Alex Honnold with Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome in the background.
Jimmy Chin/National Geographic Stock
“That’s the climbing lifestyle in general,” he explains. “You have to go to the rocks all the time, which is different from other sports. You can’t accumulate things, because you can’t take them with you. I’m very happy with what I’m doing. I go to cool places and climb cool stuff.”
With the financial benefits of his recent celebrity, Honnold says he does eat a little better, and he takes advantage of his travel budget, having visited five continents. But he still climbs almost 300 days a year, and when it’s fall in California, he is back in his van in the Yosemite Valley, climbing his home turf as much as he can.
“It’s a community, which makes it a lot different from any other sport,” says Cedar Wright, a teammate on the North Face team who recently spent several weeks climbing with Honnold in Chile. “You can go to El Capitan [in Yosemite] and hang out with the Michael Jordan of climbing, but he’s just another guy.”
Honnold started climbing at age 11 and spent his youth fantasizing about the exotic places photographed in the climbing magazines he read. He says that, like everyone else, he always wanted recognition for being good at what he does, but no one could anticipate the international fame he has received.
“No climber expects that kind of notoriety,” MacDonald says. “This is very unusual and happens maybe once every 10 to 15 years in the media world.”
At a recent competition in Santiago, Chile, more than 3,000 people showed up, and they all seemed to want a piece of Honnold, clamor?ing for photographs. One man even asked for his shirt, which Honnold gave him.
Part of what attracts people to Honnold, obviously, is what he does. Anyone who has ever felt his or her stomach churn upon approaching the edge of a high cliff knows what the climber has to overcome on a regular basis.
“He embodies risk,” Chin says. With bouldering’s goal of climbing smaller rocks and the large tangle of equipment that goes with sport climbing, they “can seem hard to grasp,” Chin says. “[But] it’s pretty easy to understand somebody clinging to a wall 2,000 feet off the ground without being attached.”
Fame for these kinds of achievements can be deadly. Honnold is not the best technical climber nor the strongest physically, but his ability to concentrate sets him apart. He does not want to be thinking about what people will say as he gets to the summit when he should be thinking about how to execute his next difficult move.
And that is the other reason the spotlight has fallen on him. With wide dark eyes and big ears on a slim, taut frame, Honnold looks like a curious boy who has just gone through a growth spurt. He is a voracious reader, analytical and inquisitive, and the major benefit of his fame for him is the opportunity it provides to reflect on his own growth as a climber and a person.
Recently, when Honnold was sitting at an outdoor café on a busy Manhattan street during a 10-hour layover between Chile and Spain, it was difficult to imagine this chatty man willingly putting his life at risk. But in videos of his climbing, it becomes apparent why he is so successful. He is always in the moment, embracing the immediate physical demands of his task while accepting the inevitable distractions without letting them bother him.