I opened up my Instagram a week ago and had to chuckle. At the top of my feed was Alex Honnold in all his selfie glory at the top of Epinephrine in Las Vegas, one of the best multipitch 5.9 climbs in the world. The caption read: “I just climbed Epinephrine in 39:40, which I think is a new speed record…all I care is that it beat Brad Gobright’s time.”
Ignoring for a moment what could be interpreted as the slightly desperate and slightly petty tone of this Insta post—not to mention the mind-melting, life-risking record that Alex had just clocked on Epinephrine’s 2,240 vertical feet of technical climbing—let’s answer a few questions that will help shed light on this budding and unlikely climbing rivalry: Why does Alex Honnold care so much about beating a nobody named Brad Gobright? And more important, who the hell is Brad Gobright?
If you do, in fact, know who 29-year-old Gobright is, I probably had a hand in that. Let me explain.
Brad came onto my radar six years ago when he free-soloed the Rostrum in Yosemite—not necessarily an earth-shattering solo, but one that certainly puts you in a small club of brave climbers. Over the years, we ran in similar circles and became good friends. When Brad moved to my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, I knew he was someone to keep an eye on, and boy was I right. Once in Boulder, Brad started working as a busboy and, in his spare time, quickly became a front-range climbing legend. One after the next, Brad dispatched Boulder’s most dangerous traditional climbs, broke the speed record on Colorado’s most famous route—the Naked Edge—and, most notably, climbed ropeless in Eldorado Canyon with a boldness and fervor unlike anything I’d ever seen.
As a soloist myself, I had a lot of respect for what Brad was doing. As a filmmaker, soloing was, for me, the most compelling branch of our sport to document. I filmed Honnold on Sendero Luminoso in Mexico a few years ago and really enjoyed the experience. When I approached Brad about filming some of his solos, he was amicable, if not a little indifferent to the idea. He wasn’t the type who climbed for attention, but if being in a movie could maybe get him a free pair of shoes or some new pants, it seemed like the right move.
We weren’t sure where it would lead, but my filmmaking partner, Taylor Keating, and I began following Brad around the front range documenting the highs and lows of his approach to climbing for what would eventually become our film Safety Third. In the process, we documented the historic solo of Hairstyles and Attitudes, a heinous and slippery 5.12 multipitch in Eldorado Canyon. We also witnessed Brad breaking his back on a dangerous roped climb in Boulder Canyon.
So why does Alex Honnold care so much about beating Brad? It may surprise some readers to know that Alex and Brad are actually longtime friends and often climb together. That’s why, when Safety Third was starting to take shape, I reached out to Alex for an interview. As we set up the camera, I began to rib Alex a little. “Dude, I think Hairstyles is up there with your hardest free solos,” I said. “Wouldn’t it be funny if he free-soloed El Cap before you did?” (This was before Alex had soloed the Freerider, but a few close friends and I knew that he was actively training for the feat.) “I think Gobright is the new Honnold,” I joked, knowing full well that Brad was his own unique and probably slightly less put-together free soloist. “Dude,” Alex said, “if he were to go up there and solo El Cap, first of all I would be like, ‘Whoa, that’s scary,’ but I would also be like…Respect…Sometimes the bold man wins.”
In Safety Third, we used Honnold as a bit of a foil to Gobright, painting Honnold as the millionaire, sponsored, vegetarian perfectionist and Brad as the underdog, dirtbag, junk-food-fed, junk-show badass. While there was a lot of truth to this comparison, it’s worth noting that in a lot of ways, Alex was just being a good sport and was happy to play the bad guy a little if it helped his friend gain some deserved notoriety. “If I didn’t exist, [people] would be like, ‘Oh, rad, nobody else is really soloing hard like that in the U.S. right now. That’s pretty cool!’ But it’s just sort of unlucky for him that I’ve already kind of stolen some of that. I’ll give him a free pair of shoes as a consolation prize,” Alex joked during our interview.
At the time, Brad being competition for Honnold was more of a joke than anything. The reality was that, as a soloist, Alex was certainly more accomplished, and Brad’s solo of Hairstyles was just a single breath of the rarified air that formed Honnold’s daily oxygen. And it’s worth mentioning here that a few months after we wrapped, Brad headed to Las Vegas and, while out climbing with Honnold, fell down 100 feet of wet slab while descending from the Rainbow Wall and broke his ankle—for the third time. Honnold spent several hours into the night carrying him out.
Between his broken back and his broken ankle, Brad was actually taking a step back from free soloing. While he healed, he became increasingly obsessed with the speed record on the Nose, which Honnold just happened to hold along with Hans Florine. Once his ankle was fully healed, Brad went full-bore into his obsession, and on October 12, 2017, after countless tries, Brad, along with partner Jim Reynolds, did what many people never considered possible: He took an Alex Honnold speed record, trimming a respectable four minutes from Alex’s blistering time, bringing it down to an Olympic-worthy 2 hours, 19 minutes, 44 seconds.
I happened to see Alex just a few days later at a North Face athlete meetup, and I immediately gave him shit for losing the Nose record. “You used to be somebody,” I said. “I’m sure you can get a job designing carabiners or something.” His reaction wasn’t what you might expect. “Dude, I’m psyched,” he said, “It’s actually really motivating. Now I have a reason to train, and climbing the Nose fast is fun. And Brad deserves it—he worked really hard—but I am going to smash his record in the spring. I’m recruiting Tommy Caldwell.”
Make no doubt that Alex will be back on the Nose. Taking Brad’s Epinephrine record was just a shot across the bow in what is becoming an exciting yet friendly competition between two unlikely climbing heroes. Brad doesn’t seem all that worried, though. “I have no doubts that he’ll take my Nose record,” he said, “and I’m pretty sure I’ll be too frightened to try and take it back. The Epinephrine speed record is just a side project. It’ll be easy to take that back.”
When I interviewed Honnold for Safety Third, I half-jokingly asked him if perhaps Brad and he both suffered from some kind of personality disorder that allowed them to take such huge risks so nonchalantly. “Possibly,” Alex said, “but everyone has their quirks, and maybe the world would be a better place if more people were like us. All the Brads could work in the fast-food restaurants!”
Climbing has a ripe history of rivalries, but too often they turn out petty and mean-spirited—think: Royal Robbins and Warren Harding—which makes the competition between Brad and Honnold refreshing. Knowing them both well, I can confidently say that all the shit-talking is in good fun. When I reached out to Brad to congratulate him on his ascent of the Nose, he said, “The reward is in knowing that I’m four minutes better than Honnold.”
Cedar Wright is a filmmaker and professional climber
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