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Alex Honnold: super or suicidal?

Alex Honnold wants us to know that there’s more to him than the difficult rock climbs he ascends without a rope. Then again, he titled his new book “Alone on the Wall” and put a picture of himself soloing a high overhanging cliff on its cover. Honnold says he climbs safely, but takes risks even other climbers deem suicidal: those two competing storylines of the climbing sensation’s life are difficult to reconcile.

“Alone on the Wall,” which Honnold wrote with coauthor David Roberts, will enjoyably inform both climbers and the general public about the remarkable 30-year-old who’s become an outdoors celebrity. And there is indeed much worth knowing about him besides his unfathomable free solos.

Honnold’s climbing encompasses a variety of styles in countries around the world. In Borneo, he joined a team that made the first ascent of Mt. Kinibalu’s north face, with Honnold leading the “terrifying, almost unprotected crux pitch of the long climb.” In Patagonia, he and partner Tommy Caldwell became the first team to complete the Fitz Traverse, summiting seven remote peaks in an exhausting but successful five-day push.

Closer to home, Honnold and Hans Florine broke a coveted speed record on Yosemite’s El Capitan, ascending The Nose in an unthinkable 2 hours and 23 minutes (the first ascent of the 31-pitch, 2900-foot route originally took 47 days). On Alaska’s Mt. Dickey, he and his partners destroyed another speed record on a mixed-terrain route up both rock and ice. The common thread of these accomplishments is their difficulty that far exceeds the ability of all but the best climbers in the world.

Honnold’s commendable efforts in charity began on a journey to Chad, where he was astonished by people’s primitive and difficult lives in the nation’s vast desert. “This made me realize, perhaps for the first time, how easy my life was compared to those in less privileged societies,” he wrote. “That insight would lead me, a few years later, to direct my goals toward something other than climbing.”

That revelation led the young climbing prodigy to create the nonprofit Honnold Foundation. “With my Honnold Foundation, what I really hope to do in the coming years is to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in the world in a way that helps the environment, to support projects that both help the earth and help lift people out of poverty,” Honnold wrote. “I feel obligated to do something along those lines just because of the privileged life I’ve been given.”

But of course, it’s Honnold’s free solos on routes longer and harder than anyone ever attempted that put him on the cover of National Geographic, led to a segment on “60 Minutes” and vaulted him into international fame. His ropeless ascents of Half Dome’s Northwest Face (rated 5.12, very hard), Zion’s Moonlight Buttress (5.12d, even harder) and others would have punished a single error with a deathfall and boggled the minds of observers including his peers in the world’s climbing elite.

Honnold claims he climbs safely within the limits of his ability and he tires of the public’s worried reaction to his feats. Yet his own account of his Half Dome solo belies this confidence. Though he had climbed the route before, he writes that he strayed off route on his first ropeless effort. Any experienced climber knows that could easily lead one into harder and perhaps impossible terrain, inviting disaster.

Later near the summit and thousands of feet above the valley floor, Honnold struggled with a difficult move within reach of a carabiner hanging from a bolt. “Although I’d freed the pitch (using a rope) maybe two other times the year before, I could remember nothing of the sequence or holds, perhaps because there aren’t any,” he wrote. “I couldn’t make myself commit to the last terrible right-foot smear I needed to snag the jug. I’d stalled out in perhaps the most precarious position of the whole route.” Rather than grab the carabiner and pull himself to relative safety, Honnold finally attempted the tenuous move, intending if he slipped to “snatch the biner with one finger and check my fall.” Thankfully, he succeeded and summited, but almost any other climber would find his one-finger plan to save himself from certain death unacceptably dangerous by a mountain-sized margin.

On the other hand, Honnold’s bold exploits led to sponsorships, endorsements and movie appearances, all of which not only financially support him (though he still chooses to live in his van) but also the charitable activities of his foundation. So what are we to think of this indisputably talented, likeable and modest climber who regularly risks his neck?

Caution is the rule of my far more limited climbing career. I’ll never climb anything nearly as long and hard as Honnold does, even with a rope, but I’ve enjoyed the sport for more than 20 years without a serious fall or injury. Though acceptance is the norm of the good-natured outdoors community, I feel that perhaps we would suffer fewer tragedies if more folks spoke out against the extreme risks some take. It would be great if guys like Dan Osman, Sean Leary and Dean Potter were still around; each lost his life in high-risk, high-altitude accidents.

So did John Bachar, once the undisputed champion of free soloing, who confidently defended his ropeless climbing when I met and interviewed him in 2009. Though I disagreed, I didn’t feel qualified to dispute the point with a climber so much more accomplished than me. But I wished I had after he fell to his death climbing alone two weeks later.

When Honnold came to Concord for a book signing in December, I bought a copy and chatted with him briefly. There was no opportunity to discuss his risk management, nor would he have wanted that, but before we parted I made myself encourage him to “climb safe.”

“Will do,” Honnold confidently replied.

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