YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA—Renowned rock climber Alex Honnold on Saturday became the first person to scale the iconic nearly 3,000-foot granite wall known as El Capitan without using ropes or other safety gear, completing what may be the greatest feat of pure rock climbing in the history of the sport.
He ascended the peak in 3 hours, 56 minutes, taking the final moderate pitch at a near run. At 9:28 a.m. PDT, under a blue sky and few wisps of cloud, he pulled his body over the rocky lip of summit and stood on a sandy ledge the size of a child’s bedroom.
Honnold began his historic rope-less climb—a style known as “free soloing”—in the pink light of dawn at 5:32 a.m. He had spent the night in the customized van that serves as his mobile base camp, risen in the dark, dressed in his favorite red t-shirt and cutoff nylon pants, and eaten his standard breakfast of oats, flax, chia seeds, and blueberries, before driving to El Capitan Meadow.
He parked the van and hiked up the boulder-strewn path to the base of the cliff. There, he pulled on a pair of sticky soled climbing shoes, fastened a small bag of chalk around his waist to keep his hands dry, found his first toehold, and began inching his way up toward climbing history.
For more than a year, Honnold has been training for the climb at locations in the United States, China, Europe, and Morocco. A small circle of friends and fellow climbers who knew about the project had been sworn to secrecy.
A team of filmmakers, led by Jimmy Chin, one of Honnold’s longtime climbing partners, and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, captured the ascent for an upcoming National Geographic Documentary Films feature. This past November, Honnold made his first attempt at the free solo, but backed off after less than an hour of climbing because conditions did not feel right.
THE MOON LANDING OF FREE-SOLOING
Trained in a climbing gym in Sacramento, Honnold, 31, burst onto the international scene in 2008 with two high-risk, rope-free ascents—the northwest face of Yosemite’s Half Dome and the Moonlight Buttress in Utah’s Zion National Park. Those free solos astonished the climbing world and set new benchmarks in much the same way that Roger Bannister redefined distance running when he broke the four-minute mile in 1954.
“What Alex did on Moonlight Buttress defied everything that we are trained, and brought up and genetically engineered to think,” said Peter Mortimer, a climber who has made numerous films with Honnold. “It’s the most unnatural place for a human to be.”
But those pioneering climbs pale in comparison to El Capitan. It’s hard to overstate the physical and mental difficulties of a free solo ascent of the peak, which is considered by many to be the epicenter of the rock climbing world. It is a vertical expanse stretching more than a half mile up—higher than the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. From the meadow at the foot of El Capitan, climbers on the peak’s upper reaches are practically invisible to the naked eye.
“This is the ‘moon landing’ of free soloing,” said Tommy Caldwell, who made his own history in 2015 with his ascent of the Dawn Wall, El Capitan’s most difficult climb, on which he and his partner Kevin Jorgeson used ropes and other equipment only for safety, not to aid their progress.
(What Caldwell and Jorgeson did is called free climbing, which means climbers use no gear to help them move up the mountain and are attached to ropes only to catch them if they fall. Free soloing is when a climber is alone and uses no ropes or any other equipment that aids or protects him as he climbs, leaving no margin of error.)
Climbers have been speculating for years about a possible free solo of El Capitan, but there have only been two other people who have publicly said they seriously considered it. One was Michael Reardon, a free soloist who drowned in 2007 after being swept from a ledge below a sea cliff in Ireland. The other was Dean Potter, who died in a base jumping accident in Yosemite in 2015.
John Bachar, the greatest free soloist of the 1970s, who died while climbing un-roped in 2009 at age 52, never considered it. When Bachar was in his prime, El Capitan had still never been free climbed. Peter Croft, 58, who completed the landmark free solo of the 1980s—Yosemite’s 1,000-foot Astroman—never seriously contemplated El Capitan, but he knew somebody would eventually do it.
“It was always the obvious next step,” says Croft. “But after this, I really don’t see what’s next. This is the big classic jump.”
By the end of 2014, Honnold had achieved international fame for his exploits. He had been featured on the covers of National Geographic, New York Times Magazine, Outside, and 60 Minutes had profiled him. He had a slew of corporate sponsors, had co-written a best-selling memoir, and started a nonprofit foundation to improve the lives of needy communities around the world. But he felt like he had not yet made the mark he hoped to on climbing history.
In January 2015, when Caldwell and Jorgeson summited the Dawn Wall, a project they had spent years studying and training for, Honnold was there to meet them. Jorgeson told a reporter, “I think everyone has their own secret Dawn Wall to complete one day.”
What’s my Dawn Wall? Honnold asked himself. But he already knew the answer. For years he’d been thinking about what it would take to free solo El Capitan.
AN ABILITY TO CONTROL FEAR
The route Honnold chose to reach the top of El Capitan, known as Freerider, is one of the most prized big wall climbs in Yosemite. The route has 30 sections—or pitches—and is so difficult that even in the last few years, it was newsworthy when a climber was able to summit using ropes for safety.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
It is a zigzagging odyssey that traces several spidery networks of cracks and fissures, some gaping, others barely a knuckle wide. Along the way, Honnold squeezed his body into narrow chimneys, tiptoed across ledges the width of matchboxes, and in some places, dangled in the open air by his fingertips.
Freerider tests nearly every aspect of a climber’s physical abilities—strength of fingers, forearms, toes, and abdomen, as well as flexibility and endurance. Environmental factors, like sun, wind, and the potential for sudden rainstorms, are also factors that Honnold had to carefully calculate.
But the true test for Honnold was whether he could maintain his composure alone on a cliff face hundreds or thousands of feet up while executing intricate climbing sequences where positioning a foot slightly too low or high could mean the difference between life and death. Elite climbers have pointed to Honnold’s unique ability to remain calm and analytical in such dangerous situations, a skill that Honnold has slowly developed over the 20 years he has been climbing.
Some of his poise can be attributed to his detailed preparation. He is obsessive about his training, which includes hour-long sessions every other day hanging by his fingertips and doing one- and two-armed pullups on a specially-made apparatus that he bolted into the doorway of his van. He also spends hours perfecting, rehearsing, and memorizing exact sequences of hand and foot placements for every key pitch. He is an inveterate note-taker, logging his workouts and evaluating his performance on every climb in a detailed journal.
There are other climbers in Honnold’s league physically, but no one else has matched his mental ability to control fear. His tolerance for scary situations is so remarkable that neuroscientists have studied the parts of his brain related to fear to see how they might differ from the norm.
Honnold sees it in more pragmatic terms. “With free-soloing, obviously I know that I’m in danger, but feeling fearful while I’m up there is not helping me in any way,” he said. “It’s only hindering my performance, so I just set it aside and leave it be.”
On Freerider, one of the most daunting physical and mental challenges Honnold faced was two pitches of steep, undulating expanse of rock about 600 feet up. Polished smooth by glaciers over the millennia, the granite here offers no holds, forcing a climber to basically walk up it with his feet only. Honnold used a delicate technique called “smearing,” which involves pressing his rubber shoes against the rock to create just enough grip to support his weight on the incline. He had to keep his weight perfectly balanced and maintain enough forward momentum to avoid sliding off. “It’s like walking up glass,” Honnold said.
Over Memorial Day weekend, Honnold made a practice run up Freerider with Caldwell. The pair reached the top in a little over five and half hours, breaking their own speed record in the process. “Alex was on fire,” said Caldwell. “I’ve never seen him climbing so well.”
A few days before this week’s climb, Honnold hiked to the top of El Capitan and rappelled Freerider to make sure that a recent rainstorm had not washed off the marks he had made with dabs of chalk to highlight the route’s key holds. He found it dry and in perfect condition. Now all that was left was to rest and prepare mentally for the climb of his life.
“Years ago, when I first mentally mapped out what it would mean to free solo Freerider, there were half a dozen of pitches where I was like, ‘Oh that’s a scary move and that’s a really scary sequence, and that little slab, and that traverse,’” Honnold said. “There were so many little sections where I thought ‘Ughh—cringe.’ But in the years since, I’ve pushed my comfort zone and made it bigger and bigger until these objectives that seemed totally crazy eventually fell within the realm of the possible.”
On Saturday, the possible finally became reality. After trusting his skill and endurance over hundreds of handholds and footholds and controlling his fear for just under four hours, Honnold pulled his body over the last ledges. Chin along with his assistant Sam Crossley and cameraman Cheyne Lempe had rappelled down with their cameras from the top to follow Honnold as he climbed the upper half of the wall, even using jumars—a type of mechanical winch—to hoist themselves up, the two had struggled to keep up with him.
Chin, panting and covered in sweat, raced ahead to film Alex Honnold on top of the world.