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Q&A: Alex Honnold On Climbing El Capitan Without Ropes, Fear And His Book "Alone On The Wall"


Alex Honnoldis a real life Spiderman. He’s climbed heights like El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. But what sets him apart from other climbers is that he leaves ropes and carabiners behind. In this interview FM89’s Ezra David Romero speaks with Honnold about his new book Alone on the Walldetailing 20 years of climbing history.  

Q: First off, Explain the type of climbing you practice? I understand there are no ropes or climbing hardware to keep you safe.

A: “That’s called free soloing and that is part of what I do, but I mean I’ve been climbing for 20 years and I practice all sorts of climbing. That’s why I wrote the book to sort of show the different types of climbing that do.”

Q: This is high stakes climbing. How do you grapple with the worst case scenario – death?

A: “Obviously, I try to minimize falling or dying through preparation and training. There’s no pressure for me to go soloing so if I’m not feeling totally up for it then I just put it of for later.”

Q: Tell me about your book Alone on the Wall. It’s split into seven of your most memorable climbs. What are they?

A: “They’re all just significant events for me. Starting with some of the early free solos that I did and sort of building in complexity as I started big wall soloing using some ropes and hardware, but mostly climbing by myself.”

Q: Was Half Dome In Yosemite one of those?

A: “Moonlight Buttress was like the big solo that I did and Half Dome was the second. Both of those represented big steps forward for  me because they’d never been done before.

Q:  How does David Roberts, who coauthors the book with you, contribute to each chapter? What does he bring to your story?

A: “David felt that he needed his voice involved to add perspective to what I’ve climbed. Because he felt if it was all in my voice it would be too understated.”

Q: I’ve done a little climbing myself, but fear keeps me from doing any taking any daunting routes. How do you manage that fear?

A: “It’s not like I have to overcome fear in the sense of like suppressing it. If I feel a lot of fear then I can just put something off until I’m better trained. The important thing for me is to differentiate between an appropriate fear – like a fear that I’m in danger – and an irrational fear in my mind. If I’m feeling fear because I’m actually in danger or because there’s a chance that I may fall or chance that I might die then that’s a very helpful warning and I should heed that.”

Q: I understand you have a certain love affair with the Sierra Nevada. Tell me about that and the climbs you’ve taken there and your history with it.

A: “I grew up in Sacramento and I spent my childhood hiking and camping in the Sierra. The smell of the pine forest there still feels very much like home. Yosemite is in the Sierra Nevada and that’s where I’ve done the majority of my climbing. I think El Capitan is probably the most impressive piece of rock in the world.”

Q: And then there’s El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, 3,000 feet of granite wall making it the largest monolith in the world. That climb must of have been daunting.

A: “The first time I climbed El Capitan it must have been 2006 and I was still learning how to climb big walls. My partner and I spent 22 hours on the wall and got totally worked. It was a big learning experience and an adventure. One of the chapters is describing doing the speed record on El Capitan. We climbed the nose in two and half hours. I’ve probably climbed El Capitan 40 times. “

Q: In chapter two you talk about climbing Half Dome, but not like the thousands who visit Yosemite National Parke and climb the back side of it. What was that like?

A: “It was my second groundbreaking free solo, but I had already climbed the face of Half Dome with ropes a couple of times. I got a little afraid and it turned out to be a little more than I bargained for, but that’s the nature of adventure is getting in a little over your head and dealing with it.” 

Q: You leave a note in Alone on the Wall about Dean Potter, the base jumper who died at Taft Point in Yosemite earlier this year. How did his death affect you?

A: “It definitely made me think for a couple of days. Dean was a bit of a friend. There are a lot of references of Dean throughout [the book] since he was a big inspiration for me as a kid. He’s a big influence in why I climb the way I climb. Ultimately he knew what he was getting into and I know what I’m getting into. Though honestly a long time ago I decided I would never wing suit or base jump because I think it’s entirely too dangerous. The fact that he died in a wing suit accident is that shocking, in a way.”

Q: Is there a place you go when you go to inside of you when you’re free soloing that’s different then when you’re out with ropes and bolts on a rock?

A: “It’s definitely more of something. I guess it takes me to a different place. It just requires a higher level of focus.

Q: Why turn to the pages instead of just climbing, climbing, climbing?

A: “Honestly, I’ve done so many films and articles that I feel there are a lot of pieces of me scattered across the internet and publications. It was pretty exciting to put it all in one place and sort of tell the story I want to. Because everyone gets the impression that all I do is free solo and so by writing the book I was hoping to put that all into a better context and show that I have done climbing for 20 years and have done all sorts of rock climbing.”

Q: Lots of climbers listen to Valley Public Radio because of how close we are to the Sierra Nevada. What sort of advice would you like to leave with them?

A: “My go to advice for any climber is to work on their footwork and to work on their technique, body positon and those sorts of things. In a general sense if you’re trying to improve you just have to constantly push outside of your comfort zone. For me it’s all been baby steps out of my comfort zone, like doing something a little bit harder then what I did before. But like slowly and systematically broadening your comfort zones until you feel pretty comfortable with any type of climbing.”

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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