Alex Honnold didn’t wake up one morning and decide to make the first historic rope-free ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan. For more than a decade, he’s trained and climbed around the world, notching major milestones in free climbing (using ropes and equipment only for safety) and free soloing (not using any ropes or safety equipment).
Five months later, he free soloed the northwest face of Half Dome, a 2,000-foot granite wall, an ascent featured in the short film “Alone on the Wall.” At the time it was the most challenging free solo ever attempted. It took Honnold two hours and 15 minutes to reach the top, including several minutes spent in a rare “mini nervous breakdown” along an eight-inch-wide ledge. “Doubt is the biggest danger in soloing,” Honnold said in the film.
In 2010, Honnold free climbed the walls of Half Dome and El Capitan in slightly more than 11 hours, crushing the speed records for El Cap and the two routes consecutively. Honnold and climbing partner Sean Leary also climbed 3,000-foot El Cap for 24 hours straight, summiting three times for a total of more than 8,000 vertical feet climbed. They also set a new record for consecutive ascents. Also in 2010, Honnold was honored as a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.
In June 2012 Honnold free climbed the “triple” in Yosemite: a back-to-back climb of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Mount Watkins, the park’s three tallest formations. They totaled about 7,000 feet of vertical rock, which Honnold scaled in less than 19 hours, breaking his and Tommy Caldwell’s climb record by two hours. Honnold free soloed all but 500 feet of the record-setting climb.
Less than a week after the triple, Honnold and renowned speed climber Hans Florine attempted to break the record for the fasted climb up the Nose route, “which is the nicest line up the middle of El Cap,” Honnold told National Geographic Adventure that year. The pair set a new record of 2 hours, 23 minutes, and 46 seconds—13 minutes faster than the previous record set in 2010 by Dean Potter and Sean Leary.
In January 2014, Honnold free soloed the intimidating 2,500-foot El Sendero Luminoso (“The Shining Path”) in El Portrero Chico, Mexico. Before attempting the ropeless ascent, Honnold and climber Cedar Wright cleaned the route, and Honnold climbed sections attached to a rope to assess the conditions. “For me personally, it was a new challenge just because it’s a different style of climbing. Maybe not my hardest ever, but very satisfying either way,” Honnold told National Geographic Adventure a month after the feat.
With Tommy Caldwell, Honnold completed a first ascent of the Fitz Roy Traverse in 2014, which links seven peaks in five days along Patagonia’s Cerro Fitz Roy (also known as Chaltén) ridge line. Compared to free soloing, which Honnold has said is as simple as “walk up with your shorts, a t-shirt, and a bag of chalk and climb,” the Fitz Roy traverse was a far more complicated undertaking. They were loaded down with cold weather gear in their packs, endured icy conditions and high winds, and had just one sleeping bag between them. “Alpinism is all about carrying lots of stuff and being all encumbered,” Honnold observed.
In February 2016, Honnold and mountaineer Colin Haley set a new speed record on the Torre Traverse. In 20 hours and 40 minutes, the two climbers achieved the second ascent of the four Patagonian peaks: Cerro Standhardt, Punta Herron, Torre Egger, and Cerro Torre. With the hike to and from the peaks, their car-to-car time totaled 32 hours.