Off the Wall - Interview with Climber Alex Honnold
I consider myself pretty lucky to call North Face Athlete Alex Honnold a friend. I consider it a small miracle that I was able to get him to sit still long enough to answer some questions for my blog. Alex is not one to sit still for long. He just finished a 3-week tour of California’s Sierra Nevada range, hiking all the 14ers and biking in between them and also tackled his first alpine experience up in Alaska.
As most people know, Alex is considered the greatest free soloist of all time. He and I have taken trips to Borneo (his first international expedition), Chad and Oman. I’ve seen first hand what a phenom he is on the wall. Although he and I have had plenty of deep conversations, I wanted to get all formal and make a record of the man, myth + legend. Or at least show the world that, while he may be a climbing machine, Alex is still very much human.
What book are you carrying around right now?
On this trip I brought The Skeptical Environmentalist, A People’s History, and the Great Book of BASE. They’re each really different but pretty good. Each is a work in progress for me right now.
What’s the best thing you’ve read this year?
That’s a good question. Two of my favorites, in vastly different genres, were Why We Run and The Prize. The running book was an awesome natural history of running, it got me really psyched to run more. The Prize was an epic history of oil that honestly gives a whole different view of world history. It was a bit dry, and had I not been stuck in a tent in Alaska for 2 weeks I probably couldn’t have finished it. Quite the undertaking.
I know you were just in AK for your first big alpine missions. How’d that go? Are you ready for more?
It was a good experience and I learned a ton, which is kind of why I went. Honestly, I’m not really psyched for more alpine climbing for a while, but it’s nice to know that I can when the time comes. I’m sure in a year or so I might get psyched again. There were some really inspiring walls up there.
What was the most eye opening experience from your AK trip?
I’m not sure. It was pretty much what I expected in terms of huge snowy walls with avalanches and things. I learned tons of little things like how to put my crampons on and how to use my ice tool, but in a general sense it was still just climbing. I guess the thing that surprised me the most was how much shit [rock and snow and ice] is constantly falling down the faces. Alpine climbing is dangerous!
Give us the best moment and the worst moment of that trip.
The best and the worst are sort of intertwined into the most memorable moments of the trip. I had a lot of fun days in our base camp just hanging out with Freddie and Renan, so some of the most fun times were probably just the mellow times with my partners. But the stuff I remember most are a few different pitches on Dickie when I was epically run out and couldn’t figure out where to make and anchor and had too much rope drag to move, etc etc. Or climbing an iced over chimney in the middle of the night in rock shoes - I wound up stemming face out, trying to avoid ice. Basically I remember all the scary stuff.
Why anything? I like it. I find it rewarding. I think those are pretty much the same reasons that anyone takes up any hobby. I really enjoy it and I like to push myself and improve.
What’s your least favorite character attribute in someone else?
Laziness? Meanness? Ignorance or closed mindedness? Maybe resistance to change? The thing is I can find all of those things in myself to some extent, or in anyone for that matter.
What character attribute do you like least about yourself?
Sloth. Sometimes I feel like I ought to be doing something productive but I just can’t find the motivation. I always think I should be doing more, I just don’t always have it in me. I wish I did.
What do you think is the most important character attribute in someone?
Kindness and enthusiasm for life. I like people who are psyched on what they do.
Who’s your greatest inspiration? Why?
In climbing I would maybe say Tommy Caldwell or Peter Croft. Tommy for being such an incredibly hardworking and talented climber, Peter for following his own path in climbing for so many years and still loving it just the same.
In life though I’d say I’m more inspired by someone like Elon Musk, someone who’s out there doing something really innovative and useful for the world. I feel like he has his hands in pretty much every industry of the future.
What inspires you to solo something?
The challenge, the beauty of the line, the history of the route, lots of different things. For the really big solos it takes a combination of all those factors; I have to get really psyched. For easier things I could just be a matter of boredom or lack of partners or whatever else. But to do something truly hard I have to get really inspired.
The Yosemite Triple was a real bar-raiser for the climbing community. I know you. You’re not one to rest one to chill. What’s the ultimate dream objective for you? Describe your perfect day?
Actually I’m starting to get pretty psyched about a new idea, though it’s not really ready for public consumption yet. I’ll tell you about it in the Bugs.
But in a general sense I have a big list of climbing trips lined up, and I’m in the gym here in Boulder right now trying to get back into fighting shape after all these alpine trips. Just getting ready for something exciting.
If there’s one activity that requires serious conditioning, it’s climbing. Do you do anything else besides climbing to keep yourself fit?
Well I mix up my styles of climbing a lot, so that kind of rounds out the conditioning. I just did a 3 week bike trip down the Sierra Nevada climbing all the 14ers and biking between them. And I’ve been trying to run a bit more this year. I do pushups and core work as often as I get motivated, which is probably about half the year.
What’s your greatest fear in life?
Jeez. Pretty girls? Utter failure? Dying in a terrible accident? All the normal stuff that everyone worries about.
How do you manage fear when soloing? What’s going through your head?
Generally, when I’m really ready for a solo I don’t need to deal with much fear. I know I can do it so it’s just a matter of execution. Of course things happen sometimes and I get scared, but I just have to deal with it. Same as everyone else, I take a deep breath, calm myself down, and carry on. There isn’t anything too magical about it.
What’s the sketchiest thing you’ve experienced climbing?
I hate this question, so I’m gonna skip it. Like any climber, I’ve had tons and tons of close calls and random mishaps. Thankfully, I’ve been pretty lucky and never had any serious problems.
You’re known for a rather Spartan existence, like living out of a van. What’s your greatest indulgence?
Cookies. Pastries. Chocolate. Sweets in general. I have quite a sweet tooth. I kinda wish I didn’t, but we all have our quirks.
What is your favorite quote or motto?
Carpe diem maybe? I don’t really have a favorite.
I take that back! My favorite quote might be by Julius Irving: ‘Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.’ I think about that all the time when I have to do climbing related “work”, like photo shoots or posing or reclimbing things, or whatever. Or even training sometimes. Sometimes you just have to go out and get it done.
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