For Alex Honnold there were three chapters in his life that revolve around Free Solo, his ropeless ascent of El Capitan: the route, the film and the aftermath
Firstly, there were the eight years he worked toward his goal of scaling El Capitan's Freerider route without a rope. This was then followed by the bit where co-directors Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi filmed their Oscar-winning film as Alex learned the route and then the day of the actual climb.
Finally came the movie tour, where Honnold appeared in media outlets worldwide, often having as many as five interviews a day. As arguably the most famous climber in the world, he's since been invited to be a panellist at the Nobel Prize awards and made television appearances with Bear Grylls. During the tours publicising the film, he still followed a strict training regime so he could continue to climb hard.
Additionally, as Free Solo captivated audiences worldwide, a company set up to promote his humanitarian projects grew to a robust non-profit organisation, the Honnold Foundation, which supports initiatives to expand access to solar energy for marginalised communities worldwide.
Honnold, famously, stays focused: he sets his goals, sees them through and then stacks more goals on top of those. Here’s how he's made it all work through the lessons learned since Free Solo.
Set a routine and be consistent
As a teenager in Sacramento, California, Honnold would ride his bike to the climbing gym five days a week, train for hours and then ride home. "I was mostly going by myself, or my dad would go too," he says. "Looking back, I can see that I was building a certain base for endurance. For nothing else, psychologically, spending your high school years biking 110km a week is a fair amount of mileage for a kid. That also built a sense of independence."
During his rides, which often left Honnold alone in the dark (he'd forget a light), he had to feel his way home – "it would be pitch black; I was always sensing the path" – and face his fears. A stretch of the bike path along the American River had reports of mountain lion sightings. "I was worried I'd get attacked by a mountain lion," he says. "Biking by yourself is kind of scary.”
Honnold's ability to follow a consistent training schedule paid off when was constantly travelling for film events and interviews after Free Solo's release. For one full year, he followed the Lattice Training plan for climbers, which kept him on a solid fitness path. "I don't think I could have stayed and on track without it,” he says
Honnold credits his adhering to the Lattice Training plan to the success of his first 5.14d climb, the Arrested Development route on Mount Charleston in Nevada, in September 2019.
When things go wrong, remain calm
In Dierdre Wolownick Honnold’s (Honnold’s mother) memoir, The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story, she wrote about the time Honnold was blown off a mountain in 2004 and rescued. It was the day after Christmas, and he was snowshoeing alone to the summit of Mount Tallac, a nearly 3,000m peak in California's Lake Tahoe area, when strong winds blew him off a saddle, and he fell down the mountain. "I broke my wrist and punctured my face. I was really banged up," he recalls.
Concussed and bloodied, he rang his mother on his cellphone, and she called in a rescue. Soon a helicopter flew in and he was placed on a backboard and flown to an emergency room. He says of the ride out, "I was in a tight space; I didn’t really love that. I just remember wanting to take a little nap while they flew me to wherever."
Though his mother sees the rescue as warranted, Honnold doesn’t share her point of view. "That didn't change me. It wasn't a traumatic experience. If I hadn't had a cell phone, I would've walked out. The takeaway was that I should remain calm."
In 2017, Honnold travelled to Queen Maud Land in Antarctica, where under -30°C temperatures, he and Cedar Wright made three significant first ascents. On the final and hardest climb, he called out to Wright while looking at a 150ft [45m] fall, "I don't know, I'm really scared. Give me a minute." After he regained his composure, the two completed their first ascent of the 365m climb up Mount Fenris.
Patience is a virtue
Shortly after Alex made history by becoming the first person to free solo El Capitan, he climbed it again, this time with his partner Sam Crossley and his own mother, Dierdre – who jumared behind them -- in one long day. For Alex, someone who routinely runs up the formation in the morning, ascending the 3,000ft [910m] rock with Dierdre, age 66, required him to slow down.
Before their ascent of El Captain, the two climbed long Yosemite routes, including the Matthes Crest Traverse and the Royal Arches route. "It became a nice time to spend time together," Honnold said.
And when Honnold and his mother climbed El Capitan on Halloween 2017, the hardest part of the day was "being patient. Just waiting." Their ascent took 13 hours up and six hours down. The descent usually takes Honnold an hour, but as the minutes passed and night set in, he stayed patiently by her side so she could earn a place in the record books as the oldest woman to climb El Capitan.
On the opposite end of the time spectrum, in June 2018, Honnold and Tommy Caldwell set the speed record in Yosemite's Nose route at 1h 58m. A sub-two-hour climb of the Nose was once considered impossible.
The Nose speed record part 1
Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell introduce us to the speed record on The Nose route up El Capitan, California.
"With Tommy, each time we tried, we shaved a little bit of time," Honnold remembers. With each lap, the team made micro-adjustments to increase efficiency, and since doing the climb at a record pace meant pulling out all the stops, they only exposed themselves to extreme risk on the days it really counted.
The Nose speed record part 2
Alex Honnold knows the ropes and is pushing for perfection, but Tommy Caldwell is new to speed climbing.
On the day they set the record time Caldwell dropped a crucial piece of equipment, a handled jumar used to ascend the rope – they work in pairs. To compensate, he used his free hand to clamp onto the rope with a vice-like grip. He continued that way from the Great Roof, at two-thirds height, all the way to the summit.
The pair have worked together on several big climbing projects over the years. In 2014, over five days, they climbed the immense 5,000m Fitz Roy Traverse, one of the most iconic undone objectives in the Patagonian range. More recently, in October 2019, the two completed another big wall free climb on Yosemite’s El Capitan, called Passage to Freedom (5.13+).
The Nose speed record part 3
After weeks of practice and more than a few mishaps, Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell attempt the record.
Honnold has grown an impressive social media following – 2.6 million fans on Instagram– where he's brought attention to his non-profit, The Honnold Foundation. For five years since its founding in 2012, he poured a large percentage of his own money into the organisation, but the success of Free Solo and his growing fame has helped him turn his foundation into a huge success.
"This is the best and most successful thing since Free Solo," he says. "Fundraising is going great and we’re having more of an impact on the world."
Except for a few campaigns by his sponsors, Honnold says money has come in from "mainly individuals, a lot of normal folks."