Alex Honnold Isn’t Afraid of Skyscrapers
Climbing's biggest name makes his bid for international stardom by risking death on live TV
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In October of 2012, Alex Honnold, 28, and filmmaker Peter Mortimer, 39, were talking about making a new kind of climbing film: one that featured Honnold scaling an immense skyscraper. “We thought, Wouldn’t that be a rad next thing to do,” recalls Mortimer, a founder of the production company Sender Films, “soloing a big building?” Then Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner leaped from the edge of space in a Red Bull spacesuit on live television, and the pair got a better idea. They started discreetly calling networks with a bold plan: Honnold wanted to free-solo—climb without ropes—the exterior of one of the world’s great skyscrapers on live TV. The National Geographic Channel bit, and in July, the station announced that Honnold would scale what turned out to be the 1,667-foot Taipei 101, in Taiwan. The climb, originally scheduled for November, was delayed, so the team could shore up the details, and is now set to take place in 2014.
The plan is to follow a routine that Honnold and Mortimer honed in Yosemite National Park: Honnold will start from the ground with little more than his climbing shoes and a chalk bag. Meanwhile, Mortimer, Sender cofounder Nick Rosen, and a team of top cameramen and riggers from the climbing world will track his progress while ascending ropes using mechanical jumars. All of which they hope will translate into a ratings bonanza. “You say it in a sentence on the elevator and someone gets it,” says Mortimer.
Honnold is the biggest name among a group of adventure athletes engaging in high-risk live action-sports spectacles that seem pulled from the Evel Knievel playbook. First came Baumgartner’s Stratos leap. Then, last June, highwire walker Nik Wallenda crossed a quarter-mile cable strung over the Little Colorado River while 13 million people tuned in on the Discovery Channel, setting a 13-year ratings high. In September, BASE jumper Miles Daisher announced that he’d try to complete Knievel’s failed motorcycle jump over the Snake River Canyon. Meanwhile, “Sketchy” Andy Lewis—the slackliner who made his name performing in a toga during Madonna’s 2012 Super Bowl halftime show—announced plans to walk a 360-foot line strung between two towers of Las Vegas’s Mandalay Bay resort.
In many ways, these projects represent a return to an old form of entertainment. “This idea of doing spectacular stunts goes back to the age of the circus,” says Syracuse University communications professor Robert Thompson. “And it’s pretty consistent with the needs of contemporary digital media.” In an era of diminished ratings and fractured attention spans, what could be more compelling than an athletic feat accentuated by the very real prospect of televised tragedy? “When you get someone who’s really pushing the absolute limits of human capability, that taps into something very aspirational in our viewers,” says Discovery executive producer Howard Schwartz, who was behind the Wallenda walk. “And, to be completely frank, there’s will-he-or-won’t-he-make-it appeal.”
No one’s better suited to this sort of high-profile undertaking than Honnold, a goofy, doe-eyed kid who burst onto the climbing scene in 2008 by free-soloing Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome. He later cracked the mainstream when Citibank featured him in a commercial shot near Moab, Utah, and 60 Minutes ran a special on him using footage from Sender Films. “He’s bigger than climbing,” says Mortimer. “He’s doing things that won’t get done again for a generation, if ever. If you put all of our business into two boxes, and one was Alex Honnold and the other was everything else, Alex is the biggest box.”
For his part, Honnold is typically self-effacing about the forthcoming climb—”It’s a lucky coincidence that what I enjoy doing happens to be the most photogenic,” he says. But he’s well aware that Taipei could represent his international coming-out party. Honnold won’t discuss specific figures, but he acknowledges that he’ll be paid “vastly more than anything I’ve encountered in the climbing world” for the project.
Once Honnold and Mortimer sold the idea to National Geographic, they had to negotiate the tricky process of convincing a building owner to host the event. They landed first on the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, which Honnold examined closely last year. “Just the scout is a life-list experience, something to tell your grandkids about,” he says. “You’re rappelling off the edge of the biggest building in the world.” Ultimately, though, he and Mortimer settled on the world’s second-tallest skyscraper, the Taipei 101. “The Burj was just too hardcore for me,” says Honnold. “It’s the El Capitan of buildings.”
At first the Sender crew were extremely secretive about their Taiwanese target, not wanting to attract attention. To preserve the surprise, Honnold scouted the moves of his upcoming climb at dawn. “You have to actually touch everything, because you’re not sure what the construction is like the whole way—whether there’s an insurmountable eight-foot blank spot 1,500 feet up the building,” he says.
Honnold maintains that the climb itself isn’t that demanding, and that the most perilous eventuality would be a piece of architecture breaking off. As with Wallenda’s Colorado River highwire walk, the broadcast will happen on a ten-second delay, which will give producers time to cut away should something go wrong. (Many of the best free soloists, including Dan Osman, Derek Hersey, and Michael Reardon, have died in climbing accidents.) And while the organizers have tried to get Honnold to employ safety devices ranging from parachutes to crash pads, the climber has managed to convince them that he has things under control.
“You don’t go forward on a project like this if there’s a 15 percent chance you’re not going to make it,” he says. “There’s a 100 percent chance I’m going to make it.” Or maybe he won’t. You’ll just have to watch.