AFTER A LITTLE MORE THAN TWO HOURS OF CLIMBING, ALEX HONNOLD REACHED THANK GOD LEDGE. He was nine-tenths of the way up the northwest face of Half Dome—the nearly vertical 2,000-foot granite wall that towers above Yosemite Valley. The ledge, a 35-foot-long ramp that varies in width from five to twelve inches, forms a blessed respite from the escalating severities of the face. By hand-traversing left—facing the wall, fingers jammed in the crack at the back of the ledge, feet plastered against the rock just below—climbers circumvent the utterly blank cliff above.
Twenty-three years old that day in September 2008, with a lanky five-foot-eleven build, big brown eyes, and prominent ears, Honnold was on the verge of pulling off an unprecedented feat. He had no rope and no nuts or camming devices to jam into cracks to catch him if he fell. He had no carabiners to clip into the bolts that protected the hardest moves on the climb. He had no partner. He wore only a light shirt and shorts and carried nothing but a flask of water, a few energy bars, and a chalk bag dangling from his waist. He was practicing the most extreme and dangerous form of rock climbing. It's called free soloing, and its fundamental rule is stern and simple: If you slip, you die. Before that day, no one had free-soloed a route in North America as long or as difficult as the northwest face of Half Dome.
No one witnessed the climb, and Honnold had told only two friends of his plans. Below him stretched 1,800 feet of sheer granite; above, the last 200 feet of the wall. Downclimbing the route was out of the question.
Once he reached the ledge, however, Honnold decided not to hand-traverse but to cross on his feet, with his back to the wall. In his mind, that was the purest of styles. "It was a matter of pride," he'd later write in an unpublished essay on the climb. Delicately, he put all his weight on one foothold, pushed down on the ledge with his palms, stood up, turned around, and faced out. The wall at his back overhung by a few degrees, threatening to push him off balance.
"The first few steps were completely normal," Honnold wrote, "as if I was walking on a narrow sidewalk in the sky. But once it narrowed I found myself inching along with my body glued to the wall, shuffling my feet and maintaining perfect posture. I could have looked down and seen my pack sitting at the base of the route, but it would have pitched me headfirst off the wall."
The key to maintaining the cool it takes to free-solo a sheer face 750 feet taller than the Empire State Building is what Honnold refers to as his "mental armor." But a few minutes after traversing Thank God Ledge and turning back to face the wall, his feet planted on small sloping holds, his fingers clinging to minuscule wrinkles in the rock, Honnold ran out of armor. It was a novel and disquieting experience. He froze, reeling with existential questions: What am I doing? Why am I here?
The first wave of freak-out seized him. And as Honnold knew full well, "The minute you freak out, you're screwed."
HONNOLD DISPLAYED an affinity for risk at a young age. When he was five, his mother, Dierdre Wolownick, a French professor at American River College in Sacramento, California, took him to a climbing gym in nearby Davis. "I was talking to the supervisor, and I turned around," Wolownick remembers. "There was Alex, 30 feet up. I was scared to death he'd kill himself."