How free solo climber Alex Honnold conquered El Capitan
© National Geographic/Jimmy Chin
The star of the Oscar-winning Free Solo film reveals what it takes to perform bouldering moves 900m in the air.
El Capitan is the legendary granite monolith that towers 3,000ft [900m] from its base to its summit overlooking Yosemite National Park. Last year, Alex Honnold chalked up his hands and set off up its vertical face in a bid to realise his dream, and be the first human to reach the top without using any ropes or safety equipment. All that separated him from a lonely death was his climbing skill and his ability to keep calm in situations that would leave most of us gibbering wrecks.
He followed a route called Freerider, first climbed 20 years earlier by brothers Alex and Thomas Huber. In the eyes of the climbing community, climbing it without ropes was impossible, an instant death sentence. Not that it deterred Honnold, with his spooky level of self-confidence and famously calm demeanour when free soloing hard routes.
It’s not like he could play it safe, either – the climbing on Freerider is so hard that some of it requires very committing, dynamic moves, such as the ‘karate kick’ boulder problem. If the high kick across the void misses, or your foot slips as it lands, then you’re falling through space…
As he tells us, free soloing for Honnold is an expression of mastery, both of climbing and himself. Given his skill and sheer audacity, you might be forgiven for thinking that Honnold is a climbing automaton, without fear or nerves. But as he admitted to us, he gets scared on climbs. We’d never recommend free soloing to anyone (you’ll die), but there are valuable psychological lessons to be learned from how Honnold calmed his mind to focus on his ultimate dream, without paying the final price.
We spoke to him to find out what they are…
1. Paying attention
Preparing for a free solo the Honnold way involves climbing the route with ropes first to really dial in the moves. So how does he flip his mindset from "roped" to "no ropes"? As he points out, some roped climbs on loose rock with bad protection can feel horrific. "My free soloing mindset is much more focused and serious, though it’s a little more complicated than that; there are times when free soloing can feel quite easy and relaxing, for example on easy terrain with big holds on a low angle wall.
"My mindset and level of focus is normally determined by what the terrain requires – the more serious the situation the more focused I am. Generally, free soloing is quite serious, so I pay a lot of attention!" he adds.
2. Allowing for the flow
While Honnold trains his body extensively for his hard free solos, he also prepares his mind at the same time. "I spend a lot of time preparing physically and mentally for the climb itself – I train for and visualise the moves extensively," he says. Come the attempt, he is able to free his mind to climb what’s in front of it, rather than second guessing himself.
"On the actual day of the climb I don’t do anything in particular to get into the soloing mindset. It just happens. I typically start the climb and then the nature of what I’m doing forces me in to the right mindset."
3. He knows when to back off
As shown in the film Free Solo, Honnold made an attempt to climb Freerider in 2017 but backed off around 275m [900ft] up on the Freeblast slabs, on a very tenuous foothold, which you have to commit all of your weight onto.
"It was pretty cold and I didn’t trust my feet because I couldn’t feel my toes well. I got up to a certain position, got scared, and started cheating, by pulling on the protection bolts with my fingers. Part of that was because my foot was still swollen from an ankle injury and conditions weren’t quite perfect. But basically I just wasn’t ready yet." Despite being high above the ground, without a rope, he was still aware of his limitations.
4. Picking the battles
Honnold’s free soloing comes with high consequence and he's had some close calls. "I’ve had many near misses over the years ranging from broken handholds or footholds to slight slips. It’s hard to know how close any of them were, exactly, because they were over before I really registered what happened. I guess I’ve been lucky," he says.
Luck comes into many challenges, but you can stack the odds in your favour and it’s no coincidence that most of Honnold’s free solos are on very hard, stable rock like granite. "I’ve tried to be careful to climb on good rock."
5. He actually enjoys it
Something that gets overlooked is how enjoyable Honnold finds his free solos – it’s not all about overcoming fear and obstacles. In fact, he says climbing without a rope, equipment, or a partner can feel liberating as well as exhilarating.
Honnold’s reply to the question 'what does it take' is simple: "Maybe the most important thing is a true desire to free solo – the physical and mental aspects can be trained to some extent, but if there isn’t an inherent motivation then no one will ever free solo." Put another way, whatever you do in life, make sure it’s what you really want. When we ask Honnold how it felt to achieve his dream and top out on Freerider he doesn’t hesitate: "Amazing! It was the most satisfying moment I’ve had in climbing. It was incredible."
I’ve had many near misses over the years ranging from broken handholds or footholds to slight slips. I've been lucky.
6. Aligning ability with confidence
We all know when we’ve bitten off more than we can chew – overconfidence in life can lead to embarrassment, but for a free soloist it’s deadly. Meanwhile, under-confidence can lead to unconsciously sabotaging your efforts (climbers overgripping, for instance, tiring themselves out prematurely).
"The best strategy is a deep and well-founded confidence that you can indeed do the thing that you’re trying to do," says Honnold. "It’s not enough to think that you can, you have to absolutely know on a physical and rational level that the free solo that you’re attempting is well within your abilities."
7. Preparation defeats fear
A key feature of Honnold’s approach is how he meticulously prepares for his free solos, memorising every foothold and visualising every move. "I try to make sure that the uncertainty is actually quite low – that’s the point of all the training and preparation. So even though the climb might be very high stakes, it feels like a sure thing to me because I’m so well prepared for it. That certainly helps me maintain a sense of calm," he says.
8. But everyone gets scared
You can’t remove uncertainty from life, particularly in a life or death situation and, as it turns out, even Alex Honnold gets scared on his free solos: "I think the easiest way to face fear is to just not be afraid to begin with. But when I do get really scared I have to manage it the same way as anyone else – take a few deep breaths, try to relax, and carry on."
9. Pushing out of the comfort zone
For Honnold, free soloing started almost by accident – when he was younger he was painfully shy. For him, the idea of approaching a stranger to ask if he could climb with them was scarier than climbing alone, without a rope. As he gradually pushed further out of his comfort zone he was able to climb harder.
"I think that the one psychological approach that I’d like to pass on is for people to gradually but consistently expand their comfort zones, in climbing or in life. Or I suppose to sum that up more simply: do hard things," he says.
"I think that by consistently trying climbs that are a little bit different than what you’ve done before, whether that means taller, harder, in worse weather or on a different kind of rock, you will continue to learn and improve."
10. Mastering Yourself
Honnold’s dream of free soloing El Cap does hold a lesson on exercising your body and mind together. "I think that the process of self mastery can certainly apply to everyday life, and so much of climbing depends on regulating your own emotions, and getting your body and mind to work together in harmony. I think those are all lessons that can help in every aspect of life," he reveals. "Though I don’t think climbing is unique in that regard – I’m sure the same lessons could be learned through meditation, or perhaps even a sport like tennis!"