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Alex Honnold free soloing Sentinel in 2011; Photograph by Pete Mortimer

Climber Alex Honnold on Climbing Culture in Yosemite

We chatted with Honnold about the wild lore of Yosemite in the 60s and the future of Yosemite climbing.

For climbers, no place represents America more than Yosemite. Climbing heroes from Yvon Chouinard to Lynn Hill cut their teeth on its gargantuan walls and domes. Its soaring granite faces and swooping valleys are a Mecca for dirtbag climbers, attracting the sweat and passion of the world’s best—and forging a mythology of revolutionary hard men and women, dreamers, and crazies. This fall in the Reel Rock Tour, Sender Films’ Valley Uprising brings to life the legends of Yosemite in a 90-minute documentary painting a colorful cultural portrait of the Valley.

Alex Honnold, one of Yosemite’s current visionaries, made a name for himself free soloing Yosemite’s big walls—no rope, no harness, just climbing shoes and a chalk bag. He’s the only known person to solo Yosemite’s Triple Crown of Mount Watkins, The Nose, and Half Dome, which he did in under 24 hours, and he holds the speed record for The Nose with Hans Florine.

We chatted with Honnold about the wild lore of Yosemite in the 60s, the future of Yosemite climbing and how much he’s looking forward to Valley Uprising.

Adventure: How would you describe the current generation of Yosemite climbers, in comparison to the previous generations, people like Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, Jim Bridwell, and others? Has some of the wildness we associate with those early climbers faded?

Alex Honnold: Well, someone like Royal Robbins can’t really be described as wild, even though his climbing was really visionary. But he lived a very clean lifestyle. I feel like the current generation of climbers is a little more along his lines and less along the Warren Harding/Jim Bridwell lines, meaning there’s a lot less drug and alcohol abuse but still a lot of hard climbing.

I think times have just changed to some extent. Gone are the days of nonstop hallucinogens and free love. I don’t think that effects the climbing too much, just the lifestyle.

A: What’s your first memory of wanting to climb in Yosemite?

AH: I actually have no idea. I camped in Yosemite a lot as a child, so I always liked scrambling around there and hiking. And I knew all the legends of Yosemite climbers from growing up in the gym. But I don’t really know when I first started actually thinking about climbing there—it’s just always kind of been assumed for me.

A: Have you had any personal heroes or people you particularly looked up to in the Yosemite climbing scene?

AH: When I was growing up, I really looked up to Peter Croft and John Bachar for all their ropeless exploits. As I got older that shifted a little toward people like Dean Potter and Tommy Caldwell. Now, having been lucky enough to climb with Tommy quite a bit, I have to say I’m almost more impressed with what he’s managed to do in Yosemite. I still find it really inspiring.

A: Is there anything specific about Valley Uprising you’re really looking forward to?

AH: Everything! No, seriously, I’m very excited about seeing the whole story of Yosemite brought to life in a modern style. I’ve already gotten to see big sections, and I really enjoy the dynamism they’re bringing to the golden age. It’s not often that black and white photos from the 50s and 60s create such an exciting story.

A: It seems like it’s pretty difficult for pro climbers to exist in the Valley, with its rules and camping limits. How do you fit into all that?

AH: That’s true to some extent, but as long as you play by the rules and don’t do anything illegal, you can climb there as long as you want. For me that means leaving the park at night to sleep, normally out to Foresta or El Portal, the two nearest little towns. It’s too bad that the living conditions there aren’t easier, but it’s a small price for access to some of the best walls in the world.

A: Valley Uprising co-director Nick Rosen says, despite the fact people—like you—are now paid to climb, the climbing is still much more artistic than it is about money. Do you feel like you’ve seen the dirtbag culture of Yosemite climbing change in your lifetime?

AH: I feel like I’ve seen the Valley scene change a little over the seven years I’ve been going, but some of that might have more to do with general demographic shifts in climbing. I don’t know if it’s true for sure, but it seems like a lot more people are into climbing now and there are more weekend-warrior style climbers coming up from the Bay Area and Central Valley. That, combined with the camping stay limits and all the general hassles in the Valley, seems to have diluted the dirtbag scene a bit.

It’s hard for me to say for sure, though, because come late October when all the tourists are gone and conditions are getting colder, it seems like the only people left in the park are dirtbag climbers.

A: The history of Yosemite climbing is a story of people existing on the fringes. How do you think the media attention your climbing gets affects the way the American public thinks about climbing?

AH: I honestly have no idea, and I try not to worry about it too much. Maybe everyone’s getting the wrong idea of what climbing is. Or maybe it’s inspiring them to learn more about it or get into climbing. But my climbing has always been for me. I’m not too concerned if the general public doesn’t understand.

A: You climb all over the world, but continue to return to Yosemite. What’s special about those big granite walls? What keeps drawing you back?

AH: Part of it is that it’s close to home; my family lives three hours away. But Yosemite does have the best walls in the world when you look at the overall package of good rock, tons of climbing, very accessible, and relatively easy living. In most parts of the world, to climb on rock that good requires a major expedition. In Yosemite you can go get a pizza after a day of climbing.

A: What’s the future of Yosemite climbing?

AH: I have no idea. Harder routes, bigger link ups, faster times, all that good stuff. They don’t allow flying—like paragliding or BASE jumping—in the park, so that rules out some of the things that might factor into “the future of climbing” in other areas. Something like Tommy freeing the Dawn Wall will be pretty futuristic. We’ll see.

A: What climb do you think every climber should do in Yosemite?

AH: The Nose on El Cap is a must-do for anyone able. My personal favorite might be Serenity/Sons of Yesterday—just glorious crack climbing at a really nice moderate angle. And for general tourists I feel like everyone should hike the cables on Half Dome and stroll the Panorama trail. It’s probably one of the most scenic trails in the world.

Read our interview with co-director Nick Rosen about making Valley Uprising.Read our interview with co-director Nick Rosen about making Valley Uprising.Read our interview with co-director Nick Rosen about making Valley Uprising.