America's traditional attitude toward climbing has been largely to ignore it except when people perish on Everest or K2. Alex Honnold changed that. He electrified the climbing world, and the mainstream media, with audacious free solos (no gear, no rope, no second chances) of vast vertical rock faces.
In the process, he transformed the culture of climbing itself, becoming a social-media-savvy avatar for a millennial generation of enthusiasts who, like Honnold, had come of age in the climbing gym. "Climbing has become a sport rather than the derelict activity it was a generation ago," says Peter Mortimer of Sender Films, who regularly documents Honnold on the rocks. "People see him and they want to try climbing."
But as much as newbies want to channel their inner Honnold, almost no one in their right mind would, as he did, free-solo the 2,000-foot-high northwest face of Yosemite's Half Dome or mostly free-solo three iconic Yosemite rock faces in one through-the-night, 21-hour push. What makes Honnold a breed apart isn't his technical skill — there are plenty of elite rock climbers who have climbed higher grades — but the emotional control that allows him to confront the abyss without a rope and keep going.