Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell climb Passage to Freedom in Yosemite.
© Austin Siadak
Climbing

Alex Honnold on the life lessons that followed Free Solo

Since the release of the Oscar-winning film, he’s made first ascents in Antarctica, set the Nose speed record with Tommy Caldwell and helped his foundation grow.
Written by Chris Van Leuven
7 min readPublished on
For Alex Honnold there are three chapters in his life that revolve around Free Solo, his ropeless ascent of El Capitan: the route, the film and the tour.
Firstly, there were the eight years he worked toward his goal of doing 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 the day of the actual climb.
Alex Honnold and Jimmy Chin pictured together in Austin, Texas, USA on 11 March, 2018.
Honnold and Chin hang out at the Dawn Wall premiere at the SXSW Festival
Finally came the movie tour where Alex 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 followed a strict training regime so he could still climb hard.
Climber Alex Honnold pictured in a van that he uses when he is travelling.
Alex Honnold keeps his fingers strong by hanging on them, here in his van
Additionally, as Free Solo captivated audiences around the world, a company set up to promote his humanitarian projects grew to a robust non-profit organisation. This year the Honnold Foundation, which supports solar energy initiatives, received US$1m in donations.
Alex stays focused: He sets his goals, sees them through, then stacks more goals on top of those. Here’s how he makes it work through the lessons he's learned since Free Solo.

1. Set a routine and be consistent

As a teenager in Sacramento, California, Alex 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 I was building a certain base for endurance; for nothing else, psychologically, spending your high school years biking 70 miles [110km] a week – that’s a fair amount of mileage for a kid. That also built a sense of independence.”
During his rides, which often left Alex in the dark (he’d forget a light), making him have 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 kinda scary.”
Alex Honnold in action while climbing in Yosomite National Park
Despite being ‘on the road’ Honnold trains hard where he can
Last autumn Alex’s ability to follow a consistent training schedule paid off again. For one full year he followed the Lattice Training plan, which kept him on a fitness path while travelling for film events.
“I don’t think I could have stayed and on track without [it],” he says. Alex credits his adhering to the plan to the send of his first 5.14d climb, the Arrested Development route on Mount Charleston in Nevada, in September of 2019.

2. When things go wrong, remain calm

In Dierdre Wolownick Honnold’s (Alex’s mother) memoir The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story, she wrote about the time Alex was blown off a mountain in 2004 and got rescued. It was the day after Christmas and he was snowshoeing alone to the summit of Mount Tallac, a nearly 10,000-foot [3,000m] peak, 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 says.
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.”
Alex Honnold as seen during his climb of the Passage to Freedom route in Yosemite National Park.
Experience has taught Honnold when it's time to back off
Though his mother sees the rescue as warranted, Alex doesn’t share her point of view. “That didn’t change me. It wasn’t a traumatic experience. If I hadn’t had a cellphone, I would’ve walked out. The takeaway was that I should remain calm.”
In 2017 Alex travelled to Queen Maud Land in Antarctica, where under -30° temperatures he and Cedar Wright made three significant first ascents. On the final, 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 Alex regained his composure, the two completed their first ascent, a 1,200ft [365m] climb up Mount Fenris.

3. 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 a morning, ascending the 3,000ft [910m] rock with Dierdre, age 66, required him to slow down.
Before their ascent of The Captain, the two climbed long Yosemite routes, including the Matthes Crest Traverse (which Alex once climbed with Jared Leto) and the Royal Arches route. “It became a nice time to spend time together,” he says.
When Alex and his mother climbed El Capitan on Halloween 2017, the hardest part of the day was, “being patient. Just waiting,” he says. Their ascent took 13 hours up and six hours down. The descent usually takes Alex an hour, but as the minutes passed and it became the middle of the night, he stayed patiently by her side.
Dierdre’s ascent earned her a place in the record books, where she holds the title of being the oldest woman to climb El Capitan.
Alex Honnold stand in front of El Capitan in Yosemite.
Honnold pictured with El Capitan in the background

4. Mitigating risks

On the opposite end of the time spectrum, on June 16, 2018, and as seen in Reel Rock 14, Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell set the Nose speed record at 1 hour and 58 mins – a sub-two hour climb of the Nose was once considered impossible.
“With Tommy, each time we tried we shaved a little bit of time.” With each lap the team made micro-adjustments to increase efficiency. And since doing the climb at record pace meant pulling out all the stops, they only exposed themselves to extreme risk on the days it really counted.
Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold as seen during their traverse on Fitz Roy, Patagonia, Argentina in February 2014.
Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold
On the day they set the record time Tommy dropped a crucial piece of equipment, a handled jumar used to ascend the rope – they work in pairs. To compensate, Tommy 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.
Alex and Tommy have worked together on climbing projects several times. In 2014, over five days, they climbed the immense 5,000m Fitz Roy Traverse, one most iconic undone objectives in the 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+).

5. Have impactful projects

Alex has grown an impressive social media following – nearly two million fans – where he’s brought attention to his non-profit, The Honnold Foundation. For five years he poured a large percentage of his own money into the organisation, but the success of Free Solo and his growing fame have helped him turn his foundation into a huge success.
“This is the best and most successful thing since Free Solo. Fundraising is going great and we’re having more of an impact on the world. This year we raised one million US dollars.”
Alex Honnold speaks about his Free Solo climb and film at a Ted Conference event organised by Ted Conferences LLC.
Free Solo has allowed Honnold a platform to voice eco and ethical concerns
Except for a few campaigns by his sponsors The North Face, Black Diamond and Maxim Ropes, Alex says money has come in from “mainly individuals, a lot of normal folks".
"We just held our first open call for grant applications to the public. That’s largely because we raised so much money last year. It’s incredible.”