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Solo, Part I: Alex Honnold
Posted on: June 25, 2008
Honnold bypassing a party while free soloing the 5.10d corner pitch above the crux of the Regular North Face of the Rostrum, Yosemite National Park, California. The same day he had free soloed Astroman (5.11c, 300m). [Photo] Asa Firestone
Soloing is often described as the most pure and dangerous form of climbing. For all of us, testing the limit of what's comfortable, whether that's scrambling up 5.3 terrain or spending fifty days on a big wall alone, is an unparalleled mental and physical exploration.
We at Alpinist asked the most inspiring solo climbers we know—those defining the edge of what's humanly possible—to tell us more about their rare connection to the vertical world.
In this week's feature, Alex Honnold opens the Alpinist.com Solo Series. The upstart was virtually unknown to the climbing world until one year ago when he free soloed Astroman, among other accomplishments, in Yosemite (read the October 30, 2007 NewsWire). Then on April 1, 2008 he completed one of the most impressive free solos ever achieved: the Zion classic, Moonlight Buttress (read the April 7, 2008 NewsWire). How did a 22-year-old from Sacramento do it? Find out below.
1. Please tell us a bit about yourself.
I'm from Sacramento, California. I'm 22 years old, and I pretty much don't do anything outside of climbing.
2. How did you become a pro climber, and when did you start free soloing?
About twelve years ago my parents took me to a climbing gym. They figured I'd enjoy it, and I did. As for going pro, it was just one of those lucky things—I met the right people and they started giving me things.
I'm not totally sure how I started soloing. I'd been reading stories about Croft and Bachar and the Stone Masters since I was a kid. I guess I always thought it was "cool."
The reasons I solo now are a lot different than when I started. I used to be a lot more scared. I'd be happy to be climbing but fearful of roofs, or any time I lost good footholds, and other silly things. But it was always exciting. That kept me coming back.
3. It seems like you've had a fairly steep learning curve. Can you explain what made you so strong mentally and physically?
It's actually not a super steep learning curve. I'd been climbing fairly well in the gym for years. Then I switched to climbing outdoors all the time. I just got noticed all of the sudden.
I don't know what made me strong mentally, if I even am. You should see me around hot ladies. Terrified.
4. What does free soloing represent to you?
It represents total commitment. Perfection. Execution.
5. Why do you free solo?
Why do you climb? Because it's fun. I find it rewarding. Challenging. Whatever. I solo for the same reason I climb. I enjoy it.
6. Why do you like free soloing multipitch routes?
I feel like it's more worth it than soloing a single pitch. Less contrived. More committing. And I love exposure.
Honnold "gazing up in awe" at Tricks are for Kids (5.13), Indian Creek, Utah. [Photo] Alex Honnold collection
7. Please tell us about your first free solo.
I'm pretty sure my first solos were at Lover's Leap: Knapsack Crack (5.3) and Corrugation Corner (5.7). Knapsack is so low angle and easy that you can pretty much just walk up it. You can just walk up next to the crack if you prefer 5.6 friction. Lots of folks learn how to lead on it. I was getting my confidence up. Corrugation is more committing. It's three pitches and pretty vertical. I don't remember very well, but I'm sure I climbed it totally statically, overgripped the shit out of it. I probably was climbing terribly and was really scared.
8. What has shifted since you were scared of free soloing? How have you tamed your fears?
Well a lot of things are different. The most obvious is that I'm stronger now than when I started soloing. I'm climbing a number harder, so things are just a little easier. Not getting pumped makes everything feel much more secure.
Also, I used to free solo a lot more just because I had no partners. I didn't know anyone anywhere, and I was a little afraid to talk to people. So I'd climb by myself, which got me onto routes that would otherwise be unappealing. I was always onsight soloing stuff, looking for new routes just to tick things, do something new. Now I mostly just solo climbs I really like. I stick to quality a little more.
I'm also soloing a lot less now than I used to. I sport climb more and have partners more. Soloing is more of a special occasion for me now.
As for taming fear, I'm not sure if I'd phrase it like that. The first time I jugged I was gripped. It was the West Face of Leaning Tower in the Valley—super exposed, overhanging. But after doing a few more walls it became routine. The first time I soloed it was a little scary. Everyone says, "If your foot pops you die," or "What if you get stung by a bee?! You'd die." One by one I had all those things happen to me. I've blown feet, had birds come out of cracks, had bats hiss (which always scares the shit out of me), and nothing ever came of it. You go up there and climb—sometimes you get off route or sometimes it's dirtier than you'd like, but you either push through it or climb down. Nothing dramatic; nothing crazy; certainly never really "do or die" not to say that can't happen, and if it does you're in a bad way.
9. What draws you to free soloing?
When I'm climbing there's no difference between being roped up or free soloing. On Moonlight Buttress there was no difference except that things are done perfectly. The focus is amazing. It's hard to describe the feeling of perfection when you solo... that you're doing everything with precision. When I lead I can often just charge ahead. Soloing requires more.
10. Some say that free soloists have a death wish. What do you think of this assessment?
Well I haven't died yet. I definitely agree with the Dan Osman quote: "You don't wanna die right? So you just don't fall." And I've often said things to the same effect. "It's no big deal because you won't fall." I would rather not die. But I know I will eventually, and I might as well live fully until then.