Alex Honnold Free-Solos Yosemite’s El Capitan

Credit: Tom Evans

Alex Honnold has done it again. On Saturday, June 3, Honnold became the first climber to ever free-solo Yosemite's El Capitan — meaning he ascended the wall using no ropes, harnesses, or gear whatsoever, except for a bag of chalk and his shoes. He completed the climb in just under four hours. 

Honnold started up Freerider (5.13a), a winding, 3,300-foot-long route, at 5:32 a.m. PDT after spending the night in his van and eating a light breakfast of “oats, flax, chia seeds, and blueberries,” according to National Geographic. At 9:28 a.m., he pulled himself over the lip of El Cap. A film crew led by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi recorded the ascent for an upcoming documentary.

El Capitan is an iconic climbing destination, widely considered the finest big-wall on earth. Over the years, Honnold had spoken about attempting a free-solo of El Cap, but even he considered the feat next-level. His ascent will no doubt be ranked as one of the greatest rock climbing achievements of all time.

Honnold began training for the free-solo more than a year ago, climbing at various spots in Morocco, China, Europe, and the United States. In the early fall of 2016, he severely sprained his right ankle while climbing the first 10 pitches — rope-lengths — of Freerider with a partner. Honnold attempted to free-solo the full route that November but quit less than an hour after starting because he felt the weather conditions were not quite right.

Honnold, nicknamed "No Big Deal" for his humility, is the world’s best big-wall free-soloist. He earned legendary status among climbers after free-soloing Zion National Park's Moonlight Buttress (5.12d) in the spring of 2008, and the Regular Northwest Face (5.12a/b) of Half Dome that fall.

Since then, he has completed hundreds of challenging routes without using a rope, including Heaven (5.12d), the University Wall (5.12a), Romantic Warrior (5.12b), El Sendero Luminoso (5.12d), Original Route (5.12b), Cosmic Debris (5.13b), and the Phoenix (5.13a). Many of the climbs he's free-soloed would qualify, for a pair of experienced climbers using ropes and protection, as bucket-list-worthy achievements.

“In my opinion, this wasn’t just one of the greatest climbs ever, it was one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time,” said Brad Gobright, one of the best free-soloists and big-wall climbers in the United States. “Fifty years from now, it will still be considered next-level. This is like when Edmund Hillary became the first person to summit Everest.”

A few decades ago, even elite climbers dismissed free-climbing El Capitan as impossible. Free-climbing means scaling a route with a rope and other protective gear, but using only one's hands, feet, and body to make upward progress. Todd Skinner and Paul Piana broke that barrier in 1988 with their nine-day ascent of the Salathe Wall (5.13b). German brothers Thomas and Alex Huber established Freerider 10 years later. Only two climbers are confirmed to have seriously considered a free-solo attempt of El Capitan — Michael Reardon, who died in 2007, and Dean Potter, who died in 2015.

Freerider starts at the foot of El Capitan and weaves up the southwest face, following a system of cracks to the summit more than a half-mile above the valley floor. If New York City’s Chrysler Building and Empire State Building were stacked vertically and placed next to El Cap, Freerider would soar above them for another 500 feet. Pairs of talented climbers typically finish the route in four days, if they're not defeated by rainstorms or fatigue.

As Honnold moved up the wall, he pulled on handholds the width of a pencil, wriggled through narrow chimneys, and smeared the soles of his shoes against spots of polished granite, staying calm with thousands of feet of air beneath his toes.

To help Chin document Honnold’s ascent, Cheyne Lempe rappelled off the top of El Cap and placed two remote cameras 700 feet below the rim at the most difficult section of the climb, then ascended four hundred feet higher and filmed Honnold’s progress from his perch.

“I’ve spent a lot of time shooting on the wall, and nothing comes close to what I experienced this morning,” said Lempe, a professional climber and photographer. “It was terrifying, and one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if I have words for it.”

Only 300 feet beneath the finish, Honnold paused on a small ledge near Lempe and chatted with his friend. “He said he was stoked that I was there, and that it was the best day of climbing ever,” said Lempe. The pair high-fived and Honnold tightened his shoes. A short while later, Honnold raced up the final pitch and stood atop El Capitan.

Tommy Caldwell, who is widely considered the top big-wall climber in the world, sees the ascent as a milestone that only Honnold could achieve. “Alex is the only person who has the mental toughness to free-solo that route,” said Caldwell. “He’s got an amazing combination of strength, dedication, vision, and composure. What he did today is just unfathomable.”