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Alex Honnold: The Learning Curve

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This article first appeared in the 2013 edition of Ascent.

I hung alone on the big slab below the Leaning Tower, my new wall hammer in hand, and prepared to drill my very first bolt. Considering the prolific number of bolts on Yosemite’s vast walls, I had presumed that hand drilling couldn’t be that hard.

I gripped the hammer and started wailing away, hoping that vigor would compensate for my lack of technique and experience. I toiled in the sun for 45 minutes, watching the bit slowly disappear into the granite. When I got pumped, I pulled out the bit and optimistically measured it against the bolt. When I figured I had drilled the hole deep enough, I hammered in the bolt—and learned that my first hand-drilled bolt was a botch job. I hadn’t drilled deeply enough and the bolt stuck out. Demoralized, I rapped to the ground.

That day I left the Leaning Tower cooked, and on the way out passed Mikey Schaefer’s van parked at the pullout below the big north face of Middle Cathedral. While I had been struggling on a hot slab, Mikey had been laboring on the steep and permanently shaded upper headwall of Middle Cathedral. For two years he had been pioneering a route ground up, drilling 1/4-inch bolts on lead, then replacing them with 3/8-inch bolts when he could. Over the months, his fixed lines had been chopped by rock fall and he had rope soloed 5.11 slab. He was a true Valley hardman putting up one of the few Grade VI 5.13 big walls established in recent years. 

I worked on my project on the Tower throughout the fall, and each afternoon I’d pass Mikey’s van, a constant reminder that sometimes it takes a lot of hard work to get something done.

I’ve spent the last few years in Yosemite trying to climb routes faster and lighter; speed climbing, soloing and big link ups have been the staples. But those styles rely on clean, well-equipped routes that someone had put a lot of work into. Until the Leaning Tower, the person doing the heavy lifting had never been me. My reluctance to put up a new route boiled down to me just wanting to go climbing and not having to work too hard at it.

The summer of 2011 was the high-water mark for my lazy brand of climbing. I soloed the South Face of Watkins, the Nose of El Cap and the Regular Route on Half Dome, in a combined time of 18:50. Each route is an established classic—clean, chalked up, tons of beta, good topos, lots of traffic. They are the perfect routes for getting in a lot of good climbing with no hassle. By climbing the “Triple,” I’d accomplished one of my long-standing goals. Looking ahead, I wasn’t sure what the next big project should be, but I knew that I’d like to give something tangible back to the Valley. 

I met Todd Skinner six years ago at his house outside Yosemite. My climbing partner, Josh McCoy, and I stayed at Todd’s house to avoid the camping limit in Yosemite. At the time I was still an aspiring trad leader and had led my first 5.12 on gear the previous spring. Josh and I wanted to climb the Nose in a day, which we barely managed in an exhausting 22 hours.

Todd, on the other hand, was a rock star. He and Paul Piana had made the first free ascent of the Salathé in 1988 when I was three years old, and Todd continued to free big walls all over the world. It’s fair to argue that Todd laid out the modern vision of big-wall free climbing.

Todd Skinner jugging a line on El Cap, Salathe below Long Ledge, Yosemite © Bill Hatcher2013

One night at his house, we interrupted a meeting between Todd and his speaking agent, Ann Krcik. They were working through one of his corporate presentations. Josh and I watched, amazed, as he clicked through slides of walls around the world and told outrageous stories of eating monkeys in the jungles of Venezuela and getting ropes shredded by the wind in Mali. His eyes sparkled as he dove from one tale to another, only stopping occasionally to confer with Ann to ask if he should tighten up his delivery.

By the end of the night Josh and I were so psyched we wanted to do what Todd did, though it would take each of us years to learn how to climb well enough to realize our aspirations.

Todd was in Yosemite to free the aid route Jesus Built My Hotrod on Leaning Tower. He’d freed the adjacent route, Wet Lycra Nightmare (5.13d), over the previous two seasons, all with the same partner, Jim Hewitt. Jim hadn’t arrived yet and Todd needed someone to help him fix ropes on Jesus. I enthusiastically agreed, psyched out of my mind to serve as his glorified mule.

Todd had an uncontainable enthusiasm for climbing. On the hike up he talked about the individual pitches and the good climbing he and Jim had encountered during previous seasons. As we traversed the base of the wall we stopped to take it all in.

“Look up at that corner system,” he said. “What do you see?”

“An easy-looking chimney that leads to the start of the Leaning Tower routes,” I replied.

“That’s old-school thinking,” he said.

The modern vision, according to Todd, was the 5.12 arete that made up the outer corner of the chimney. I just smiled and agreed, not quite sure what he meant.

Neither of us saw the irony in a man pushing 50 explaining to a 21-year-old that he was stuck in old-school thinking.

Todd died less than two weeks later while rappelling Leaning Tower. His worn-out belay loop broke. I was still in the Valley and as news of the accident quickly spread around, I was shocked and horrified that something might have gone wrong with our rigging.

I wanted to write Todd’s family and tell them how generous he had been with his time and how much it meant to me. But I felt like it was inappropriate. Who was I to comment after having only recently met him? Ultimately a combination of shyness and sorrow kept me from reaching out to his wife and kids, and I’ve always regretted it.

In the fall of 2012,I returned to Yosemite and for the first time had no big goals. and decided to string ropes on Todd’s Leaning Tower project. I humped up 600 feet of line and started rigging. First I strung lines up the four-pitch wall below Leaning Tower, finally checking out the arete that Todd had pointed out all those years before. He’d envisioned it as a direct start to the Tower, an alternative to hiking around and traversing out the ledge. I planned to finish the route and hopefully continue up the Tower and free climb Jesus Built My Hotrod.

I rapped the upper arete only to discover that it was already bolted! Had Todd done this before he died? I may never know.

The arete looked like technical 5.12 granite in an airy position, but the meat of the route would be the blank 200-foot slab below the arete. It was obviously untouched, and I didn’t know if it was even climbable, but, armed with my drill and 10 bolts, I determined to do my best. 

I tinkered about on the slab, slowly unlocking sequences and adding bolts as I had time.

I also fixed lines up the first three wildly steep pitches of the Tower itself. 

As I hung on one of my fixed static lines and failed to do move after move on the first pitch of Jesus Built My Hotrod, the word “futuristic” came to mind. Even after several days of effort, I still had sections I couldn’t even imagine. I wrote that pitch off as just too hard for me.

In between bouts on the Tower, I did some established rock climbs—the old-fashioned kind where you hike to the bottom of a wall with a rope, rack and partner, and climb to the top, rather than the modern kind where you hike up with only a Mini-Traxion and tight sport shoes, and top-rope self-belay moves that are too hard for you over and over again.

Sean Leary and I took a few fun speed laps up beginner walls, such as the West Face of Leaning Tower and the South Face of Washington Column. Each was a fun way to cover a lot of vertical ground and still have time for an afternoon bouldering sesh. Our times on those walls were 1:16 and 53 minutes, new records and a stark contrast to the four days I’d spent just looking for holds on the bank slab.

The speed records were particularly satisfying because the West Face and the South Face had been my first two Yosemite big walls, and both were done with my original partner, Josh, when I was still learning how to place gear. Each route had taken us a full day and been terrifying adventures. Swinging out over 400 feet of exposure to clean the first pitch on the West Face was the first time I almost crapped my pants.

Alex Honnond enjoying the fruits of his labor on A Gift From Wyoming (5.13b/c), a route inspired by Todd Skinner.

Despite my slow progress on the slab, I finally got it equipped. Mikey Schaefer finished bolting his route at virtually the same time, and suddenly nothing was left but for us each to redpoint our projects. He stocked a high camp on Middle Cathedral and set out from the ground. As I looked around for someone to belay my four-pitch approach route, Mikey settled in 1,500 feet up, resolute to do battle with the upper headwall—three pitches of 5.13a/b—until he sent.

I rallied my girlfriend, Stacey Pearson, to jug for me, and while the climbing was difficult—5.13b/c slab, 5.10 corner, 5.12b/c arete, 5.9 exit—we were done by lunchtime. In all, it had taken a week of effort to establish what amounted to a sit start to the Leaning Tower. In honor of Todd, I called it A Gift From Wyoming. Meanwhile, Mikey endured a two-day rainstorm and kept pushing on, working the pitches and refining his beta. 

On October 19, Mikey sent the last pitches of his project and opened Father Time, 22 pitches up to 5.13b. It was the first new grade VI in years and probably the hardest independent free wall route ever put up in the Valley. Two days after Mikey finished, Tommy Caldwell and Jonathan Seigrist took a burn up what is destined to become a new-school Valley classic. They were escaping the heat on the Dawn Wall, though they also wanted to appreciate the newest proud addition to the Valley. The two punched through the 5.13 headwall, but got caught in the dark and rappelled. They didn’t finish the route, but vouched for the quality and difficulty.

Two days later I attempted Father Time, supported again, surprisingly, by Stacey, who, despite having only jumarrd twice before, was willing to jug the whole 2,000-foot wall and belay. 

After a whole season of top-rope rehearsal, speed laps and bouldering, it felt great to try and onsight a new wall. Each pitch wove through spotless and featured granite. Each belay revealed a new view of El Cap behind us, and Lower Cathedral to the west. Hanging at one of the anchors waiting for Stacey to jug, I enjoyed the scenery and remembered the sense of discovery I used to feel back when every formation was a great unknown—only a few years before I hadn’t even known the names of all the walls.

We topped out Middle Cathedral at sunset. The horizon burned pink under a layer of accumulating clouds, the first signs of a storm. Stacey and I had done the second ascent of Father Time—though it took me a few tries to redpoint the crux pitches. It was the biggest wall she had ever climbed and a great effort for her. She’d worn the pack the whole way, which, combined with the jugging, had left her exhausted. But she’d managed it all and remained in high spirits. Now we only had to onsight the extremely rugged descent in the dark.

We swam down through manzanita bushes, and I was again reminded of my earlier times in the Valley, when almost every descent became an epic bushwhack. When Stacey’s headlamp died with 1,500 feet to go, I remembered how Josh and I had descended from North Dome with no headlamps. It was all part of the learning process. A process that never seems to end.

Stacey and I staggered down, lost in the forest, looking at headlamps across the Bridal Veil drainage, coming down the backside of Leaning Tower. I thought of Todd, who had led me up that same path six years before to help him fix lines. His vision of big-wall free climbing was still shaping the development of new routes in the Valley, and his appetite for adventure is still a personal inspiration.

Alex Honnold is America’s pre-eminent free soloist and speed climber.