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Climber Alex Honnold on the Fitz Traverse; Photograph by Tommy Caldwell

Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell’s “Extreme Backpacking” on Patagonia’s Fitz Traverse

Alex Honnold just did his first climb in Patagonia. And it was pretty spectacular. He teamed up with Tommy Caldwell to make the first ascent of the Fitz Traverse, which involved climbing seven peaks in five days along the Cerro Fitz Roy ridge line. Honnold and Caldwell waited for their weather window, then covered three miles of climbing with more than 13,000 feet of vertical gain. They joked that it was “extreme backpacking,” which involved free-climbing up to 5.11d wearing backpacks.

“The first part of my R&R was spent with snow blindness, which is one of the more annoying things I’ve experienced,” said Honnold in an email from Patagonia. “So painful and debilitating. But now I’m all better, so I can type like a champ.”

Adventure: How did you and Tommy decide this was your objective? 
Alex Honnold: We hadn’t decided that this was the objective. We came down to Patagonia sort of openminded and waited to see what conditions would allow. Tommy had fantasized about the traverse, and it certainly suits our strengths as rock climbers, but we were prepared to climb anything if the snow conditions and weather dictated something different.

But when we saw the weather window arriving, we sort of knew it was the perfect time to try the traverse. Lots of days of warmth, time for the rock to dry out a bit, basically everything we needed. So we gave it a good try.

A: Those are some of the most iconic mountains in the world. It must have been just incredible to climb the entire massif.
AH: There’s no question mark on this one; it’s certainly a true statement. Tommy and I called it the most scenic camping trip in the world. Extreme backpacking. It was an amazing experience. We’re very psyched about it.

Adventure: You had to wait for your weather window, right?
AH: The weather was actually perfect during the climb: no wind, no precip, full sun. The conditions were tough though, since it’s been such a heavy wintery season. So much snow accumulation over the season that one good weather window isn’t really enough to dry everything out. There was a lot of ice and snow in the cracks, which made the climbing a bit slower and scarier for me. But overall we got super lucky with the weather, and that was enough for us to give it a good try.

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Climbers Alex Honnonld and Tommy Caldwell on the Fitz Traverse; Photograph courtesy Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell

A: Seems you and Tommy would make a dream team for a tough traverse like that. How did your skills and personalities compliment each other?
AH: We’re both particularly good at rock climbing and sort of mediocre at ice or mixed climbing. Tommy is more skilled and experienced than I am at all things snow related, but overall we’ve both pretty novice.

Personality wise we’re both pretty mellow, so I think it’s easy to get along. Might not help with climbing per se, but it makes the camping and living scene easier.

A: You brought very, very minimal gear. Just one sleeping bag? How did you decide what to take?
AH: We just talked about it with a bunch of different people, and then sort of pre-packed our bags to get a sense of how heavy it would be. Basically we were just limited by what we thought we could carry while we climbed. The one sleeping bag is warmer and lighter than having to carry two. We took a tent though, which adds a lot to comfort. Being able to cook out of the wind was nice.

If we did it again we would probably refine our packing a little bit more. But it was our first time doing a climb like this, so we had a lot to learn.

A: You and Tommy mostly wore approach shoes. Why?
AH: Well, approach shoes aren’t really designed for true rock climbing, so the fact that we were climbing mid 5.10 in non-climbing shoes was impressive to some people. I think it’s also a slightly different approach for alpine climbing, since traditionally people either wear rock shoes for real climbing or mountain boots for traveling in snow. The approach shoes were more comfortable though, which let us go a bit quicker.

A: You said in our last series of questions that “alpinism sure is hard.” How would you compare the challenges of alpine-style climbing, like this, to free soloing?
AH: They’re basically different sports. The last route that Tommy and I did we were in our approach shoes with thick gloves on because it was cold and our fingers hurt and we had heavy packs on. We were climbing past chalk on holds, since previous parties had climbed the route with rock shoes and chalk bags and all that. It feels like a completely different sport to be up there backpacking up what could be rock climbing in other circumstances.

The beauty of free soloing is having nothing on and moving super light. Alpinism is all about carrying lots of stuff and being all encumbered.

A: How are you feeling now after five days of epic climbing? Pretty worked? What are you two doing to recover?
AH: I bed rested for two days basically, largely because of snow blindness. I just couldn’t really do anything. But now we’re bouldering again and getting out a little bit. We’ll be back in the mountains again in a few days I think, as soon as the weather allows.

But yes, we were really worked.

A: Are we going to see you on the Dawn Wall in Yosemite with Tommy next year?
AH: Certainly not. It’s much too hard. Tommy has spent years working on it, and he and Kevin are getting really close. I’ll keep playing around on my own projects while they work on the mega proj.