As someone who recently learned to rock climb, free solo climbing is hands-down one of the scariest things I can imagine doing. Free solo climbing is an extreme version of the sport where the climber climbs alone—without any harness, ropes, or equipment whatsoever. Otherwise known as my nightmare fuel. Dangling hundreds of feet in the air attached to a harness and with an experienced belayer (the person at the bottom controlling the rope) at the other end was terrifying enough for me. Even that was a little too much of an adrenaline rush for my liking.
Which is why I was completely gobsmacked as I watched Free Solo, the Oscar-winning National Geographic documentary that follows legendary rock climber Alex Honnold as he trains and eventually free solos El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. El Capitan (or “El Cap” as climbers call it) is a 3,000-foot vertical rock face of pure granite. He chose a well-known route dubbed Freerider.
Honnold, 33, is the first person to ever free solo the iconic rock formation, accomplishing it in just under four hours. It’s considered one of the greatest athletic feats of all time, and pretty much the greatest in the history of rock climbing.
The first thing I noticed when interviewing Honnold was how chill he is.
I had a chance to speak with Honnold about the epic climb and the mesmerizing documentary, and I immediately noticed when we got on the phone that he was surprisingly chill. It makes sense: Honnold grew up outside of Sacramento, and after dropping out of Berkeley, he lived in a van (first his mother's, then his own) for about a decade so he could sleep and wake near his favorite climbing spots. He’s been climbing since he was a kid and started competing in the sport over 20 years ago.
But every time I asked Honnold (not bothering to mask my disbelief) how in the world he is able to mentally and emotionally handle free soloing, his response was shockingly nonchalant. Like it was totally normal to climb thousands of feet into the air without any safety net.
The thing is, over the years, it has become normal for him.
Honnold started dabbling in free solo climbs sometime around 2005.
When I ask what prompted him to try his hand at one of the most dangerous hobbies imaginable, his answer is quite matter-of-fact: He grew up climbing in California, so it was something he always figured he’d maybe try one day.
As a kid, Honnold spent a lot of time in Yosemite and Joshua Tree, two of the most popular climbing destinations in the U.S. “I grew up hearing stories of iconic climbers in the '70s and '80s doing outrageous solos, so I always thought that was cool to some extent and always thought I should try,” he says. The rock in these areas is granite, which is good for free soloing, adds Honnold. (Granite is fairly coarse, hard, and resistant to erosion. When it does erode, it typically forms cracks, which become great holds for climbing.) “If I had grown up someplace where the rock is really bad, I wouldn’t have gotten into it,” he says.
Once he decided to give free solo climbing a shot, he realized he was good at it and decided to keep trying it. “I realized I was slightly better than average and started to feel like it was my thing. I thought, I’m good at this, I should get better at it,” he says.
Honnold explains that in his early days of free soloing, everything felt even more extreme and he made more mistakes. “I didn’t have as much experience, so I would wind up off route all of a sudden,” he says. But earlier on, the routes he was climbing were relatively easy grade-wise, and not nearly as high-stakes as El Capitan.
He went on to complete over a dozen noteworthy free solo climbs in the U.S. and abroad, including Yosemite's Astroman, the Rostrum, and Half Dome, as well as Zion's Moonlight Buttress. Like any other sport or skill, he explains, you get more comfortable and confident doing it over time. “You practice, and it starts to feel normal.”
In Free Solo, the directors get an fMRI of Honnold's brain to see if it can give any insight into how he reacts to fear.
This also helped answer some of my questions (I'll get to the scan results in a minute).
I ask Honnold to tell me about the specific emotions he experiences as he climbs a mountain without any equipment. Is he terrified and tense and gripping the rock for dear life? Or does he go into a totally calm and meditative state, like some people do when they’re running?
“Calm and meditative is a fair overview,” he says. “It changes a little between easy and hard terrain. Easy, I am able to think about whatever I want. I’m engaging and trying not to fall off, but it’s not all-consuming, so I can think about what I’m going to eat for lunch or think about friends, enjoy the weather and view. On hard climbs, my mind is totally empty and just performing and executing moves,” he explains. “It is comparable to running—on a casual jog you can admire the scenery and appreciate the place you’re in, but if you’re running sprints, you’re definitely not admiring the scenery.”
If Honnold seems way too casual considering the circumstances, it may be helpful to know this: In Free Solo, you watch Honnold get a fMRI scan of his brain, an exercise that’s meant to give viewers an idea of how the man willingly does things that are too terrifying for most of us to even consider. The results show that Honnold’s amygdala, an area of the brain involved in processing fear, doesn’t show as much activity when he’s looking at photos that are meant to invoke this feeling. The person interpreting the scan onscreen suggests that this result could mean that Honnold just needs a higher level of stimulation than your average person to register fear. Honnold says himself, though, that it’s not that he doesn't ever feel afraid. “I work through the fear until it’s just not scary anymore,” he says in the documentary.
A couple of years ago, Honnold's friends approached him about making a documentary. Tackling El Capitan seemed like a natural plot point.
Honnold took on the challenge of El Capitan when a group of producers (who also happen to be some of Honnold’s friends in the climbing community) asked him if he’d want to make a documentary. “They approached me, and as a pro climber, that’s a big opportunity if someone wants to make a feature film about you.” As a seasoned free solo climber, “El Capitan was something I had been dreaming about for many years, so [the opportunity] just coincided with this project I wanted to do,” Honnold says.
After he said yes, he had to focus. Getting to the point where you feel ready to take on such a death-defying feat takes a lot of training, Honnold tells me. He spent about two years preparing for this one climb. In that time, he says he probably did only about seven or eight free solo climbs. The rest of the time, he focused on training his grip strength, bouldering, climbing with a rope, and climbing with partners.
“A lot of it comes down to physical prep, memorizing the holds and sequence, knowing how to climb the route and knowing where to place your feet and hands to hold on,” he says. “Part of it is from the confidence that comes from having a high level of fitness, doing all the training to know I can do it comfortably and not feel too fatigued.” In Free Solo, we see him going through his prep—sending the route multiple times on a rope, practicing and memorizing and working through the puzzles while he’s got a safety net and can afford to mess up.
“The other part is the mental side,” he adds. “That’s kind of the more nebulous one. It’s hard to know when you’re ready, but you just feel it.” He says he spent time imagining and visualizing the climb, “and at a certain point you think, That seems like something I can do.”
Honnold says the day he climbed El Capitan was one of the happiest days of his life.
“I was very happy, very satisfied. Just having dreamt about it for so long and put so much effort into it, seeing it through till the end was definitely very satisfying,” he says in his same even-keeled tone. “The crew are all good friends of mine, so being able to share the experience with so many of my good friends made it even better.”
His girlfriend, Sanni, went back home to Vegas a few days before “just to sort of give me the space to do my thing,” Honnold explains. And none of his family members knew about his attempt ahead of time. “Typically soloing is something you don’t talk about publicly as much because it stresses people out,” he says. I can’t imagine why.
So, what’s next for Honnold? For now, he says, he’s doing a lot of gym climbing and working with his foundation, the Honnold Foundation, which supports solar energy initiatives. He’s also just living his life. “I’m just trying to be a good boyfriend and spend time with family and friends.”
The thing is, Honnold says, free soloing is just one discipline of climbing for him. “It’s the peak experience,” he says. “Other types [of climbing] are sort of equally important to me.” But he hasn’t been focusing on them as much. “I’ve been climbing the same way for about 10 years, doing big adventure climbs outdoors, the ultra-marathons of climbing. Climbing in the gym is like sprinting, it’s more high-intensity. So doing that full time [lately] is probably the most I’ve fundamentally changed my training in years.”
For now, that change is enough for Honnold. After all, he already has the accomplishment of a lifetime under his belt. “I don’t know if there will ever be quite as big of a challenge as El Cap,” he says, “and I don’t know if there needs to be.”