Climber Alex Honnold and filmmaker Peter Mortimer talk about their new collaboration and the pressures of fame
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It’s the rare rock climber who can show up Kobe Bryant. But that’s exactly what Alex Honnold did in late July, when Esquire ranked him twelfth on its list of the 50 greatest athletes today, one place ahead of the Lakers star. The nod was just the latest of many for the free-soloist and Baddest Man on Rock; over the past year, Honnold has gained the kind of mainstream popularity that most pro climbers can only dream about, giving an interview to 60 Minutes and appearing in publications ranging from The New York Times to People. Not bad for a 27-year-old who lives in an Econoline.
Part of the credit for Honnold’s growth in the public eye has to go to Peter Mortimer, the Emmy-nominated filmmaker whose production company, Sender Films, has documented some of Honnold’s most audacious solos over the past five years in movies like The Sharp End and Alone on the Wall. Mortimer and his partners’ latest outing, Honnold 3.0, follows the climber through a year on the rock as Honnold solos 5.13 cracks, puts up 40-foot-high “boulder problems,” and climbs Yosemite’s three biggest faces alone in a single day. We caught up with the filmmaker and his star to find out more about the movie, which is slated to premiere this month at the Reel Rock Film Tour in Boulder.
Pete, you’ve given your film about Alex the preliminary title Honnold 3.0. It’s true, you’ve filmed with Alex a lot over the years. Why do you keep coming back to him as a subject, and how is this film different from the ones you’ve done before?
Mortimer: The last time we did a big film with Honnold was Alone on the Wall, which was sort of the precursor to all this fame and celebrity, 60 Minutes and the cover of National Geographic and Japanese Playboy. So we kind of went into this film with the question, here’s this guy who is basically living in his world with his own wild, out-there vision of what he wanted to do, and then he got famous. How does that affect Alex? How does someone who’s so reclusive, so quiet, get when the whole world is watching him and wondering if he’s going to die? [Sender Films partner Nick Rosen] came up with the idea of Honnold 3.0, since the culmination of this film is the Triple in Yosemite.
Alex, how long did it take you to plan the Triple?
Honnold: It had been my brainchild for, like, six months. But the actual logistics—what order to do them in, who was going to be where with what food and water—only took a couple of hours to think through. It took a long time to get in shape for it, though.
It sounded like a lot of suffering.
Honnold: Only the second half was suffering. The beginning is amazing, you feel like a hero.
How did you stay focused for that length of time?
Honnold: Well, you don’t have to be completely focused the whole time. There’s tons of hiking time in between where you just kind of zone out. And even on half of the routes, you can kind of relax. When you’re just swimming up 5.9, 5.10 hand cracks, that’s when you turn yourself off. Then when you get to the hard parts, you really focus for a little bit.
What’s it like to be up on El Cap without a rope in the dark?
Honnold: About as badass as you’d think. Being up there by yourself during the day feels kind of hardcore, but in the dark it just feels even lonelier. You feel like you’re really all by yourself. Halfway up I ran into my friend who was filming and he stayed with me for the second half, so that kind of helped.
Pete, how long did it take you to figure out the logistics and prep to film the Triple?
Mortimer: It was amazingly simple. Alex had mentioned it probably last September, so we called a bunch of the Yosemite climbers who are shooting now. We just kind of had a production meeting the day before, and every cameraman nailed it. They’re really good at getting into position, and then it’s just a matter of being there, capturing what’s happening.
In the past, most of the solos Alex has done for your films have been reenactments. Was most of the film shot in the moment, or was it reenacted?
Honnold: It was all basically done in the moment. The close-ups were shot later, but all the actual climbs were shot for real. The thing with the Triple, though, is it’s not the same level of intensity as free-soloing those things would be, which made it a lot more conducive to a film project. Had I been trying to free-solo all three of those, I don’t think I would have wanted a whole bunch of people swinging around.
There’s another part of the movie I wanted to ask about. A while back, some footage of Alex working a huge boulder problem in Bishop called Too Big to Flail showed up online. Maybe you could give us some background on that project?
Honnold: It’s in the Buttermilks in Bishop. It’s just this big standalone boulder. I just went out and rappelled down it one day by myself. I was on it two other days with the rope, decided I would do it, and did it. It’s really technical V10 crimping, just less than vertical, with tiny little glassy holds. Physically, it’s not super hard. It’s just really, really tall.
How tall would you guess it is?
Honnold: Well, there’s a big hole at the bottom. We put probably 13 pads into this one hole to make it an even landing zone. That took probably 10 feet off the height. With the hole there, I think it’s 50 feet tall. Without the hole, it was probably 40. It was taller than some gyms.
Mortimer: It’s kind of like soloing a 5.13+. The tiniest holds. I mean, the footholds are dimples.
Honnold: The thing is, it’s not quite soloing, because if you fell off the hardest moves you’d be fine, because there are a bunch of pads there. But there’s a second crux, just past the point where it’s too high to fall off. So you might be OK, or you might break both your legs. It would be hard to know unless you did it.
Were you ever able to get it to a point where you felt totally solid, or did it feel sketchy when you did it?
Honnold: It felt pretty solid. I mean, the holds are kind of positive, so you can just claw your way up. It’s hard, but it’s reasonable.
Mortimer: It’s really not. I don’t think anyone will repeat it.
Honnold: I think people will repeat it. I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple undercover brother dudes just rap in, do all the moves, and do it. I could totally see some punk kid doing it with four pads.
Mortimer: I can’t see that. No way. Punk kids don’t do stuff that’s 35 feet off the deck.
Pete, you’ve said you wanted to answer a question with this film: how would fame and celebrity affect Alex as a free-soloist and as a climber? What have you learned on that topic?
Mortimer: I would say it definitely has affected him in the short term. I think at different stages where we’ve been filming, he’s been just in different headspaces. But I think in the long term, it doesn’t really affect him. In some ways it’s just noise and clutter and confusion that he has to figure out how to deal with. When we posted the foot slip, of course everyone was like “He’s going to die!” and “The cameramen are going to kill him, he’s doing it for the wrong reasons.” That’s going to throw you off for a little while. But he’s really centered. He’s got a strong compass for where he wants to go.
Honnold: All this has happened really fast, you know? I’ve had to adjust to all sorts of weird stuff really quick. But I don’t think it’s fundamentally changed anything. As I move forward, I think I’m getting better at dealing with everything
Mortimer: Hey, as soon as we hang up with you, we’re going to shoot a little skit for the PGA tour. Alex is the guest speaker at the PGA’s marketing conference.
Honnold: I’m just doing a Q&A. [Peter hands him a telescoping golf club]. Dude, I’ve never used a golf club! I didn’t know they had collapsible golf clubs.
I guess normal golfers weren’t exciting enough for them, huh?
Honnold: They just want somebody who’s, like, interesting.
Mortimer: He really has lost his way.