ONE LOCAL’S FIRST IMPRESSION of Alex Honnold at Jailhouse Rock early last year was of just another strong kid.
“I didn’t take too much notice,” Justen Sjong says. “Strong sport kids are a dime a dozen.”
Honnold, 21, was climbing all the 5.12s and a few of the lower 5.13s there, not an unusual record by modern standards, though he raised some eyebrows by trying a lot of routes every day.
What did catch Sjong’s attention was Honnold’s subsequent near-onsight of the 35-pitch Freerider (5.12c) on El Cap, Yosemite. He completed the ascent in under 30 hours, falling only once.
Sjong, himself one of the country’s best sport and trad climbers, felt he was seeing “the real deal.” Taking an interest, he told Honnold, “Dude, get a work ethic.” He thought Honnold was spending too much time onsighting and sending things second try instead of working to push the big numbers.
One day in the Valley last summer, the two, psyched for a mileage day, decided to climb the Nose (VI 5.10 C2) without jumars, and Astroman (5.11c) free. They cruised up and hiked down from the Nose, and reached Astroman by about 5 p.m., then blazed through a party of three doing Astroman as an aid route. After negotiating the Harding Slot, though, they began tiring.
Honnold, a confident climber who had done Astroman several times in the last month, began the subsequent pitch boldly.
“Dude, you should place a piece,” Sjong said.
“I don’t place a piece here.”
Honnold’s foot slipped (he didn’t fall).
“He blew me off and went a little farther,” Sjong recalls. “And slipped a little again. I just went ballistic and said, ‘Get a goddamn piece in!’” Sjong laughs, and credits Honnold for leading the route’s last difficulties. “I see a lot of potential in him.”
Honnold is from Sacramento, the son of two professors. As of 2005 he was an engineering student at U.C. Berkeley, but left after a year to climb more. His hits include trad routes such as Desert Gold (5.13a), Red Rocks, onsight, and Death of a Cowboy (5.13a) Indian Creek, second try. Multipitch routes include the 12-pitch The Free Grand (5.13a), Squamish, British Columbia, and the 11-pitch Moonlight Buttress (5.12d), Zion.
“He flashed everything and never really broke a sweat,” says Bill Ramsey, his partner on Moonlight.
In December and January at Jailhouse, Honnold did Flower Power (5.14b) and two 14a’s in five tries each, and onsighted the 5.13b Lethal Injection.
We reached Honnold this spring in the Virgin River Gorge, near Mesquite, Arizona, where he was happily ensconced in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
Following this conversation, in May, he and Brian Kimball pulled a single-day ascent of Freerider (VI 5.12c), El Cap, with Honnold leading and hauling every pitch. They finished in 20.5 hours.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
I just got myself a van, and I’m on stage one of a very long road trip.
WHAT’S STAGE TWO?
Swinging by and seeing family in Idaho, and then going out to the Red [River Gorge] probably and then back to Utah. It’s all very open-ended. ... Hopefully I’m going to Zion. I’m looking for a partner. Chris Weidner keeps promising to go if he ever finishes his project [Horse Latitudes, 5.14a] here. He’s looking really good on it.
WHAT’S YOUR BACKGROUND?
I climbed in a gym for 10 years. I’ve just been climbing outside for the last two or three. I kind of competed as a kid, but I was never very good.
IS YOUR FORTE HARD TRAD?
I don’t know. Probably easy trad. I can get my ass kicked on any type of climbing, any area. OK, probably super enduro, jugs for days.
DO YOU MISS SCHOOL SOMEWHAT?
Not really, I could always go back. I can get educated any time, that’s my thought. I spent most of last semester last year climbing anyway. I figure I’d rather do one thing well than both poorly.
YOU HAVE TO BE A GOOD STUDENT TO GET INTO BERKELEY.
Well, I was a good student in high school.
WHAT ARE YOUR CLIMBING AMBITIONS?
Big routes, just really tall routes.
HAS JUSTEN BEEN YOUR MENTOR?
Naw. He makes fun of me more than anything. He’s really impressive. There are tons of impressive climbers you can learn a lot from.
WHAT ELSE DO YOU DO?
I’ve been reading a bunch of god-hating books recently. The Natural History of Religion, which attacks organized religion. This guy I was traveling with had some and now I’m on a kick. ... Um, I mean, I hope you’re not really into religion or anything.
NO WORRIES. WHAT OTHER INTERESTS DO YOU HAVE?
[Pause.] Climbing. I don’t know. I could think about it for awhile. I mean, I hike and look at things. I just got lost in the desert pits of Mesquite.
I don’t do a whole lot. I go climbing every day. Eat a little, go to bed, then repeat. It’s pretty simple.
WHAT ELSE DO YOU DO ON YOUR REST DAYS?
Nothing. I’m sitting in my van. ... Maybe we’ll go poach some hot tubs. Maybe play some speed chess. You set the timer really low and then play chess really fast. There’s not a lot to say. I’m in the Wal-Mart lot. It’s actually really nice. You can use the bathrooms, and there’s a big dirt lot next to it with no lights and no noise.
YOU CAN’T USE THE SHOWER, CAN YOU?
No. That’s what the hot tubs are for.
HOW ABOUT ANY HOBBIES WHEN YOU WERE A KID?
[Laughs.] You keep mining, but there’s really nothing.