Climber Alex Honnold talks ‘Free Solo’ experience as part of Aspen Ideas Festival
ASPEN — On June 3, 2017, climber Alex Honnold didn’t fall to his death, like so many feared he would. Instead, he accomplished what may have been the greatest feat in the sport’s history by free soloing — that is, climbing without ropes — Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan.
His triumph was at the heart of the National Geographic documentary “Free Solo,” directed by the husband and wife duo of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Released last fall, the film won a 2019 Academy Award for best documentary feature and has turned Honnold into a full-fledged celebrity.
“It has actually been crazy with the film. Being in public spaces is a little different,” the 33-year-old California native said Monday night of his stardom. “Obviously I’m not going to complain that it wound up being too successful. If you are going to make the film, you want it to be the best possible film.”
Since the film’s release, Honnold has spent much of his time traveling around to promote it. This included a stop Monday night at St. Regis Aspen as part of Aspen Ideas Festival. Taking questions from New York Times journalist Bret Stephens, Honnold spent an hour entertaining a crowd that was easily estimated at more than 1,000 people inside the hotel’s ballroom.
Stephens, who claims to be a hypochondriac, said it was a pairing between the world’s most fearful man and the most fearless in Honnold.
“If you get scared while free soloing, it all starts to crumble a little bit,” Honnold said. “Basically, everything can kind of spiral negatively. Whereas if you are 100% confident that you can do the thing and you go climb it your best, then you do actually do it.”
Climbing El Cap
El Capitan in California is climbing’s most famous wall of rock. At more than 3,000 vertical feet, the idea of climbing it without ropes is seen as both impossible and insane. While the latter may still be true, Honnold proved it possible by climbing it unaided two summers ago. Often clinging to the wall with nothing more than his fingertips and no rope to catch him, the slightest mistake would have meant certain death.
The idea to free solo El Cap had been in Honnold’s head for about eight years at that point, and a failed attempt the prior fall — he decided to bail about a fourth of the way up the wall — made his summit that much more meaningful. In the film, Honnold was shown at the top — nearly four hours after he started — with a big grin on his face saying how “delighted” he was.
“I was smiling a lot for the whole week afterward. … It’s pretty satisfying. I’m very proud of the effort I put into it and of the climb itself,” Honnold said Monday. “I had no editorial control over the film at all. I didn’t even see it until the final draft. It’s a totally honest film. I think they actually did an incredible job of showing just the full picture.”
A love story
One of the reasons the documentary was such a success was the relationship between Honnold and girlfriend Sanni McCandless, who had only just started dating at the beginning of the film. A central part of the story, their love life was also a popular topic during Monday’s discussion.
Honnold was happy to report they are still together, but was a bit squeamish when talking about that part of the film.
“Have you seen the film? There are whole sections I find horrifying,” Honnold joked, saying he found many parts of the film unflattering. “Many of the things I say about her in the beginning of the film were things I said about a woman I just started dating. … Fast forward three-and-a-half years later, it’s slightly embarrassing to see that stuff. I could have phrased things a little nicer.”
Yes, Honnold’s life has changed quite a bit since the film’s release. Mostly, he has much less time to spend living out of his van in Yosemite. Before his fame blossomed, Honnold would spend months at a time living a carefree, quiet life in the park, climbing every day. However, he said he’s only been able to spend a few days climbing in Yosemite this summer, but did take some time Monday to climb on Independence Pass prior to his talk in Aspen.
What hasn’t changed? Well, he still prefers to eat from a spatula, as seen in another of the film’s memorable moments.
“When I’m in the van, yeah, I often eat off the spatula still,” Honnold said. “The whole point of eating off the spatula is you don’t scratch your pan, you have fewer dishes, it’s very efficient, it’s very practical. I strongly encourage everyone to do it.”
It’s a question Honnold gets on repeat these days. After free soloing El Capitan, what’s next? He said he honestly doesn’t know, but a sequel to his award-winning film certainly isn’t going to happen.
“There is definitely no ‘Free Solo 2,’ that’s for sure,” Honnold said. “I did all that climbing, and then the film came out, so since then it’s been seven months of touring with the film, going to the Academy Awards, doing the whole crazy thing. Now, every day people are like, ‘What’s next?’ And in some ways I’m like, ‘Well, I already did what’s next.’ Of course, it’s overshadowed by this incredible film.”
It’s not even been a year since the film’s release, but it’s been more than two since Honnold free soloed El Capitan. What people don’t know is Honnold’s been plenty busy in that time and has accomplished a lot as a climber.
An athlete for The North Face, he’s spent time climbing big walls in Alaska and doing first ascents in Antarctica. Last summer, he and Tommy Caldwell, a close friend featured in the film and legendary climber in his own right, became the first people to climb the Nose route on El Capitan (with ropes this time) in under two hours. They did it last June in 1 hour, 58 minutes, 7 seconds. For the average climber, that same route can take multiple days.
But will Honnold ever achieve something as great as free soloing El Cap again? Probably not, and he said this is mostly because there will never be a film as good as “Free Solo” to accompany it. While he still has many goals he wants to achieve as a climber, those outside the climbing world likely won’t see most of them.
As far as free soloing El Capitan, he doesn’t see anyone else matching his feat anytime soon. He believes there are plenty of people who have the physical skills to make it happen, but few have the mental fortitude to even try, and rightly so.
“There is such a difference between the physical side of it and the mental side of it. … I’ve always darkly joked that the right person just has to have a bad breakup and then they’ll just go,” Honnold said. “I don’t think that anyone is actively trying to. I don’t think anybody really wants to. I don’t think anyone is in the right place where they should. But you never really know.”