Alex Honnold Reflects on His Free-Solo Ascent of El Capitan

 Tom Evans

On Saturday, June 3, rock climber Alex Honnold scaled El Capitan in Yosemite Valley from base to tip in just under four hours, without using a rope or any protective gear. It’s a feat that climbers like Tommy Caldwell have described as “unfathomable” and others as “one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time.” In other words, it’s nothing short of superhuman — a climb for the ages.

So what was Honnold doing on Tuesday morning, during a media frenzy set off by a teaser video of the ascent, and accolades pouring in from athletes across the globe? Sitting at the top of El Cap chasing clouds, naturally.

What are you up to right now, three days after the biggest free-solo of your life?

Well, I’m lying on my back on the top of El Cap, eating a sandwich, actually. The film crew and I are up here cleaning up and such. [muffled rustling] Oh, no… I was stirring my drink with a twig and broke it. Grim.

You spent over a year practicing for this climb — don’t you have silverware?

Maybe, but then I’d have to carry a spoon around. Twigs are simple.

What inspired you to bag the first free-solo of El Capitan?

There’s just so much climbing history in Yosemite, and El Capitan is the most iconic wall here, you know? When Lynn Hill became the first person to free-climb The Nose on El Cap, it established a new level of difficulty in the sport. Then Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson did The Dawn Wall a few years ago, and that leveled it up again. I think that [this] free-solo continues that tradition. Plus, it’s the best piece of rock in the world, so that’s always nice.

What were you thinking about afterward on the hike down to the valley?

I just did the usual — called some family members, my girlfriend, Tommy Caldwell, and really everyone who knew about the climb, just to let them know I was safe.

Did you stay on the summit for a while? Take in the valley? Let it sink in?

Yeah, I spent quite a bit of time on the top just chattering with Jimmy [Chin] and his film crew, hugging them — getting excited and all that. Just hugs all around.

I got really excited about the idea, but I’d look at how tall El Cap is and think, “Oh… hell, no.” I only really started to plan the climb about a year-and-a-half ago.

Has that feeling changed now that you’ve had a few days to think about the climb?

It feels way more surreal now, like, “Did that really happen?” But then again, I’m just doing the same, usual, everyday stuff: get up, hike to the top of El Cap, eat some snacks, maybe do a workout later… I do have a big smile on my face right now though, to be honest. 

When did you first get the idea to free-solo El Cap?

In 2009 or so, right after I free-soloed Half Dome. I just started thinking, “Oh, well, what’s bigger?” And El Capitan was the obvious next step up. I got really excited about the idea, but I’d look at how tall El Cap is and think, “Oh… hell, no.” I only really started to plan the climb about a year-and-a-half ago.

How does the Freerider compare to the other intense routes you’ve free-soloed?

It’s the hardest, for sure, by far. The single toughest sequence of Freerider is the boulder problem right in the center of the route. That sequence is about the same difficulty as the hardest set of moves I’ve done on other solos, but the style of it is super insecure. This boulder problem wasn’t in a crack, like the hardest moves on most of my other solos, so it was quite a bit more treacherous.

Any nerves going into the boulder problem?

I was aware of how intense the sequence would be as I approached it, for sure, but I executed it perfectly. It’s a distinct set of movements, and I had them wired — left hand, right hand, left hand … I did what I normally do, just without a rope this time.

What were the other tricky spots on Freerider?

There’s two other cruxes besides the boulder problem. The first is getting up those slick slabs, around 500 or 600 feet up the wall, which requires super-delicate footwork. At one spot, I had to step down onto this tiny little foothold, where if you overtighten and tense up, you can pop off.

Last October, you fell during those pitches and badly sprained one of your ankles. How’d you get through that section this time?

I got a bit tense and gripped this time, actually. I recognized that I was tightening up, but honestly I was just kinda, like, “Whatever,” and climbed through it. It went totally fine.

Where on the wall is the third tricky spot?

It’s called the Enduro pitch; it’s way up high near the top. It’s a long section of three continuous segments, all tough, and there’s just no place to rest. You have to constantly climb for a few hundred feet, on pretty much vertical rock, following this crack all the way up.

That was the first time I let myself really sense my surroundings, the height, exposure, all that. I imagined myself being on a victory lap, like I was taking an extra lap around a running track or something. 

Did you start to feel worn out as your climbed that section?

I had been worried about fatigue, so I just practiced it until I was confident there wouldn’t be any problems. Soloing those pitches felt amazing; I just cruised up them.

Was there a moment when you knew you had the climb in the bag?

Just after the Enduro Pitch. There’s a ledge called the Round Table a little ways beyond. Once I got on top of that, I was so psyched that I only rested there for like 30 seconds, because I wanted to charge up the last five pitches to the top.

Describe that moment — racing up the final few hundred feet.

It felt fucking awesome. That section is really steep, but the holds are big and solid, so you can allow yourself to feel heroic. That was the first time I let myself really sense my surroundings, the height, exposure, all that. I imagined myself being on a victory lap, like I was taking an extra lap around a running track or something. I had to still focus and make sure I didn’t slip off, but I just kept thinking, “This is so, so awesome, I am cruising, this feels amazing,” as I climbed.

Did free-soloing with cameras nearby distract you?

Jimmy and his crew did a really nice job setting up remote cameras at the boulder problem so that I wouldn’t be distracted. All in all, everything was super chill. The actual videographers were only nearby on the final few pitches. It’s going to be the most outrageous footage. I’m stoked.

Did you ever have doubts about going through with this free-solo?

Oh yeah, of course. There were plenty of moments like “Well, we’ll see. It would be amazing, but maybe this will never happen.” I think it’s important to let yourself feel that doubt, because I didn’t want to put pressure on myself. But, I knew I had to at least practice it and see if it was possible, otherwise I’d have always wondered whether I could, or should, have gone for it.

I hear you’re heading up to Alaska with Renan Ozturk in a few days to attempt the tallest free-climb in North America… No time for a vacation?

Honestly, I kinda hope there’s a big storm when we get there. That way I could just stay in my tent and read a book. Hanging out on a glacier sounds really nice. After that, I’m going to spend the summer sport climbing with my girlfriend. Climbing relaxes me, so I’m looking forward to it. That’s my favorite type of vacation.