Published in RootsRated.
If you have ever rock climbed—and even if you haven’t—chances are you’ve heard of Alex Honnold. Sprung into global fame by his free solo (rope-less) ascents of epically difficult routes like the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome and El Sendero Luminoso in Mexico, Honnold, 30, has climbed all over the world, from crumbly desert towers, to big granite walls, to big mountains.
In his new book, Alone on the Wall, co-written with author and climber David Roberts, Honnold recounts the stories behind his big feats—which, he hopes, will show the world that despite his radical audacity and superhuman athleticism he is, in fact, a real person.
Now at the start of his rapid-speed cross-country book tour, which is coming to Seattle onNovember 19 and December 3, RootsRated got the chance to talk with Honnold about writing Alone on the Wall, his biggest climbs, and whether he ever still gets scared while climbing. Here’s what he had to say.
So what was the idea behind writing Alone on the Wall?
Just put out a fun, easy memoir. I’ve read tons of books like this over the years and I’ve always enjoyed reading other people’s experiences and being inspired by them. You know, using them to push my own climbing a bit. So it’s nice to sort of hopefully contribute to that.
Any particular favorite climbing memoirs?
As a kid I read that kind of stuff all the time. Like Lynn Hill’s book Climbing Free. This summer I just read [Jerry Moffat’s] book Revelations. It’s a classic climbing memoir, just like the full chronology of his climbing career. And it was awesome—I was like, “This is so fun.” Hopefully mine’s kind of the same thing, where it just takes people on a journey and shows people what I did to get to where I am.
In your book, each chapter more or less devoted to one of your significant climbs, from soloing Moonlight Buttress to the Fitz Traverse. Was it hard to decide what to include?
I think the ones we chose were the natural choices—and in each chapter we cover tons of the other slightly lesser known things I’ve done as well. The “Fear and Loving” chapter, about climbing in Vegas—that climbing isn’t as significant as some others that I’d done, but it was a good way to look deeper into my personal life.
Yeah, that chapter does dig into your personal life a bit, with your relationship with your then-girlfriend Stacey. And there are sections throughout the book that go into more personal relationships, with climbing partners and such. Does it feel weird to put that out there?
I don’t know … in general, I just kind of favor openness and appreciate that in others. It’s not like I have any deep, dark secrets that I have to hide. And in some ways all of that stuff is out there in various places anyway—when you look at how much personal stuff is scattered throughout films and interviews, to me it doesn’t really feel that much different to pull it all together into one place. Except that this way I get to curate it a little bit better, and make sure it’s actually the way I want to tell it. Or, I like to say, slightly more factual. When you do interviews or profiles in magazines, everyone always takes their little slant on it. So it’s like nice just to [say], “Here is my story the way I feel that it happened.”
And, I imagine, to look at your climbing the way you see it.
That’s one of my goals for the book. Everyone’s like, “Oh, you must be crazy, it’s all so insane.” I’ve always felt that if someone understood the full context of my climbing, if they saw where I’ve come from and how much I’ve done along the way and saw how it all fits in my life—I mean, to me it doesn’t seem crazy at all. Hopefully through the book other people can appreciate that as well.
Though, I have to say, that gets at one of the things that sort of surprised me, in the sections about soloing Half Dome and the Rainbow Wall. I guess I had assumed you put in a lot of time rehearsing for free solos, when in the book it sounds like you actually kind of just went for those ones. Has how you approach free solos changed since then?
Um … it seems to have. I mean it wasn’t like at the time I made a resolution like, “I’m changing my ways.” But if you just look at the approach I’ve taken since then, I do seem to put in a lot more preparation now. I mean, I still have done some hard onsight soloing, but I guess in general I favor more preparation now.
But, I mean, with something like the Rainbow Wall, the beauty of it in a way was the impulsiveness of it. What made it a really adventure was the fact that I just was like “alright, I’m doing this,” and then I went up and did it.
I was also surprised to learn that, at the time, you weren’t totally psyched about your now iconic Half Dome solo, because of your “very private hell” when you hesitated on a move toward the top of the route. Your climbing journal entry for that day ended with a sad-face emoticon and a “do better?” note. Would you still put that sad-face there?
No, I probably wouldn’t. But, you know, it wasn’t perfect. [And the climb] didn’t seem that monumental to me at the time. It was just sort of like the next thing to do. And I didn’t climb nearly as well as I wanted—I was sort of embarrassed that I’d like gotten in over my head like that, and got all scared. So it just like wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for.
Do you still have those moments of getting scared, and are you still so hard on yourself about them?
Probably yes to both, but maybe slightly less often. I feel like all climbers experience that to some extent.
I mean, I get that feeling all the time … but mere mortals (like me) are climbing much easier routes (and placing way more protection) than you.
Yeah, I even get that [feeling sometimes] on easy trad routes. If I haven’t been trad climbing in awhile and haven’t been placing gear and then I’m climbing some like 5.12 thin crack and I’m all like ripped and I’m like “Oh, I don’t remember how to place nuts, what the heck.” And then you just get kind of annoyed with yourself, like why are you climbing so poorly. I mean, it happens, it’s all part of the natural process.
And that’s why I wanted to publish the book in a lot of ways, to show those moments. Because everybody just sees the footage and it’s like “oh, you must be like some mutant breed.” And it’s like “well, not really.” It’s just that I had these scary moments so many times that I’ve gotten used to it to some extent. Hopefully something people can take out of the book is that all of this stuff is learnable.
From the first chapter to the end, what do you see as the biggest things you see as how you’ve grown as a climber?
I thought the book was structured in a nice way, where the complexity of the climbs kind of build, ending with the Fitz Traverse—because that’s probably the most significant climb of my life so far. It pulled together all the things I’ve learned climbing over the years, put together in this one epic climb with Tommy [Caldwell]. And I think that works really well for the book, too, because freesoloing is really simple and it’s easy to start by describing that stuff, and then it gets more and more complex, with big wall speed climbing and then speed climbing in the mountains.
Last but not least, favorite places to climb in the Pacific Northwest?
I would say Squamish is like mecca. It fills the same role as Yosemite—just like epic granite walls and stuff. I went to Index years ago, but I haven’t been as an adult really. When I went there like climbing 11+ on gear was very exciting for me, so I thought it was like pretty extreme. That place is pretty hardcore. Really good rock.
This interview has been edited and condensed.