When I called Alex Honnold for this interview, the first thing he asked was whether I had read his new book, Alone on the Wall, which he co-wrote with David Roberts. I think he was fishing a bit because I’ve heard from a few people that he throws me (aka as “Mr. Safety”) under the bus. I took Alex on his first international expedition to Low’s Gully in Borneo back in 2009, and on that trip and three subsequent expeditions, I’ve always played the foil to Alex, openly questioning the risks he takes, and calling bull when he tries to tell me that free soloing big walls isn’t dangerous.
He told me that he’s very proud of the book, and while it’s exactly what he wanted it to be, “it’s not heavy hitting, deeply insightful, meaning of life type of stuff. I think I can do that when I’m older,” he said. “Publishing really profound memories at the age of 30 seems sort of silly.”
Nonetheless, the book appears to be resonating deeply with Alex’s followers, as evidenced by the fact that it’s currently sitting at #7 in the sports category on the New York Times Bestsellers List. I can’t think of many climbers who have penned best-selling books–Touching the Void and Into Thin Air come to mind–but, of course, Honnold is not your average climber. (Read our Sunday Book Talk column “Alex Honnold Isn’t Fearless, He Just Accepts Death.”)
Here Alex tells us about how he deals with fear, his thoughts on spirituality, and his dating life.
Why do you do what you do? And no pressure, but it could be said that no climber has ever answered this question well.
You could say that no person has ever answered this question well. Why not ask a monk why they meditate. Why does anyone have a hobby or passion? It’s because I find meaning and fulfillment in it, it’s beautiful, and I enjoy it. You could also say that my brain chemistry is addicted to the feeling. I’m a freaking junkie for exercise. It’s a ton of different things that vary day by day, but the overarching thing is that I love the feeling of dangling—even when I do it in a ghetto climbing gym in the middle of nowhere. We are apes—we should be climbing.
But what is it that’s driving you?
Maybe it is more complicated—trying to do things people haven’t done before, to push my limits, to see what I’m capable of doing. In some way the drive is like curiosity, the explorer’s heart, wanting to see what’s around the corner. And part of it is being a perfectionist. If I’m gonna do something, I want to do it well. I’m constantly saying to myself: Maybe I could have done it a little better, I could have tried a little harder. When I dream about something and I finally do it, I’m always like, well, I did it, so obviously it wasn’t that hard.
Do you think what you do is dangerous?
What I do is very high consequence, but I don’t think it’s particularly risky. The odds of me actually falling are very low.
So Alex, you’re a thousand feet off the deck clinging to an overhanging crack, with one knuckle between you and oblivion. You do realize that the average person probably wouldn’t think the odds of you eventually slipping are low, right?
They don’t understand the preparation and the training, and how far in my comfort zone I am with most of the climbs I’m doing. What I do makes total sense to me and is easily understandable. A big part of my motivation for writing the book was to lay out the backstory and put it all in context so people would understand. But it doesn’t seem to be working, so maybe I should have explained it better.
I’ve done four expeditions with you, and I feel like I know you pretty well, but I don’t get it. So keep explaining.
My comfort zone is like a little bubble around me, and I’ve pushed it in different directions and made it bigger and bigger until these objectives that seemed totally crazy, eventually fall within the realm of the possible.
What about the risks that you can’t control, like rockfall, breaking a hold, or getting stung by bees?
Those kind of objective hazards I just set aside as the cost of doing business. Every time you go out on a highway you’re running an astronomically small chance of being hit by a big rig, that’s the cost of getting on the highway. But you don’t think about it every time because a long time ago you just accepted it.
What would you say to someone who has a beef with you because of the risks you take?
That stuff drives me crazy. I think it’s really misguided and just ridiculous. So many people condemn me for risk taking, but I find it sort of hypocritical because everybody takes risks. Even the absence of activity could be viewed as a risk. If you sit on the sofa for your entire life you’re running a higher risk of getting heart disease and cancer. I could be condemning those people, saying you’re running up health care costs and ruining my insurance coverage, and that’s super annoying to me. It’s all a matter of choosing the amount of risk you’re willing to accept, with open eyes. I wonder if people that hate on risk-taking are as intentional in their choices as I am. How many people are choosing to live in a way that best suits their values and best fulfills them?
As you know, the risk haters can be quite vitriolic. Where do you think that comes from?
Maybe they wish that they had more agency over their own life and that they were more able to make big choices. It could just be something like asking out that pretty girl. I’ve always liked her, but she’s too pretty, it’s too intimidating. We’ve all gone through that kind of stuff: oh I wish I had slightly more boldness, or I wish I could make those hard choices. Sometimes we just lack the gumption to go out there and do it. And when we see somebody else who is doing it, we’re like, God, that’s so annoying that they’re doing it and I’m not.
Have you had any close calls while soloing?
I was scrambling in the Sierra, and I pulled a rock onto myself and as it was falling on me I jumped to a ledge below me, and then was off balance so I had to jump down again 15 feet to another ledge. I was fine but a little scraped up from where the rock hit me.
You’re the world’s greatest free soloist, and I think we could all agree that’s a heavy title to bear. Do you feel pressure to perform?
I sort of ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. There is pressure, but it’s mostly internal. I’ve basically devoted my life to climbing, and I don’t want to put in all this effort and still suck at it. That would be lame. I was at a climbing gym in Denver last week, and there was a 14-year-old girl that was climbing harder than me. I was like: wow, I can’t climb that route. I wish I could climb as hard as that little girl. People are like, “Oh, you’re so humble.” No, this isn’t me being self-deprecating; it’s a frank evaluation of abilities. In a World Cup, I would get last place. I wouldn’t even qualify to compete. I’ve been getting questions about climbing in the Olympics in 2020. I’m like, I can’t, I’m not strong enough. I just can’t perform at that level. [Editor’s Note: a World Cup is an international sport climbing competition that takes place on artificial walls like those you find at climbing gyms. Alex is referring to the fact that he doesn’t sport climb hard enough to be competitive in this arena of climbing.]
Let’s talk about soloing El Capitan. Will you ever do it?
I would love to, that’s definitely the next frontier. Somebody will do it in the next 20 years and in a hundred years it won’t be that uncommon. But I don’t know if it will ever be me. I’ve been thinking about it since 2009, and in the years between, I’ve free climbed El Cap about 15 times. And each time I do it I’m like, hmmm, this isn’t the year, this isn’t for me. Then this summer I climbed it after taking two months off from climbing, and I felt pretty good on it. Honestly, this year was the first time I was like, hmmm, maybe.
Do you ever get scared?
Yeah, I’ve had a ton of super scary experiences with the rope on.
What about without a rope?
When you experience hunger your body is giving you a signal that you need to consume food, but you set that aside and eat when it’s convenient. But with fear it’s fight or flight, your pulse quickens, your vision narrows, and you’re like, oh my god I’m feeling fear, oh my god, oh my god, and then it cascades out of control and you lose your ability to perform. So why can’t we set our fear aside like we can with hunger?
Is this something you have mastered?
I aspire to, but there are still times when I overreact. Fear is a warning you that you are in danger, and if that danger is something you haven’t anticipated then it is a useful warning. With free soloing, obviously I know that I’m in danger and feeling fearful while I’m up there is not helping me in any way. It’s only hindering my performance, so I just set it aside and leave it be.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Ok, but you now seem to be acknowledging that free soloing is dangerous, whereas earlier you told me you don’t think it is because of your preparation, skill, and so forth.
I guess it depends on how you define danger. I don’t think that there is a high chance of me falling off the wall. It is extremely high consequence, but if that is what you mean by dangerous, then yeah, it’s super dangerous.
As you’ve pointed it’s also dangerous driving on the highway. If you swerve into the other lane and have a head-on collision with a truck, it also has a high consequence. But I would contend that it’s a lot easier to keep your car in its proper lane than it is to hang from a pinky lock on a 5.12 finger crack.
It’s easier for you since you’ve been driving since you were 16, you have a ton of experience, you feel comfortable, and you can do it reflexively. But if you were some aboriginal dude who’s never even seen a car, you’d be like: holy shit I’m about to die. Climbing to me is the very same thing. I’ve probably spent more time climbing than driving. I’ve spent a ton of time hanging off pinky locks, so it’s not a big deal. Imagine a cabbie driving in NYC or in Rio—that’s kind of like me with my climbing.
Do you believe in God?
No, there is no evidence of a God.
Is there any evidence that God doesn’t exist?
No, but there is also no evidence that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, but I don’t believe in him either. There are an infinite number of things for which there is no evidence that they don’t exist, but we don’t just assume that they do, and we don’t allow them to rule our lives the way that we allow God to.
What about a more liberal interpretation of God, one that’s not all tied up with Christian belief?
If you mean the cosmos or something like that, sure. If God is just a description of space and all that is in it, an undefined force connecting all matter, then I am open to something like that, even though there is no evidence for it at this point. All this talk about intelligent design, like wow, look how incredibly well designed the eyeball is—that’s all bullshit. I’m totally happy prescribing it all to chance. You just need enough bits and random events and eventually crazy things happen. I feel that a lot of human spirituality stems from the belief that we are unique and special in the universe, but maybe we are just what happens when there is proper temperature and proper distance from the right type of star. But I don’t really know that much about universe stuff, I’ve never been that interested.
Are you still living in your van?
Basically, but I bought a cabin this year near Tahoe. It was my grandma’s and she left it to my aunts and uncles, and I bought them out. I’m thinking about rebuilding it and making it nice.
Now you just have to find a girl that would be willing to marry you.
Yeah, I’m having a hard time finding girls that I’m really excited about.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.