More than 1,800 feet off the ground, Alex Honnold started panicking a bit. He was standing on a 12-inch ledge just below the summit of Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome and doubting his abilities.
“I could hear people laughing and having a good time 150 feet above me,” Honnold tells me. “But I’m tweaking out on this little slab.”
The 2,000-foot climb up the vertical granite northwest face of Half Dome often takes two days, and for many climbers, it is the crowning achievement of their careers. The last 150 feet are a technical nightmare, with bad footholds and handholds the size of pebbles. When climbers reach this point in the climb, there is nowhere to go but up. Honnold, however, pushed through, completing the whole climb in under three hours. More impressively, he did it free-solo — i.e., no safety ropes, no climbing gear and no harnesses.
In 2008, he was the first person to free-solo this route. When he reached the top, there was no celebratory party. Instead, he got the occasional odd look from the hikers who had made the nine-mile hike up the other side of the mountain, most of whom were too busy taking pictures, having lunch or making out to pay attention to this sweaty man wearing nothing but shorts, climbing shoes and a small chalk bag.
It would be like throwing a perfect game in Game 7 of the World Series, then looking around to find that not only was the crowd not paying attention, but they were also all completely focused on their own games of catch.
On the hike down, wearing no shoes because you can’t hike in climbing shoes, “I probably had 50 comments from people saying, ‘You’re hiking barefoot? That’s crazy.’ ” Honnold thought to himself, “Dude, that’s not the half of it.”
Such is the life of the greatest free-solo climber in the world. Honnold, 26, can attach “first person to ever ” to many of his climbs, and while his flawless, sinewy build physically represents the same ability of many top climbers, Honnold’s mental fortitude — his ability to remain focused hour after hour — separates him in a way that is not only invisible but also intangible.
“In some ways, he’s like a superhero,” says Jimmy Chin, a professional photographer and climber who photographed Honnold for the cover of National Geographic. “He does what people think is absolutely impossible. Even climbers think it’s impossible.”
Still, most of Honnold’s record-breaking climbs are done not in front of large crowds or television cameras but alone, just one man on one giant rock, a poetic representation of the simple lifestyle that is attached to the sport.
“There are hundreds, maybe thousands of people who basically devote their lives to climbing,” says Dougald MacDonald, editor-in-chief of Climbing magazine. “They live very frugally, work as little as possible and follow the seasons. … There was a climber in the 1970s who famously said, ‘At either end of the social spectrum, there’s a leisure class.’ ”
Honnold, who grew up in Sacramento, Calif., dropped out of the University of California, Berkeley, after his freshman year to devote himself to climbing. He paid an out-of-work friend to build a small living space in the back of a Ford Econoline van, and he lived out of it for five years. At first, the living arrangement was a financial necessity to support his lifestyle. Honnold lived on less than $1,000 a month, and the freedom that came with this simple way of life allowed him to devote himself to his sport and to reach a beyond-expert skill level.
Today, though, with The North Face apparel company providing his salary and travel budget; sponsorship from Black Diamond, La Sportiva, Clif Bar and New England Ropes; and national media attention, including a profile on 60 Minutes and a Citi credit card commercial, Honnold has the opportunity to acquire more possessions or find a more permanent living arrangement. But he resists that urge — if the urge even exists — in order to pursue his passion.