Writer and climber Mark Synnott took Alex Honnold on his first international climbing expedition to Low’s Gully in Borneo back in 2009, and subsequent trips to Chad, Oman, and Newfoundland. Over the years they’ve kept up a running dialogue about the finer points of climbing and debated the dangers of free soloing—climbing alone, without ropes or other safety gear.
It seems fitting that in the first moments after Honnold had become the first person to free solo Yosemite’s El Capitan, the greatest pure feat of rock climbing in history, that he’d sit down with his old friend at the Manure Pile, a popular climbing spot at the foot of El Capitan. He ate an apple, listened to the birds, and described the experience of a lifetime. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You just had the best day of your life. Or you’re having the best day of your life.
Honestly, I think this is the most satisfied I’ve ever been. It was exactly what I hoped for. I felt so good. It went pretty much perfectly.
Did the mountain look scary this morning?
I don’t think the mountain looked that scary this morning. Everything felt the same. I didn't have much of a backpack, and the climbing just felt amazing. Not dragging 60 meters of rope behind you for the whole mountain, I felt so much more energetic and fresh.
How did you feel at the start?
Not perfect. Maybe I didn't drink enough yesterday. I kind of had a headache when I went to bed. I didn't feel that stressed because in a way I had already committed to autopilot and just put everything aside.
Walking to the base, it was still quite dark. I started slightly earlier than I had been because I wanted to make sure I was the first (climber) at the base. I saw a bear running away on the walk in. I think I flushed him.
So tell me about your state of mind.
At the bottom I was slightly nervous. I mean it’s a freaking big wall above you. It’s like—it’s something. And then on the Freeblast (glass-smooth slabs of granite without handholds), I was slightly tense, but felt really good.
I knew exactly what to do the whole way. A lot of the handholds feel like old friends.
Has it sunk in yet?
Honestly even now I feel like I could go do another lap right now. I feel so amped.
Another lap on the cliff? Yikes!
I feel so good.
Are you going to climb more?
Probably not. But today is hang-boarding day. I’ll have to hang board in a bit. (Editor’s note: climbers regularly practice dangling from fingertip holds on a hang board to improve their grip strength.)
So it’s still just game on?
I think so. I mean I still want to climb hard things someday. I mean you don’t just retire as soon as you get down.
(Laughing) That’s the quote of the day so far. I think you’re good.
There were a few groups on route. Did you talk to anyone?
I passed five people asleep on the Heart and Lung ledges, but I didn’t really chat with anyone.
Did they wake up?
(Laughing) Nobody really said anything. Everybody kept it super chill.
I was watching through a telescope. At Heart Ledge it looked like you were trying to get a water bottle you’d stashed without waking anyone up.
I woke up one guy and he sort of said, “Oh, hey.” Then when I went by, I think he discreetly woke up his buddies because when I looked down they were all three standing there like ‘what the f***’?
It felt much less scary than a lot of other solos I’ve done.
It looked like one person was wearing a unicorn costume?
What costume? I didn’t pay attention.
What was it like at the top?
We ended up on top exchanging hugs for a while. We were all pretty freaking stoked.
What’d you do yesterday?
I went bouldering in the morning a little bit because I wanted to break in my shoes a little, and then I went hiking with my mom and some of her friends. Then I watched the last Hobbit movie and just vegged.
You didn’t even take a rest day before you free-soloed El Cap?
That’s part of the plan. You don’t want to be coming off bed rest. You want to be coming off light exercise. Because physically (the climb) is not that hard to execute. It’s more you have to be in exactly the right (mental) place, so I was trying to create the right place.
How was your sleep last night?
Oh, I slept like a baby. I woke up at around 2:30 or 3:30, like, ‘Let’s do this!’ And then looked at the clock and was like, ‘oh,’ and then went back to sleep and then woke up around 4:30.
When you’re 70, you’re going to come into Yosemite with your grandkids, and they’re going to see El Capitan. And you’re going to say?
Kids, that thing takes about four hours to climb by yourself—after years of effort. (laughs)
Which parts are going to stick in your mind when you’re 70?
The Monster was one of the best because you feel completely safe and, without a harness on, it felt really easy there. I bet that’s the fastest the Monster has ever been climbed. I was in there like ‘this is so cruiser’, having a great time.
And from the round table to the summit it was celebratory climbing. It was like taking a victory lap. I was karate chopping hand jams, just flying up.
Was there ever a moment of doubt?
Not any real moments of doubt. The Freeblast was still engaging for sure. And the first roof (at the start of the third pitch), I’m always a little bit tense there because you’re just starting up the route. And the Boulder Problem was the crux. That was the main thing probably.
Did you think about anything other than rock climbing while you were going up the wall?
During all the easy terrain, in the middle, through the Monster and up to the Spire, I was thinking about random stuff—the whole village of people who have supported me on this. I got an email from (friend and climbing partner Conrad Anker) this morning. So I was thinking about Conrad and his whole ethos of ‘be kind, be good, be happy’.
And I was also thinking in terms of life goals. This has been my biggest life goal for years. And the other one is to climb 9a—to sport climb real hard. (Editor’s note: 9a refers to one of the highest rated, most physically demanding levels of sport climbing.) So I’m halfway up the wall and thinking it’s time to focus on 9a. It’s so exciting to work on something hard.
So you already have a new goal?
It’s been a strategy the whole time I’ve worked on El Cap is to look past it, so that it’s not just all this one moment. To think about what’s beyond, what other stuff I’m excited about. So this just feels like a semi-normal day.
Otherwise you’re kind of setting yourself up for a major letdown?
You don’t want to put that much pressure on yourself where everything in my life focuses on this one moment. This has been my big focus for years and my big dream for years, but I would like to climb at my physical limits and step away from adventure for a little while.
And you do that with a rope.
I’m pretty stoked to not be focusing on free solo projects for a while.
I talked to free solo pioneer Peter Croft about it. He was one of your heroes when you were a kid. There’s nothing else as far as he’s concerned. He said El Cap was the final step.
That’s how I’ve always felt about it, but who knows in a couple years?
Do you think you’ll ever get really keen on really gnarly alpine climbing?
I really doubt it. I haven’t so far.
What else do you have on your agenda? Is there any personal stuff?
I don’t know. I guess having a family.
The whole pursuit of this dream has allowed me to live my best life, that makes me hopefully the best version of me.
Does your mom know you free soloed El Cap?
I haven’t talked to her yet. I don’t even think she knows what this whole project is about, you know? I feel weird about it. I’ll call her in a bit. Though I don’t even know what to tell her. ‘Hey, by the way…’ She might think I’d already done it. She’s really bad at differentiating between free climbing and free soloing.
So how do you think this whole project was for Jimmy Chin and his crew filming you?
It was better for me not to think at all about anyone else’s experiences except for my own. I’m sure this is ultra-stressful for everybody else involved, but for me it was a big enough challenge to even walk to the base and put my shoes on. Because you look up and go, ‘that’s a f***ing big wall.’ It’s like, pretty crazy.
So the crew didn’t project any of their stress?
No, everybody kept it ultra-chill. I think this is pretty much the best crew we could have.
I trusted everybody going into the project. And then certainly after a year and a half, you really trust everybody.
Do you have any notion of how big a deal this is and what you’ve done?
That’s always the funny thing. It doesn’t feel that big a deal when you finally do it, because you put so much effort in. I mean the whole point is to make it feel not that crazy.
Do you feel the world kind of needed something cool like this, at this moment in time?
What the world needs is for the U.S. to stay in the Paris Accords. There’s some bigger issues. But I think it’s always cool for somebody to work on something difficult and achieve their dream. Hopefully people can draw inspiration from this.
What are you going to do this afternoon?
I’m probably going to hang board.
You’re going to go do a hang board workout?
I mean, in a bit, yeah. I mean I want to eat some lunch, I want to get in the shade and then I’m probably going to hang board in a bit. I am perfectly warmed up, I just did four hours’ light exercise, you know?
The whole pursuit of this dream has allowed me to live my best life, that makes me hopefully the best version of me. Just because I’ve achieved a dream doesn’t mean that I just give up on the best version of me. I want to be the guy that trains and stays fit and motivated. Just because you finish a big route doesn’t mean that you just quit.
A normal person would probably take the afternoon off after they free-soloed El Cap.
But I’ve been trying to hang board every other day, and it’s the other day.
Do you feel now that you’ve free soloed El Cap you could do it again?
If I had a reason I could probably go climb El Cap again, no problem. It seems slightly less daunting. That mental hurdle has been cleared. If someone offered me $250,000 tomorrow, I’d be like f*** yeah. I would just go and do it tomorrow.
I think we’re good Alex. You don’t need to do it again. Because it is dangerous, right?
It felt much less scary than a lot of other solos I’ve done.
Probably all of them. Because I put so much work into this one. I was so dialed.
Well, that's kind of awesome.
There was no uncertainty on this. I knew exactly what to do the whole way. A lot of the handholds feel like old friends.