Steep Learning Curve: Alex Honnold On His Early Free-Soloing Days
“Because failure is never an option, learning to free solo takes even longer than learning to climb.”
Hundreds of feet above the Valley floor, ropeless, I slowly shifted my weight back and forth from one smear to another on a friction slab. Suddenly I felt very afraid. I wasn’t on some big, bold solo. This was about 2005, years before I had done any long or significant solo. I was on Arches Terrace, an ignoble 5.8 slab at the base of Royal Arches. The only reason I was up there was to tick a new route in my SuperTopo guidebook. I didn’t know anything about the route, and honestly didn’t care much about it. It was just another day and another route. Except that friction slabs can be unnerving and I was starting to lose my cool.
The normal descent from this route is to rap, but since I was cordless I had planned to down climb. The thought of reversing this insecure slab finally decided it. I was done. I changed directions and started working my way back down.
I wasn’t satisfied just to reach the ground. I took the bus back to Camp 4, immediately packed up my tent, and hitchhiked back to Sacramento. I was done for the season—completely and totally done.
As a young kid learning how to climb in the gym in Sacramento, I would spend any extra time reading magazines and watching the highlight reels of climbing films. I was amazed when Dean Potter free soloed parts of the Nose in Masters of Stone V. I daydreamed about the Stonemasters and how great they must have been to free all the early routes in Yosemite. I idolized Peter Croft, John Bachar and Ron Kauk for being such solid, accomplished climbers, and imagined being able to climb the same kinds of routes.
Yet thinking about it now I realize that I was falling into the same mistake that most people make when they look at climbing media, putting all the successes on a pedestal, and not realizing the time and effort that went into achieving them. Climbing has a slow learning curve, and most of the best climbers have been practicing this art/sport their entire lives (except maybe for Chris Sharma, who was better than everyone else right from the get go.)
Because failure is never an option, learning to free solo takes even longer than learning to climb. In most climbing disciplines, you progress by pushing past your limits and failing repeatedly. Obviously that approach can’t work with soloing.
I climbed in the Sacramento gym Touchstone for eight years before moving to Berkeley to attend university. I still hadn’t really climbed outside, besides a few trips to Bishop with other kids on the youth team and outings like that. After one year of school I decided I didn’t want to go back, and that’s when the climbing road trip began in earnest. It’s also when I eased into free soloing.
I started climbing by myself because I didn’t know many people and was painfully shy. But it was also because I felt that soloing was cool and something I wanted to do. However, like all momentous commitments in life, it took a long, slow process to learn.
Joshua Tree was the site of much of my early learning. The endless rock and short routes make it a soloist’s dream. I would wander around the desert looking for easy routes. I was always torn between wanting people to watch and being petrified around strangers and wanting to be alone. The desire to show off only really existed on routes that were so far within my comfort zone that I didn’t need to fully concentrate. Any time the climbing got harder I would withdraw and wish I was alone. I remember climbing a short route in the Real Hidden Valley that turned a small roof. It was the steepest thing I’d soloed at the time, though I doubt it was any harder than 5.10b. But I was terrified of leaving my feet behind and turning the roof. It felt insecure to hang off my arms and I kept retreating a few moves to consider my options. I noticed two hikers on the tourist trail. They were probably just confused as to what I—a lone climber hanging out under a roof—was doing, but at the time I felt like they were judging me. I didn’t want to retreat in front of them, but I couldn’t commit to the climbing, especially with an audience. I killed time, waiting for them to lose interest and leave, embarrassed by my cowardice.
Eventually they wandered away, and I turned the roof. The important thing was that I realized how skewed my motivations became when other people were watching me climb. I worried more about what they might think than how I actually felt. After that, soloing became even more solitary for me because I feared doing something stupid when people were watching. Yet it was still a difficult balance, since there are always people at climbing areas and I often just wanted to climb. And honestly, sometimes it was nice to impress people. But pride is dangerous since it leads to recklessness or overconfidence, which have no place in soloing.
Now that I’m a “professional” climber who has built a career and reputation as a free soloist, I’m expected to do this kind of thing. That’s OK, since free soloing is what I love to do—but it certainly complicates all the motivations.
My best early success was onsight soloing the 18-pitch Epinephrine in Red Rocks. It took me five hours car to car and next to this tick is a note in my journal: “proud of myself.”
It was my first time climbing in Red Rocks and my first time on sandstone, which seems excessively bold in retrospect. I was supposed to be meeting friends from the Sacramento climbing gym for a short sport-climbing vacation in Las Vegas, but I showed up a few days early and climbed by myself. I don’t know why I chose Epinephrine, one of the longest routes in Red Rocks, as my first taste of the canyons; maybe I was attracted to the route’s chimneying, since it was similar to the Valley.
What I remember most is laughing in wonder as I discovered all the edges, chickenheads, flakes and other cool features that make Red Rocks climbing so unique. They seemed too good to be true, like holds from the gym bolted onto an immense sandstone wall. Fearing some of them might indeed be too good to be true, I avoided the most incut holds, afraid that they would break. That sense of amazement stands out most—I don’t remember the topout or descent, only that the climbing was mind-blowing.
Red Rocks was also the site of my first big down climb. Naturally, I’ve always down climbed a lot just to descend, sometimes, to escape from cruxy climbing. But in my early years of soloing, for whatever reason, I had a more limited sense of scale. Sure, it made sense to down climb single pitches, or maybe two-pitch routes if they were easy enough, but for anything beyond that I wanted to walk off or rap. That perception changed when I first soloed Crimson Chrysalis on Cloud Tower. It’s an eight-pitch 5.8 that tops out on a sick tower at the mouth of Juniper Canyon. Before starting, I knew the climbing was well within my grasp, but I did not know how to get off. I didn’t want to carry two ropes all the way up there to rap; it just made more sense to down climb. But down climbing an eight-pitch route is an undertaking, and required a mental switch in my approach. Down climbing is not just a matter of reversing the same moves—it is climbing an entirely different route, one with its own challenges and requiring even more time to complete.
In Red Rocks, however, down climbing is in some ways more straightforward than climbing up, because it’s easier to tell which edges to use when you look down the wall. Rather than feeling around to find the good holds, you can drop right onto them. But it’s still a slow and precise process.
More often than not my down climbs at the time were preceded by a moment of panic as I realized that I was either off route or on the wrong route. It took me a long time and lots of trial and error, resulting in a lot of aborted soloing attempts, to be able to read a topo properly. At Sugar Loaf, California, I was high off the ground when I passed a bolt. Concern washed over me; I was pretty sure there weren’t supposed to be bolts on this route. I passed another one, and concern turned to panic. This wasn’t the right route! Maybe it was harder than the 5.9 I’d intended to solo. How could I know? I looked left and right, trying to find the proper line. I couldn’t tell what I was on, or where I’d intended to be. Too intimidated to onsight solo unknown bolted terrain, I down climbed. While I’m glad to have made that call, this kind of thing happened more frequently than I’d like to admit.
Even more embarrassing than my tendency to wander off route was one week in Owens River Gorge when I managed to deck twice. Looking back, I wonder what even inspired me to climb in the Gorge without a partner, because single-pitch sport climbing is generally more fun in pairs. For whatever reason I was psyched to onsight solo and down climb as many sport pitches as I could manage. With no real method to my approach, I just strolled along the base of the cliffs looking for routes in the right grade range, which that winter went up to about 5.10c if it didn’t look too hard.
I was routinely soloing from 25 to 50 pitches a day (I’ve always counted a down climb as a pitch, so going up and down something is two pitches), which was great for building fitness but not so good for maintaining concentration. The problem was I just didn’t care about a lot of the routes. They were scrappy little faces with no appeal besides the tick I could put in my guidebook.
One day I started up a 5.9 arete in the Upper Gorge without really thinking about it. It looked a little technical, but really it was just another easy pitch … until I slipped off just above the first bolt. I landed safely at the base, no worse off than from an unexpected bouldering fall, but I was shocked.
If I could fall unexpectedly at the first bolt, then ostensibly I could fall from the last, and I wouldn’t stick the landing from up there. That should have given me pause, but being an inexperienced 20-year-old I just hopped back on and climbed the route, certainly more attentively after my false start.
I managed to repeat the experience later in the week, down climbing a 5.10 face. At the top of the route I was overly rigid and tense, carefully easing my weight onto each hold, climbing every move static. But as I got lower, I loosened up and moved more gymnastically; by the bottom I was swinging my feet around and enjoying myself. Until I again slipped off near the first bolt and landed with a thud at the base. Uninjured, I quickly looked around to make sure no one had witnessed my lapse. Part of me thought I was lucky not to have been higher, but part of me knew that had I been higher it never would have happened. It’s hard to know, but the experience underlined the need to pay attention.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve begun limiting my soloing to routes that I really care about. I do much less soloing-for-the-tick; I reserve it for special occasions and special routes. Part of that is because I fear the complacency that comes with soloing too many easy pitches and not paying full attention. But I think the main reason is that I’ve learned what I needed from easy mileage. Now I know that I can do it, because I have done it over and over. There’s no uncertainty or adventure in such mileage anymore; the excitement that comes from being a beginner and constantly improving has slowly waned.
The reasons to solo always feel muddled, since there is a lot of joy in the fluid movement and simplicity, in climbing quickly all by yourself. There’s also satisfaction in doing something that other people can’t do, and doing it well. Ultimately, I think the biggest appeal of soloing is to find my limits, to test my mastery of climbing. And that is a complicated thing, since I can’t push forever without accidentally finding my limit.
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