Q&A: Alex Honnold on the Summer of Speed
For Alex Honnold, 2010 was the summer of speed. The 24-year-old climber, who's famous for his hard free-solo ascents, switched gears this summer, blazing up big walls in Yosemite and Squamish and making the first one-day ascent of the 28-pitch sport route Logical Progression in Mexico. Honnold also teamed up with Swiss climber Ueli Steck to make an attempt at breaking the speed record for The Nose, footage of which will screen at this year's Reel Rock Tour.
Honnold spoke to us from Smith Rocks in Oregon about speed climbing, the dangers of soloing El Cap, and where he'll be taking his climbing in the future.
So you're at Smith Rocks, huh? What's the climbing like there?
It's hideous, technical, vertical face climbing. It's old-school. It's like where sport climbing originated in the US in the eighties. But I've never been here before, it's one of the last big destinations in the US that I've never been to.
So what kind of stuff have you been on today?
Oh, just playing around. Today was sort of a mellow day, I was kind of letting my skin rest. But the style here is kind of hard for me, I'm not doing anything that exciting. It's just cool to climb somewhere new.
The past few months were kind of the summer of speed climbing for you. You did three routes in a day on El Cap, four in a day on the Squamish Chief, a solo link-up of The Nose and Half Dome, and the first one-day ascent of Logical Progression. How did that get started?
The Sender Films guys got this idea that they were going to film me and Ueli Steck speed climbing The Nose together. I had envisioned doing a bunch of other climbing in the valley beforehand, and that would be a fun way to end the season with Ueli. As it turned out, I didn't get to climb anything until Ueli got here, and then I was committed to doing this Nose speed thing.
So we did a bunch of laps on The Nose, and ultimately decided we weren't that into it. And once I had already gotten into really good shape for that kind of thing with Ueli, he went back to Switzerland. So I did a couple other things by myself, just so I could take advantage of it.
I wanted to ask you about the film you and Ueli are in at this year's Reel Rock Tour, The Swiss Machine. Had you ever climbed with Ueli before you did this?
No, I'd never met Ueli before. I didn't even know that much about him, I just wikied him and stuff. I just knew he was this badass dude.
Have you seen the finished version of the movie yet?
No, and I'm super-curious. I think I'm actually seeing it this weekend, somewhere. I think Reel Rock is showing at Smith, so I'm kind of psyched to see it
It's been two years this month since you free-soloed Half Dome. Since then, you've been shadowed by camera crews, you've been photographed, you've had dozens of magazine articles written about you. Has all this hype dampened the enjoyment you get from free-soloing, or changed the way you think about it?
No, it hasn't changed it too much. How I feel about soloing has changed a bunch, but it has nothing to do with that. It's just my own relationship with soloing. When I was younger, I'd do tons of pitches, just easy mileage. I'd just go out and do lots and lots of easy routes. Now I just don't really care. I kind of can't be troubled to go do lots of easy ones anymore, because I know I can do them and I don't feel like I have to.
In an article in Outside last year, Dean Potter was quoted as saying that “For sure the hot question of the last few years is 'When are you going to free-solo the Captain?' It brings my energy down hearing those questions.” What about you? Does it ever bother you that people seem so intent on seeing you risk your life?
No, actually it doesn't bother me that much. Whether I do it or not, it doesn't matter how much people ask, or any of that kind of shit. But I totally know what he means, it's kind of a bummer to have people scrutinizing you like that. I've been in the gym sometimes and had people be like, “Are you going to solo?” And I'm like, dude, I'm in the goddamn gym. I mean, of course not. If nothing else I'll get kicked out of the gym, because it's against their insurance policy. But that kind of thing's annoying,
But I don't think it actually affects whether I'd do something like that. I mean, I've talked the whole thing through with a bunch of my friends. Soloing El Cap, you know? It just seems real scary.
You've logged a lot of time on El Cap this summer, too. What do you think would be the cruxes or main challenges for a climber who was going to free-solo it?
Mostly just how insecure it is. It's just so tenuous. I can probably think of a half-dozen places where that's kind of sketchy.
I've thought about it before pitch-by-pitch, all the way up Freerider, and literally the second pitch is kind of tenuous, kind of sketchy. I do it differently every time, and it always feels real insecure. And there are two other slab pitches just on the Free Blast, the first ten pitches. So there are three pitches out of the first twelve that are just kind of sketchy slabs. But all of them would be something you could get amped-up on, they're not really hard. There's just a lot where you'd have to really want it. I don't know, I'm just not fired-up enough yet.
And logistically, if you were going to do it it'd probably take at least four hours. So you'd need some food and water. And it's no small feat to focus hard on something for that long.
You recently did a solo link-up of Half Dome and The Nose. How far in advance did you know you were going to do that? It almost seems like it was spur-of-the-moment.
Yeah, it was pretty spur-of-the-moment, maybe five days before. I can remember specifically when I thought of it too. I was hiking out to go shoot something with this friend of mine, who was shooting a shoe advertisement. We were just going to go solo this really easy route. We were talking about how cool it would be to solo The Nose, and I was like, man, I'm kind of in perfect shape for it. I have it all memorized and dialed down. And then I did it the next week.
After your solo link-up earlier this summer, you wrote about a memorable moment you had on The Nose. Over 2,000 feet off the deck, you unroped and started free-soloing the route's 24th pitch, the Pancake Flake. Tell us a little about what it was like, and why it was so special for you.
I think part of what made it so rad what that I had rope-soloed the pitch below it, the Great Roof, one of the hardest pitches on the route. I had done it in a totally conventional way, where I had belayed myself and aided it. I had climbed down the pitch to clean it and then had to jug back up. This long, laborious process.
After I did that I was like, f#$k this, I'm getting tired. I'm not doing any more of this rope-soloing. So I just put the rope away, stuffed it in the backpack. I was just hanging at the anchor off of these two daisy chains. And the pitch above was like 10a liebacking, after 11c and stuff. I just unclipped my daisies and I was like, guess I'm climbing, and started liebacking.
And it feels heroic, dude, because you're really exposed. It's like, man, this is a crazy position. It's just a cool place.
I remember you once making some comment about Yosemite being your favorite place to climb. Are you feeling more burnt-out on it after this summer?
No, right now I'm actually kinda psyched to go back. But that's how it always works out. I'm always burnt out when I leave, especially because by the time you leave the seasons have always changed. You go there once or twice a year, you climb a bunch, you get super-psyched, and then by the end of the season you're ready to leave. But then you're always psyched to come back.
You seem like a climber who doesn't spend a lot of time projecting one single route. Could you ever see yourself doing something like what Tommy Caldwell's done with Mescalito?
I don't know, maybe someday. I was actually just talking to Tommy about this a month ago. He's pretty good friends with Chris Sharma, and he said that when the two of them were younger, they were never into projecting. They'd just do something and move along. And as both of them have gotten older, they've started putting more and more effort into crazy projects. I think Tommy's thing is just that kind of natural progression. Like, in order to do things that are harder and harder, you've got to be willing to put more and more work into it.
I'm sure I'll get to that point too. I can't imagine ever working as hard as Tommy, but maybe some day I'll get bored of just going climbing and want to do something more meaningful. I mean, nothing's more meaningful than busting your balls for four years like he's done.
What about something like alpine or Himalayan climbing? Is that anything you've ever been interested in?
A little bit, I could see getting into the big mountain faces and stuff like that. Especially soloing The Nose and that stuff this season, it opened my eyes to soloing big faces and how fun it is. Like, free-soloing is pretty cool, but it's not super-fun, because it's kind of serious. But when you're aid soloing, which is just a rope and doing whatever you want, it's almost as fast and almost as fun, but with none of the seriousness. You've got all this gear with you, you're not afraid you're going to fall off or anything. It's pretty mellow. I could see taking that stuff to Patagonia or somewhere someday, if I actually knew how to ice climb, and doing real faces.
Photo Credit: Tom Evans