There’s More to Alex Honnold Than Free Soloing
With his first book, the famous climber seeks to put his daring stunts in perspective
The night before the launch of his first book tour, a month-long sprint through 20 cities across the U.S., Alex Honnold was laid over in Chicago en route to Boston, negotiating with an airline service rep. His plane had been held up for mechanical reasons, and Honnold needed to make sure he and his luggage would be at a venue in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, by Tuesday for the official release of his first book, Alone on the Wall, a chronicle of his personal life and most memorable climbs, which he co-wrote with accomplished climber and author David Roberts.
He was coming from the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival in Alberta, where he’d talked up his book during a speaking event with writer and climber Greg Child. Honnold’s two latest films, A Line Across the Sky and Showdown at Horseshoe Hell, both in this year’s Reel Rock film tour lineup, screened at the festival and won awards for Best Climbing Film and Radical Reels People’s Choice, respectively. A Line Across the Sky is an epic portrayal of Honnold’s and fellow climber Tommy Caldwell’s historic traverse across the snowy, jagged Fitz Roy mountain in Patagonia. But Horseshoe Hell is a mellower, goofier segment about a raucous all-day sport climbing competition in Arkansas, and Honnold seemed confused about its warm reception. “It’s a tribute to how weak the other films in the category were,” he said.
At the airport terminal desk, after arranging for his checked bag to fly with him to Boston, and somehow landing a first-class upgrade, the 30-year-old Honnold took a few minutes on the phone to catch Outside up on the book, the tour, and how he’s going to survive a month away from the crag.
OUTSIDE: One month doesn’t sound like a very long book tour. Aren’t they usually like two or three months?
HONNOLD: I don’t want to take two or three months away from climbing, so I’m cramming the whole thing into the month of November—basically a city a day. I’m probably doing the same number of events of a usual book tour but in a month. I block my time like that. This winter I’ll be fully in the van, doing my thing.
You okay being away from climbing for that long?
I actually just came off a month-long tour of South America and I’ve gotten into a disciplined hangboarding program. For this tour I’m trying to do the same thing again with a month-long training circuit. Because I’m constantly climbing I’ve never taken the time to do discipline training, so this is a good opportunity for that. I checked a bag with a pull-up bar and hangboard. Just those and clothes—that’s my whole travel scene right now.
Wait, you’re setting up the hangboard in hotel rooms each night? How does that work?
The pull-up bar has a cinch, so I set that up in the doorway and tie on the hangboard below the pull up bar with cord. It’s kind of a ghetto system but it works.
What do you hope to get out of this tour?
It’s a totally new experience for me. I signed up for it for life experience. It’s a thing you do once. I have no huge expectations—hoping to sell some books, I guess. The crazy schedule is definitely next-level for me. It’s kind of an interesting case study in what a true Hollywood celebrity goes through in promoting films when you have wall-to-wall press stuff every day. I’m getting the one-month Brad Pitt experience.
Why was it time for a book? What do you hope people better understand about you?
There are a lot of pieces of my story all over the place in blogs and magazines and videos and spread across the Internet and it’s nice for me to be able to put them in one place. It just seems like the timing is right. If you’re gonna write a book like that, you might as well do it when someone cares.
It's also about conveying the sheer volume of climbing I’ve done. In reality the soloing is a small percentage of my total climbing. The book is structured around my big events… but it also covers a lot of my traveling and expeditions and gives a sense of the day-to-day climbing and volume of what I do. Hopefully that makes what I do with free soloing seem slightly more normal to people. I hate how people have the impression that I just do these crazy things and don’t see the overall lifestyle that they fit into.
In the book, you say that free-soloing big walls is “all about preparation” and “just a matter of executing.” That sounds like something Dean Potter said about his work, and you give him an acknowledgement at the end of the book. What else have you learned from Dean?
It’s been weird re-reading the sections with Dean and thinking about it from the perspective of him having a terrible accident, because we wrote it before he died. Right after he died, I spent a couple days thinking of the achievement treadmill of constantly trying to do harder and harder things and push yourself. You do dangerous things and it becomes a dangerous treadmill. He spent his whole life at the edge, pushing the limits, and I think about that with my own climbing. You don’t want to be at the edge for too long.
That definitely comes through toward the end of the book when you’re contemplating turning 30 and the trajectories of older climbers—some who died in seemingly freak climbing accidents and others who are alive and still climbing today. Are you turning a page from free soloing?
Not at all. Two weeks before the Fitz traverse [in Patagonia] I soloed Sendero Luminoso [in Mexico] and University Wall [in Canada]. I’m definitely still venturing along that path. Right now I’m deep in travel and work mode but I’m training pretty hard. For the next year I won’t be doing as many work events and we’ll see where the climbing takes me.