Alex Honnold looks startled when he opens the door to greet me. His eyes, which are wide —“like a cow’s,” he claims— shine. He’s surprised that I’m writing about him, that reps from various companies now actively recruit him, and that John Bachar and Peter Croft have phoned him. After his Astroman and Rostrum solos and his successful three-day free ascent of the Salathé, people have overwhelmed him with attention.
“Really, I suck,” says the 22-year-old. Watching him and Bill Ramsey do pull-ups with 40-pound weights clipped to their harnesses, I notice his red wristband says, “Michael Reardon—Life Without Limits.”
A former engineering student at Berkeley, Alex lives in his not so pimped-out Ford Econoline E-150, sometimes staying curbside at Ramsey’s house in Las Vegas. His father died of a heart attack three years ago, leaving him a decent inheritance (which he mostly invested), enabling a frugal life on the road.
When I explain that people want to know more about him, he pulls the hood of his sweatshirt low, almost over his eyes. “I guess it would be cool if you wrote something,” he says, shrugging. “I could show my grandmother.” We discuss climbing an easy route in Red Rocks State Park. Tomorrow is his rest day.” A cardio workout sounds good,” he says.
He shows up at my campsite at 9:30 a.m., no coffee in hand. He doesn’t drink the stuff. I swallow the remnants of mine and say, “I want to solo Solar Slab” (which he will tell me later that night “is not even really rock climbing”). I seldom climb without a rope, but since I’m talking to the newest radical soloist, it only seems appropriate that we solo something together. A seven-pitch 5.6 can’t be that scary. We both think we’re in for a short day out.
On the first of the 5.3 approach pitches, as we detour around a party fully decked out with helmets, backpacks and fat rap ropes, I reconsider my suggestion. I have a love-hate relationship with soloing. Every time I go I swear I won’t do it again.
“Maybe we should simul-climb?” I propose.
“If we bring a rope,” Alex says, “then we have to bring harnesses, then gear. Before you know it we’ll have to bring a portaledge. You’re fine!” Hundreds of feet later, as I ascend the upper slabs, I look down at treetops that retreat below me like distant shrubs. I waffle on a large ledge as Alex clambers to the top of a gaping offwidth.
“You coming?” he asks, looking down, brown hair sticking out in all directions. I head up, hearing one of the French Canadians below say with surprise, “She’s going?” Alex chatters away to me and makes small talk with all the people we pass. I’m silent, wondering if I’m going to die.
We reach twin cracks. I haltingly head up the one that splits the face like the slash of an Exacto knife. I won’t look down at the 1,000-plus feet of exposure. I recognize the perfection of the shallow finger crack in front of me, but my heart pounds too loudly in my ears and my fingers suddenly feel wormlike. I watch them ooze off a hold that I reach for three, four, then five times.
“Where the hell are the footholds?” I whine. Alex moves over to the other crack, no longer willing to stay underneath me.
“You don’t trust me?!” I say, trying to joke.
“Well, you’re not exactly exuding confidence right now. Better just one of us goes if you fall!” he says cheerily. I laugh, sort of, as I try to jam my entire arm into my chalk bag.
A few minutes later he queries, “Do you think soloing will become popular in the future?” He’s absolutely serious; I’m absolutely gripped.
“No!” I say, feeling Elvis approaching my right leg. I force it to be still. I refuse to die. I want children. I ignore him when he says enthusiastically, “Really? But it’s soooo cool!”
Alex enjoys the speed of soloing and the fact that partners are unnecessary. Three years ago, when he started climbing primarily outside after a half-dozen years as a competitive gym rat, he did some stupid things soloing, he says, but now he’s really careful only to do “easy” routes (like Astroman).
After I’ve managed the move, as we top out, I dissuade him from descending the route. We head down the descent for an hour before realizing we’re going the wrong way. He leaps across a five-foot wide chasm and disappears around the corner.
“It looks like 200 feet of 5.8 down climbing to where we need to be,” he says, unenthusiastic about the chossy, cracked patina we’ve been using for handholds. Still, he’s not worried about himself. I tell him to go on, that I’ll head up and bum a ride down from one of the three parties still enroute, but he’s unwilling to leave me.
Luckily, just 800 feet up the ridge we find a smooth 40-foot chimney that drops us directly into the correct descent gully. Half an hour of scrambling later we’re 200 feet from the ground. I’m relieved until we reach a chockstone the size of my Honda Accord, wedged in a wide chimney.
“It’s a bit sandy, probably 5.7,” Alex says, doing a graceful split between the two walls and disappearing underneath the rock. Chalking up, I attempt to lower myself over the abyss, but bile wells up in my throat and despite the late afternoon December temps, I suddenly sweat like I’m hammering it out on the elliptical machine.
“Uh, Alex,” I say feebly, “I’ll buy you a burger if you get me a rope.”
A bit of desperation shows in his bright eyes. “Is there anything I can do to get you down?” It has already been more than five hours. Then he sighs, mumbling something about this being “the worst day of my life,” and scrambles off to borrow a rope from one of the other parties. Unfortunately, no one is near the ground, so he shouts that he’s going to his van.
“No, I’ll try again!” I holler, determined to get down and horrified at my situation. I’ve never been stuck before. But he insists.
“The bottom is totally sketchy! 5.9 choss!” he yells up. “It’s way harder than anything we’ve done today.” A few minutes later he’s loping off down the trail, yelling, “I’ll be back in 20 minutes!” Shivering and humbled, I swear to myself that I’m never going to solo again. When he returns I can only say, “Thanks.”
“No problem,” he replies patiently. “It’s the closest I’ve ever come to saving a damsel in distress.”
Twenty minutes later we’re walking briskly down the trail, bad day forgotten. He chats happily about his youth, growing up camping in the Valley, and how El Cap never intimidated him. It feels totally normal to apply all his sport and gym climbing techniques to the Big Stone in order to do bigger, harder routes. He’s unafraid. To him, the difference between soloing and other forms of climbing is “in people’s heads. It’s all just climbing.”
He reiterates his amazement that people are so fascinated by his Valley solos. They certainly don’t define him as a climber, he explains. In fact, he’s embarrassed that his recent celebrity results from his “rest-day activities.”
“So many people have the ability to solo those routes,” he adds. “They just choose not to. It’s really no big deal.”
“He is clueless,” I think. I suggest, in jest, that lots of people may have the physical skills to solo, but most don’t have the wiring that he does. Or maybe, I think later, they have a stronger sense of mortality. Of his father’s passing, Alex says little. “It seems like his death should be a big part of my life, but it just isn’t,” he says. “Everyone dies.” On the other hand, Reardon’s death seems to have elicited much contemplation. “He’s someone who lived as he saw fit. That’s rad.”
After a dinner of burgers and fries, we head back to camp, where my Aussie friends Ben and Darren laugh heartily at my expense.
“We didn’t really epic. We got down before dark,” Alex says kindly. A few minutes later, he shakes my hand, saying, “Good thing you have a great knack for fiction. I’m sure you can find a way to make me sound interesting.” He drives off, System of a Down blasting out of his speakers, talented, unformed, and with everything yet ahead of him.
Lizzy Scully is a Senior Contributing Editor for Rock and Ice, and the co-founder of the nonprofit Girls Education International (www.girlsed.org). She lives in a tiny house on the outskirts of Lyons, Colorado.