It’s tempting to ask Alex Honnold about death. He’s famous for cheating it again and again in dramatic fashion. But Hannold is bored with the subject, having answered the same questions for years about how he’s able to so calmly risk it all. Instead, he likes to riff on life, and the remarkably simple and strange way he lives his.
Honnold, 30, is one of the two or three best rock climbers in the world and a specialist in free solo ascents. That means he scales hundred- and thousand-foot cliffs and mountains alone, without any safety equipment. It’s a niche specialty in an already dangerous sport in which one slip, one moment of broken concentration, means lights out for good.
For most of the year, Honnold lives in his Ford Ecoline van and travels the country route-to-route like an obsessive, high-octane nomad. Not long ago he was just an anonymous “dirtbag climber,” a college dropout with a quiet drive to master his favorite thing since he was 10 years old. But once he tackled some of the hardest routes in the world without rope or partner — like the 2,500-foot northwest face of Half Dome in Yosemite Valley — he shot to athletic stardom. He’s recently been featured on 60 Minutes and made the covers of the New York Times Magazine and National Geographic.
Honnold describes smashing speed records and mapping nearly impossible routes with a self-deprecating nonchalance that’s earned him the nickname Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold. He’s equally as humble about founding the Honnold Foundation, an environmental nonprofit, and coming out with a new book, Alone on the Wall, which details seven of his most sphincter-tightening adventures.
This Sunday, Honnold will give an illustrated presentation of Alone on the Wall at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. After, he’ll hold a book-signing. I recently spoke with him about his adventures, life, death, fear, and why he doesn’t believe in God.
In your book you say a climber, no matter how elite, can always improve. What are you working on right now? I’ve been focusing on pure finger strength, which lends itself to the book tour I’m on, because I don’t have much time for climbing anyway. I travel with a hang board, which has different grips so I can isolate certain fingers. I hang from different edges with fingers half-closed, fully open, and I can do pull-ups — that kind of thing.
You’re famous for your laser-like focus, but is there any part of your mental game you think needs work? That’s an interesting question, because sometimes I wonder if I should be meditating or training my mind more. The thing with physical preparation is I have tons of friends who train at a really high level and who can give me advice. But with mental training, I don’t really know anybody who has a much better mind for climbing, I guess, so I don’t really know where I would go. It’s not really a limiting factor for me. But if I had some kind of Buddhist master tell me my mind was actually holding me back and I should do certain things, I’d be totally open to it.
Do you have a mantra or anything you say to yourself to get in the right mindset? I just have, “Do not fall, do not fall, do not fall,” on repeat in my head.
Really? [Laughs.] No, of course not. Truthfully, I don’t have any self-talk or anything. I try to stay relatively quiet.
Do you ever listen to music up there? I often listen to music on the easy stuff — modern rock, all the stuff I listened to in high school — but then don’t on hard stuff. Music is more fun, it’s more pleasant obviously, but I think it’s a crutch for the really hard routes.
You describe in your book the most scared you’ve ever been on a climb, and it was with your girlfriend at the time. Did that influence your decision to go free soloing, so you wouldn’t have to worry about anyone else, and they wouldn’t have to worry about you? No, and while I was freaking out in that experience, I was still 100 feet away from her. I couldn’t see her. You still feel very much alone when you’re 80-100 feet out on the rope. No, the free soloing was more of a personal aesthetic thing, not because I was trying to avoid people.
What’s the biggest misconception about you and what you do? Because I gotta believe a lot of people think you’re crazy, that you have some kind of death wish. I don’t think people understand the amount of time, effort, and practice that goes into each climb. Beyond that, I’ve talked with friends about routes, I’ve read about them in books, I’ve seen them on film. People think I just walk up to a sheer cliff and climb it with no knowledge of anything, when in reality, there’s tons and tons of information out there, and I’m already well tapped into it.
You’ve talked in the past about the difference between risk and danger, that through intense preparation you minimize risk as much as you can. Do you live the rest of your life that way? I take that philosophy everywhere. In general I don’t like to roll the dice on things. I try not to pass cars when there’s no visibility. I don’t gamble. I don’t do drugs… I know from doing these interviews over and over that most people’s questions focus on death and fear. Everyone is so fixated on, “Do you feel fear? Have you ever thought you were about to die? What is it like to feel you’re about to die?” Sometimes I want to be like, “Maybe you should have more near-death experiences so you can appreciate it on your own terms.”
Do you think people, in general, dwell on death too much? Yeah, way too much.
Why do you think that is? I think people don’t reflect on their own mortality enough, so they prefer to put it aside and think, “Oh, everyone else is risking death, but I’m not.” But in fact, everyone is risking death every day. You might get run over, you might get hit by lightning. I mean, who knows? Each day there is a chance you might die. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Every living being on Earth is facing that same existential rift.
What do you like to focus on instead? I would rather focus on life. The way I’m living my life is more of a positive choice of what I want to do with it and less about fear over the way it’s going to end. I’d like to think it’s an intentional decision to live the way I think is most beautiful.
You describe yourself as an atheist in the book. How did you get there? Yeah, I’m not spiritual at all. I’m over-rational, probably. I’ve just always been that way. My mother tried to raise us Catholic, and at no point did I ever believe anything regarding religion. At no point did I think, “Well, maybe.” I was always just, “This is totally stupid. This doesn’t make any sense to me.” And as an adult learning about human evolution and the origins of man, it’s been the same.
How do you feel when you’re up on a cliff face, or when you complete a route? Do you get any kind of a rush, or do you feel some sort of transcendence? Like, does it bring me closer to God?
Yeah. Based on what you see and do up there, do you ever reconsider there may be some higher power? It’s interesting. I’ve had a lot of sublimely beautiful experiences in nature, which is how a lot of people find spirituality or religion, but I’ve never been close to taking it a step further and thinking there may be something else to the world. To me, that step doesn’t make any sense. I see the beauty of nature around me, and just think, “Wow, we live in an amazing place.”
I mean, I’ve had a lot of moments that people would conventionally describe as spiritual, and are probably the basis of human spiritual tradition. Just last winter I had to walk 20 hours without food across a glacier after having climbed for 53 hours. I was sort of hallucinating by the end because I hadn’t slept in two-and-a-half days, and I could have thought, “God came to me. I had a vision.” But instead, I realized my body was just playing tricks on me because it was extremely calorie-deficient and extremely sleep-deprived.
You were delirious. Not that I’m calling Jesus delirious. [Laughs.]
Which routes do you want to tackle in the next few years? Is there one in particular you’re eyeing? For free soloing, the obvious thing is to solo El Capitan in Yosemite. That’s the last huge route in the U.S. that hasn’t been done. It’s the obvious challenge. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it. It would be pretty amazing if I ever did, but that might be a next-generation thing. Someone eventually will, but maybe not for 20 years. Who knows. It’s pretty daunting.
You didn’t start climbing to one day become famous. But now that you have that recognition, what do you want to do with it? I don’t really have a goal in terms of influencing the sport or anything. I did, however, start the Honnold Foundation as a result of having a bigger platform, feeling that I ought to do something positive with it.
You’ve been described by old friends and classmates as super shy. Is the celebrity status tough? I’ve gotten over my shyness from many years of doing public events. It all feels pretty easy for me. And it’s certainly way better than working, which is what I always say.
If you weren’t climbing, or for some reason couldn’t, what else would you do? I was studying engineering before I dropped out of college, so I’d probably go back to engineering or environmental policy. Maybe environmental engineering. I don’t really know. I’ll have to cross that bridge when I come to it, which hopefully isn’t anytime soon.
UCSB Arts & Lectures will present an evening with climber Alex Honnold and his illustrated presentation Alone on the Wall on Sunday, November 22, at 7 p.m. at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Books will be available for purchase, and a signing will follow the event.