Climber Alex Honnold Reflects On Life After ‘Free Solo’

Free Solo, Alex Honnold / National Geographic
Free Solo, Alex Honnold / National Geographic

“I haven’t been able to climb outdoors as much as I’d like,” Alex Honnold says after a morning session in a Los Angeles rock climbing gym. So how long has it been since he was on a cliff? “I guess two days? I know that sounds ridiculous to complain, but it’s just how I’m feeling now.”

Since the release of Free Solo—the Academy Award–winning documentary on Honnold’s unprecedented solo ascent up Yosemite’s El Cap without a rope—his schedule has been packed with promotional appearances in support of the movie. There’s still more to do. On the calendar, he has the Emmys (Free Solo scored seven nominations), followed by the international premiere in China with filmmakers Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin.

[Editor’s Note: Free Solo won an Academy Award for the Best Documentary at the 2019 Oscars. The film also won seven awards at the 2019 Creative Emmy Awards, including outstanding directing for a documentary/nonfiction program, outstanding cinematography, sound editing, sound mixing, picture editing, music composition and best achievement in interactive media. It won all 7 awards it was nominated for.] 

So that means more time in climbing gyms, where Honnold has gotten used to signing chalk bags and posing for photos. The fact that his story has attracted a lot of new attention to the sport is not lost on him. “I definitely hear that a lot from people,” he says. “I’m just glad people connected with it, and understand why I’m so fascinated with climbing.”

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Once his obligations are completed though, Honnold is eager to return to a quieter life in the wilderness. This fall, he’ll drive his converted adventure van—as seen in the doc—to Yosemite with friend and fellow pro Tommy Caldwell in hopes of discovering a new route up El Capitan.

We caught up with Honnold to discuss life after the release of Free Solo, his potential showbiz side gig, and what the future holds.

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How have you been dealing with the attention since the release?

The reception has steadily grown from the beginning. I definitely feel that, out in the world, I get a fair amount of people approaching me at airports. It’s surprising since it’s been out almost a year at this point. The response in the community has been great, too. I think Jimmy and Chai did a really great job at showcasing the work that goes into pulling off a big climb like this.

Have you been able to get enough climbing in?

I’ve been getting my climbs in no matter where I am. The whole Free Solo team has been really supportive of making sure I have that time to climb, because I’m always going to be better after I get it in. They do a great job of making sure I still get to be who I am, which is a climber. I’ve also embraced this reality, which is one where I’m spending a lot more time in cities. That’s lead me to embrace gym climbing to a new level, and pushing myself to be better in this environment. I feel as strong as ever, but since I haven’t been running and hiking outdoors as much, I may have lost some cardiovascular shape.

Free Solo / Nat Geo
Free Solo / Nat Geo Free Solo / Nat Geo

I imagine you have quite a few people coming up to you in the gyms.

I can’t complain, but I just try not to go at peak hours. I like to be a little more strategic, maybe hitting it earlier in the morning when it’s not as crowded. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of choosing though, and it wouldn’t stop me from going when I want to. I’d say for the most part people are pretty good after a small interaction. I sign a couple things here and there, pose for a couple photos, then everyone wants to get back to climbing.

How often are people saying you got them interested in climbing?

I’ve been getting that a surprising amount in climbing gyms. People will just walk up and say, ‘I just started climbing a few months ago because of you.’ Not only that, but my friends have been overhearing it all the time when they’re there too. That’s kind of crazy to hear.

Have you found yourself climbing with anyone interesting lately?

I did some climbs with Jason [Walsh] in Hollywood—he’s a trainer who knows Jimmy. One day he brought his client into the gym, Brie Larson, who was a surprisingly good climber. It was also fun climbing with Jason Momoa at his home. He invited us over. He has a pretty nice home climbing gym. We got to hang out and eat barbecue with his family. It’s shocking how well he can move for as big as he is. He’s a legit climber.

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Has anyone approached you about doing any movies yet?

Nothing yet, but I would be honored to do stunts for someone. I think that would be really cool. But, honestly, I never saw any of this coming, and I would be fine if I never did another movie again. Jimmy and Chai did an amazing job with this documentary, and if it’s my only one, I’d be fine with that. I’m just excited to get back home for a significant amount of time.

Do you plan to wear The North Face tuxedo you rocked at the Oscars again?

I’ll wear whatever I’m told to because that’s not really my world. But yes, probably, because it still fits me, of course, and I own it.

How’s life going in your new home in Las Vegas?

The place is looking really nice and comfortable. Sanni has done a really good job with it, adding plants and making it feel like a home. It’s been nice for us to be able to ease back into a normal life in Vegas—doing a few climbs and hikes together. The making of the documentary was an interesting period in our relationship, so it’s good to acclimate to regular life again.

Alex Honnold holds all of his climbing gear atop the summit of El Capitan. He just became the first person to climb El Capitan without a rope. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)
Alex Honnold holds all of his climbing gear atop the summit of El Capitan. He just became the first person to climb El Capitan without a rope. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)

When’s your next big climbing trip?

I’m getting excited to return to Yosemite this fall. I was hoping to get out there more in the spring, but the weather was kind of bad. I was only there for a few days, yet I was able to finish a project I’m pretty proud of. This time, I’m going to meet up with Tommy [Caldwell] and work on a new route with him. We’ll be using ropes for this one. He’s been doing a little work on it already, but we’re pretty much starting from scratch.

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Do you know how challenging it’ll be?

No idea. That’s the beauty of doing a new route from scratch—not having any idea and tackling it in the moment. The beauty of the first ascent is that you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. There’s some real adventure to it.

Do you think there’s a climb out there for you as epic as free soloing El Cap?

I can’t think of anything yet. I’ll need a year or so of quite normal climbing to get inspired to go big again. There are definitely bigger and taller walls, but I’m not sure there’s anything as iconic, both to the climbing world and to me personally. But we’ll see if something reveals itself. Only time will tell.

Free Solo is now available on all platforms including the Nat Geo TV app and Hulu.

Check out Alex’s charity, the Honnold Foundation, which reduces the environment impact by supporting solar energy initiatives worldwide.

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