From “Free Solo” to Free Solar: The Honnold Foundation is Growing Up
Alex Honnold sank into pigeon pose on the floor in the Denver Convention Center, resting his legs after a morning making the rounds at the 2018 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market. “Do you mind if I stretch while we talk?” Honnold asks politely.
He had just skirted a group of people who had noticed him among the booths. The crowd had hoped for a chance to shake the calloused hands that keep Honnold safe when he climbs unprotected, thousands of feet above the ground.
But for the next hour as he sat on the floor, Honnold didn’t talk about free soloing El Cap or Half Dome or El Sendero Luminoso or Moonlight Buttress. Instead he chatted knowledgeably about the ease of solar panel installation, of sustainability projects in service of social justice, and about his life’s work beyond climbing.
Back at the start of his climbing career and early 2010s, Honnold frequently joined brand-sponsored climbing trips to remote and wild places. On one such trip, in 2010, Honnold traveled to Chad with The North Face to bag some first ascents on the Towers of Ennedi. That trip and others were eye-opening experiences for Honnold, and sparked an interest at the intersection of social justice efforts and environmental solutions to the world’s climate problem.
He would read book after book before each of his trips to learn about the area he was about to explore. “I learned more about climate change and about environmental issues as I was going on those early expeditions. It’s one thing to read a book about a billion people on earth living without access to power. And then it’s another thing to actually go to some of those places and see people living without power,” says Honnold.
Honnold passed through areas where entire villages of people had only kerosene lamps for night light. “Around the world, no matter how impoverished people are, they seem to take care of their own survivable needs to secure food, water and shelter. People scrape bottom to manage those things. But I feel like access to power is when people are able to start improving their lives. They are able to get an education, do more with their time, live a slightly richer life,” says Honnold.
In 2012, two years after that trip to Africa, having continued to educate himself and formulate ideas and opinions on the nexus of social justice and environmentalism, Honnold decided it was time to take action. He realized that the two ills he was most troubled by—global warming and poverty—could both be ameliorated by promoting solar energy. While talking in the car on the way home from a climbing trip he and longtime climbing partner Maury Birdwell dreamed up the Honnold Foundation. Their vision was simply to improve lives and reduce environmental impact through solar projects.
For the first few years, Honnold funneled a third of his annual income into the Foundation and gradually worked on developing the Foundation’s focus and mission along with Birdwell, who assumed the position of executive director. The Honnold Foundation became a division of the Tides Foundation, a 501(c)(3) public charity which provides a platform for charitable organizations. (Foundations provide a source of funding for charitable projects and the funds can come from a diverse set of sources: brand sponsors, private donations, crowdsourced donations and income from donor trips.)
“It took some time for all ideas to marinate,” Honnold says. “I just think renewable energy is the obvious first step toward our future. We have to decarbonize our economy and use renewable energy. Switching to solar is the obvious first step.”
The Honnold Foundation gradually honed in on four non-profit organizations—SolarAid, GRID Alternatives, The Solar Energy Foundation and Northern Navajo Solar Entrepreneurs—that each own an element of solar expansion and share the mission of transitioning people to solar-power use.
SolarAid provides rechargeable solar-powered lights to people in remote rural communities in Eastern Africa; GRID Alternatives installs solar to power off-grid low-income communities with affordable solar power; The Solar Energy Foundation feeds solar knowledge and revenue back into local economies; and Northern Navajo Solar Entrepreneurs recruits local leaders to advocate for solar, promote solar education in community hubs, and support a long-term entrepreneurship program to support solar in Navajo communities.
In 2017, the Honnold Foundation provided support to send Brittany Gibbons, part-time HF director of programs and an energy analyst at Tesla, to Ethiopia where she provided professional support and refined data management systems for The Solar Energy Foundation. Her trip was the result of an award from Stanford Graduate School and was co-funded by the Honnold Foundation.
Last fall, Honnold, Birdwell, Gibbons and Dory Trimble—a former contractor for HF—met for a working retreat in Yosemite and decided it was time for the organization to grow up: They outlined a plan for the Honnold Foundation to transition from a privately funded foundation to a publicly funded long-lasting organization.
“All four of us got together in Yosemite and sat down and did the ugly exhausting grim work of developing a mission statement and making a plan for how we were gonna improve the foundation’s web presence and for what it would look like to really become a visible organization,” says Trimble. “We decided to bridge the gap between where we had been to a publicly funded foundation that exists in perpetuity.” Under the new structure, Trimble has assumed the role of executive director and Birdwell has transitioned into the role of Chairman of the Board.
The Honnold Foundation is commited to making sure the majority of funds raised go straight to the nonprofit partners it supports. With no office and only one full-time employee in Trimble, the Foundation’s expenses are low. “People donate money to us, and we turn around and give it directly to our nonprofit partners all over the world,” Trimble says, “From there, our partners can spend their grant funding how they choose.”
The Foundation also continues to give exclusively to solar projects. Trimble says, “I wish climbers knew that solar energy (and energy access in general) isn’t just about charging your cell phone in the backcountry. Something that has really struck me about solar energy access is the fact that it’s a social justice issue, as much as anything else—it’s not about putting panels on houses, it’s about increasing tribal sovereignty and economic resiliency, it’s about sending girls to school, it’s about improving indoor air quality so that women (who are most likely to be cooking in homes that burn kerosene for fuel) don’t have to inhale pollutants equivalent to a pack of cigarettes a day. Solar is rad for tricking out your van and reducing your energy bill, but it also has a huge and measurable effect on the quality of people’s lives.”
For the Honnold Foundation, growing up is a big change. But it is exactly the direction Honnold wants to take to affect the greatest change possible and to give kids the same opportunities he had. “When I’m on an expedition and I’m driving through some village in the middle of nowhere that has no power and no running water I see all these kids growing up and I can’t help but think that it’s sort of a waste of human capital,” he says. “One of those kids could be Einstein; one of those kids could be an astronaut. … I just think that is so unfortunate for a billion humans on earth to be without power. Access to energy makes it slightly more fair and possible.”
Trimble, who has now been working with HF for just over a year, says she works so closely with Alex Honnold on developing the foundation and funding solar projects that she can completely disassociate him from climbing. “It’s difficult for me to reconcile the person I know with the person who’s done those things,” Trimble says. “If I want to know what it’s like when Alex climbs, I can read an article. He’s been interviewed a thousand times about death and risk. I think that it’s a lot more interesting to talk to him about his work around charitable giving.”
Jess Saba is an independent writer who covers topics related to conservation and environmental philanthropy. She lives in the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire.