“I think Yosemite is the most inspiring place in the world. I’ve been there every spring and fall for the last 10 years or so,” says rock climber Alex Honnold. “That’s why ‘El Cap’ meant so much to me.”
He’s referring to his record-setting free-solo climb of the national park’s most intimidating cliff face—El Capitan.
It was arguably the biggest feat he accomplished last year but far from his only adventure. Before being named one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year, Honnold also successfully completed an ambitious Antarctic climbing expedition.
Both experiences are only two of the impressive accomplishments on his rock climbing resume.
“I started climbing when I was 10 or so,” he says. “I never wanted to be a professional or anything, I just wanted to climb.”
An Adventurous Life
When we talk, he’s in between the gym and the airport. In addition to speaking engagements and training, Honnold operates the Honnold Foundation, a nonprofit that funds clean energy initiatives around the world.
To say that Honnold leads a productive life is an understatement, but for all his accomplishments, he carries with him a humble sense of gratitude that he’s been able to make a life out of doing the one thing he loves most.
When I asked him if he sees himself as an adventurer, he leans away from indulging in any sense of self-aggrandizement, saying, “I would never call myself an adventurer, but I guess I have an adventurous spirit.”
Beyond the Adrenaline
To be featured by National Geographic, Honnold was nominated by his longtime friend Andrew Bisharat, a writer and fellow climber.
“He just was a quiet, shy kid wearing a hoody and absolutely crushing rock climbs,” Bisharat says of his first encounter with Honnold. “I remember being struck by just how solid and in control his climbing technique was.”
In fact, it’s this controlled analytic climbing style that Honnold credits with helping him achieve this historic climb.
Last June, Honnold was the first person to free-solo climb El Capitan. In just under four hours, Honnold scaled the 3,000-foot granite wall without ropes or support. At various parts of the climb, he encountered smooth rock, handholds spaced precipitously far apart, and ledges so thin he had to strategically kick toward his next grasp.
Honnold says it was one of his most defining moments of this past year.
“Even the exhibition in Antarctica was all fun-and-games compare to summiting ‘El Cap.’”
“Free soloing is definitely not about the adrenaline. It took me four hours to get up ‘El Cap.’ You can’t have an adrenaline rush for four hours,” he notes. “It’s much more meditative, calm, and relaxed. It’s almost serene.”
“Alex is a climber’s climber. He doesn’t do any of this for the fame or attention. He just loves the sport,” says Bisharat. “At the same time, he has embraced his celebrity and used his platform as a way to inspire and evoke change.”
Much of his nonprofit work involves funding and implementing solar-energy initiatives. He says he’s motivated by the intimate connection he developed with the outdoors through climbing.
“If you’re spending all your time in the outdoors, you feel a definite sense of responsibility to take care of those places,” says Honnold. “As a professional athlete, I’ve been very lucky that I get to make a living doing the one thing I love to do—basically recreating all the time. I think you feel an extra obligation to give something back.”
Currently, Honnold is training to improve physically, but he says he isn’t working on any large-scale projects like the ones he completed in Antarctica and Yosemite National Park.
“It’s not as scary to go to the gym and train, but it is different for me … and it’s challenging in a way that I’m not used to,” he says.
Honnold plans to continue climbing for the rest of his life, conquering new adventures lying beyond his comfort zone.
“The definition of adventure is uncertain outcome, so for me it’s trying something and not knowing how it’s going to play out. Just getting out there.”