Alex Honnold is the most famous rock climber in the world for one simple reason: he’s the guy who climbs without ropes. Known as free soloing, it’s a you-fall-you-die game, and nothing generates more YouTube clicks. But it’s misguided to reduce Honnold’s importance to free soloing’s voyeuristic appeal. As an athlete, he truly comes alive when unencumbered by gear — watching him climb is a bit like watching Hendrix play his Fender leftie, upside down. In his early twenties, Honnold (now 30) made ropeless ascents of all the Big Wall classics — Zion’s Moonlight Buttress, and The Nose, and Half Dome in Yosemite, easily breaking speed records as he went. He went on to become the first climber to free-solo Yosemite’s Triple Crown (Mt. Watkins, El Capitan, and Half Dome). Honnold is so strong and skillful on rock that when he claims in his memoir, Alone on the Wall, “there is no adrenaline rush,” you actually believe him.
• In June 2012 Honnold set the speed record for the Nose of El Capital. He finished in 2 hours 23 minutes and 46 seconds.
• He became the first person to solo-climb Yosemite’s triple crown, in an astounding 18 hours 50 minutes. That includes Mt. Watkins, Free Rider on El Capitan, and the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome.
• In January 2014 he was the first person to free-solo El Sender Luminoso, in El Potrero Chico, Mexico.
The Last Word: No climber has captured the imagination like Honnold, perhaps because his gift is as much mental as it is physical. “America is very risk-averse,” he has said. “It makes be sad because being risk-averse doesn’t really make the world any safer.”