The world's premier free solo climber lives in a van and thinks life insurance is a scam
On the fifth floor of an old factory building on the west side of Manhattan, Alex Honnold, mid-conversation, swivels his chair toward the window. “I keep looking at this one across from us,” he says, pointing to one of the boxy, ex-industrial buildings that hints at the neighborhood’s former life. “It looks very easy to climb. Big windowsills, big edges and frames. I’m pretty sure it’d be pretty easy.”
As the world’s premier free soloist, he would know. Honnold has devoted his life to climbing big walls, and occasionally, big buildings, all without the usual rig of a harness and rope.
Last June, he free soloed the 3,000-foot Freerider route on El Capitan in Yosemite, an all-time feat of human performance at a height over double the Empire State Building. “People who know a little bit about climbing are like, ‘Oh, he’s totally safe,’” says Tommy Caldwell, Honnold’s training partner and fellow El Cap legend. “And then people who really know exactly what he’s doing are freaked out.”
Earlier this week, Honnold, his girlfriend—life coach Sanni McCandless—and the husband-and-wife directing team of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi celebrated the New York premiere of Free Solo, their documentary film of Honnold’s two-year push to send the complex crack systems of El Cap’s southwest face.
The climbing shots on the world’s most spectacular big wall are magnificent, of course; Chin, a blue-chip alpinist himself, knows how to express the physical beauty of climbing. But Free Solo, which opens in theaters nation-wide September 28th, excels as a psychological portrait of a world-class athlete with few peers and even a similarly small number of people who “get” him and what he’s driven to do.
"You just hope you get to the top before you're like, 'Holy fuck, what am I doing up here?'"
At 33, Honnold has already shattered the expectations of his sport, with at least a decade of peak climbing left in his forearms. But, in free solo, a sport in which most of its greatest athletes have died on the wall, the next big step might just be staying alive.
How has your thinking about free solo changed as you’ve progressed as a climber?
When I first started free soloing, I took it more as, 'Oh, I'll get psyched up and do a solo.’ '90s-style, Dan Osman, Masters of Stone stuff. I definitely grew up on that Masters of Stone mentality where it's like, 'Get psyched! Do the thing! Here we go!' Some of my first free solos were definitely more like, 'Rage it!' before you get scared. You just hope you get to the top before you're like, 'Holy fuck, what am I doing up here?'
Now I definitely take a much more slow and methodical approach. I often give the same answer to questions about overcoming fear and managing fear. I say that my original approach to free soloing had more to do with overcoming fear. Now I sort of look at it differently, basically growing your comfort zone until whatever you're trying to do is within your comfort zone. That's the process I went through for El Cap, because no amount of mental armor would last up that 3,000 foot wall. It's just too big.
Climber Jeff Lowe, who recently died from a neurodegenerative disease, said "I always thought if I died in the mountains it'd put an asterisk on my climbs.'" How do you feel about that?
I totally agree. I've always felt the same way. It's not a successful ascent unless you make it back down. I think that's true in the long term as well. Not to discredit people who die in the mountains, sometimes there's just freak accidents in the mountains and that's just part of it.
Certainly if you can play the whole game and come out the other side of it successfully, that's better than--you know. If you die in the mountains, it opens the question--oh were you making bad decisions and had you gotten away with it up to there?
"It's not a successful ascent unless you make it back down."
Do you think you could have a fulfilling relationship with climbing without free solo?
For sure. If I never free soloed again, I'm sure I could still be a pretty happy climber. I might feel like I was missing a little something, because I do love soloing, but if I could only choose one style of climbing for the rest of my life and I had to choose, it would almost for sure be sport climbing.
In the film, when you talk about death or injury, you describe your body as like a possession or something. Do you feel that disassociation going on in your head?
I don't know. In some ways, I do think of my conscious self as other than my body. If something befalls my body, I'm like, 'Well that's not me, per se.' Like if I was paralyzed in an accident or something, I would still be me and I would still live my life in the best way that I could, I just wouldn't be using my legs anymore. It's interesting because I'm very unspiritual and unreligious, and I definitely don't believe in a soul and things like that, but there is some gap between mind and body.
You’ve been working with Jimmy Chin for over ten years. In the film, he haggles with you about filming access. How did the actual documentation aspect impact the climb?
Not that much. We negotiated a little early on in the process, but ultimately, on the final climb, they just shot and I felt very comfortable with it all. Especially because they added remote cameras. They made it feel a lot less intrusive, less impactful, because there's not like a dude hanging out in front of me. [Less] impactful for their lives, too. Even if I [finish the climb safely], with two hours hanging there waiting in position, they'd be nervous the whole time. I just don't want any of my friends to go through that.
"I don't have life insurance... what am I gonna do, leave it to my van?"
Did the stress of other people feed into your own in the lead up?
It's like a mirror. If everyone around you is super stressed, it's gonna make you more stressed. Or if everyone was tense, it made me feel like, 'Should I be tense?' It was important for the film crew to stay pretty neutral. They did a good job of being neutral observers.
Your relationship in the film with free soloist Peter Croft seemed vital, just to bounce ideas off someone who’s in the know.
Peter Croft is the man. He's been a hero of mine since I was a little kid. I had grown up looking at the things he had soloed in Yosemite. Some of the things he did were the first difficult solos that I repeated in Yosemite—what got me on the map. I've always looked up to Peter.
There's not that many soloists in the world, and there's even fewer who I've shared experiences with, and so to be in Yosemite with Peter talking about soloing Yosemite is something basically nobody else in the world can talk about. It's pretty cool to share that with somebody, especially someone who's been your hero for so long.
It's just nice. Almost everybody talks about soloing and is like, ‘What do you think when you're up there? Are you afraid you're gonna die?’ And Peter can be like, ‘Isn't it awesome?’ And I'm like, ‘It is awesome!’ There's so few people who can really empathize and share.
You once free soloed a building in San Francisco for health insurance. But what about life insurance?
I don't have life insurance. Insurance in general is a bit of a scam. It's designed to be a bit of a scam. It's like, they're making money off it so obviously everybody paying money in—it's not as if you personally profit off insurance, otherwise the company wouldn't be making any money. So it's kind of like gambling, where the odds are on the house. I don't totally get the point. And I don't have a family--if I had little kids I had to provide for, then oh maybe. But right now, I don't have life insurance because what am I gonna do, leave it to my van?
see Free Solo at select theatres across the USA now
images courtesy National Geographic