah, thanks. It was so awesome. I’m pretty psyched on it.
How long had you been planning the El Cap free solo?
I’ve been sort of thinking about it since 2009, after [free] soloing Half Dome, but it seemed pretty daunting at the time. I only started to think about it seriously in the last couple of years. It went from seeming really crazy to seeming possible.
How did you prepare for the climb? Did you climb laps up Freerider to get it dialed?
No, I didn’t really climb laps. I mostly rapped in to try the crux pitches to prepare. The thing about climbing Freerider is that it takes a long-ass time and makes you really tired. And it’s mostly 5.10, and I didn’t really need to climb all the 5.10 pitches over and over.
Rapping in allowed me to sit on a rope and actually figure out the best sequences for the crux moves, you know? I could actually try the same moves over and over. If I was just climbing the route from the ground for the sake of climbing it, I’d only climb a move once and not really find the best sequences.
Overall, how much time do you think you spent on the route in preparation?
Oh, I don’t know. I could look at my journal. I’ve been [in Yosemite] for two months now, and I was here two months in the fall. So I’ve put in like four or five months—plus I’ve been working on other projects over that time.
It’s definitely the most effort that I’ve put into anything.
Were you nervous at all before the climb?
Not really nervous. I knew a few sections of the climb would be a little more serious and engaging, but I wasn’t worried. If I was nervous about it, I wouldn’t have done it.
Did you have a day picked out for the solo ahead of time, or did you play it by ear and wait until it felt right, and say, tomorrow’s the day?
That’s exactly how it was. I was feeling pretty stoked and ready the week before, then it rained and I wanted to rap the route again to make sure nothing had changed. So much of the climb is mental.
A climb like this is so mental, you can’t just rest enough to be ready. I actually went out bouldering and hiking, with my mom, the day before, because I wanted to feel fit on the day of the climb and not go into it after a big rest. So I hadn’t really rested the day before. I wanted it to feel as normal as possible.
How did you feel during the climb? Any surprises?
On the climb, no surprises, which was a good thing. There were a few sections where I felt tense and was overgripping, but I had anticipated that. But I was psyched at how good I felt. It was awesome.
What were those sections?
The second slab pitch had a tough move, and was early in the climb, so I was feeling tense there. And then there was the [V7 Boulder Problem] crux, where I felt tense. But mostly I felt really good.
Did you anticipate that the climb would take around four hours?
Tommy [Caldwell] and I blitzed it a few weeks before in like five and a half hours, so I thought it would take somewhere in the five-hour range. But without a rope if felt better—there was no extra weight or rope drag, you know? It was one of those things where the faster you go, the better you feel. It felt really fun. It was everything I hoped for.
What have you done since the climb?
We filmed the climb for a documentary film [by Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi], so I’ve been going back up to do stuff for that, and general clean up like taking ropes down. That kind of stuff, and a ton of interviews. So I’ve been busy.
Did it feel weird to have cameras on you during the solo?
In general, it is kind of weird, but I’ve been working with these guys for years and felt really comfortable having them on the wall. They set up remote-controlled cameras on the crux, so no one was there for that section. So it still felt like I was on my own for the most part.
I’m actually really excited to see the footage. We also filmed a bunch of other solos I did in preparation and I haven’t even seen photos from some of those yet. So it will be cool to see it all together. These guys do a great job and I think the whole film will be really cool.
Response from the climbing community, and mainstream media, has been all over the place, from calling this the greatest climbing achievement ever, to condemning the promotion of free soloing. How do you feel about how the world has reacted to this?
I never really worry too much about how it’s sprayed around online and in general. Free soloing El Cap was something that I’ve always wanted to do.
It’s funny, up until I did this I thought [free soloing El Cap] would be the coolest thing in climbing, it’s like the pinnacle of what you could do in climbing—which sounds kind of douchey to say now that I’ve done it—but it’s really like the biggest thing that can be done. It’s been a dream of mine for a while.
And now it doesn’t feel that big of a deal.
Do you think this could ever be topped?
I know somebody will eventually top this, but I don’t think I ever will. I don’t know what you could really do to top it. I mean, what else could you do? It’s El Cap, what other walls are out there like it?
Now that you’ve had a few days for this to sink in, do you think that the climb has changed you in any way?
Maybe it’s still too fresh. Time will tell if it’s changed anything. I don’t really feel any different.
It’s been a big dream of mine for many years, and I’ve never really worked so hard on climbing before. Like, in the months leading up to this, I was eating really healthy and training and feeling really good. I’m psyched to take that into the rest of my climbing and see what happens.
Any lessons learned overall?
Take a seemingly impossible goal, break it into pieces, and work on the pieces one by one. And don’t think about the outcome.
I’m excited to go sport climbing and normal climbing again, you know, not free soloing. And I’m going up to Alaska in a few months to do some big walls. Hopefully it snows the whole time so I can just sit in a tent and read a book the whole time, and not actually have to climb [laughs]. We’ll see how it goes. I’m psyched.
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