How Alex Honnold Did It: A Play-By-Play of His Free-Solo Climb on El Capitan

 Tom Evans


On June 3, Alex Honnold made history by free-soloing up Yosemite’s El Capitan, taking the Freerider route along 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 rise above them for another 500 feet. Honnold completed it in just under four hours.

So how, exactly, did he do it? One pitch, or rope-lengths (for those who climb with ropes), at a time. The climb has 33 pitches, but we’ve divided those into four sections. Here’s a play-by-play of one of history’s greatest climbs.

Section 1: Pitches 1–10

Honnold started up Freerider at 5:32 a.m. From the foot of El Cap, the route rises along a high-angled wall, following one vertical crack to another, both just wide enough for Honnold to wedge his fingers or fists into, depending on the spot. Two hundred and five feet above the ground, the granite bulges out overhead like the overhanging edge of a roof.

“Alex was a little worried about that spot when we climbed it together,” says Tommy Caldwell, one of the best big-wall climbers in the world, who roped up with Honnold on Freerider a week before Honnold’s free-solo ascent. “It’s the first insecure move on the route. If Alex slipped there, he wouldn’t have had time to catch himself. He had to be 100 percent.”

Honnold traversed right, stepping on a few small edges, trusting his hands on slim cracks, and cleared the edge of the bulge.

Beyond the roof, Freerider rises again up a stretch of relatively easy cracks pocked with shallow piton scars. Two hundred and thirty-five feet later, the wall’s angle drops a few degrees, and the crack ends. From there, the route arcs right, then left, across a blank expanse of slick granite for almost 150 feet.

“There’s nothing to grab onto once the crack ends,” says Caldwell. “It’s the section Alex was the most stressed about. To get up it, you have to stand up almost straight and just trust the friction of your shoes against little ripples in the granite. If you tense up, it can start a downward spiral: You’ll lean forward because you’re scared, and your feet will skid out from under you.”

“The slabs are super insecure — they’re the kind of spot where you couldn’t even allow yourself to sneeze,” says Brad Gobright, a fellow free-solo climber. “One of the toughest parts of free-soloing Freerider would be controlling pretty much every part of yourself for 3,000 feet.”

While climbing with a partner in the fall of 2016, Honnold slipped on the upper half of the ramp and twisted his ankle. When he practiced with Caldwell a week before Saturday’s free-solo, they took an alternate route.

“He went to the right,” says Caldwell. “There are two or three hard moves, and the rest is easy.”

“I got a bit tense and gripped this time, actually,” Honnold told Men’s Journal about crossing this section during his free-solo. “I recognized that I was tightening up, but honestly I was just kinda, like, ‘Whatever,’ and climbed through it. It went totally fine.”

Honnold finished the section by climbing left onto a bullet-shaped outcrop known as the “Triangle Ledge” — and discovered a would-be cameraman fast asleep.

The ledge ends in a natural corner system that soars 140 feet up the near-vertical wall on a slow, right-arching path as a ceiling of granite intercepts it. The corner then straightens and runs for another hundred feet to another ledge. Freerider then continues up another tall vertical corner to the flat Mammoth Terraces, where most climbers spend their first night, about a thousand feet up the wall.

Section 2: Pitches 11–20

From the left edge of the Mammoth Terraces, Honnold climbed 190 feet downward along several cracks to the “Heart Ledges,” each several feet wide. After a short break for food and water, he climbed up and left toward the “Lung Ledge,” 150 feet away, along a new route he’d worked out.

“Alex figured out a variation to get to the Lung Ledge about a month before we went up there,” says Caldwell. “He wanted to avoid a slippery foothold, so he found 20 easier moves to get around it.”

Safely on the ledge, Honnold scrambled left past a pair of startled climbers — one of them in a pink unicorn onesie, for no apparent reason — and followed a gentle 80-foot rise until it dead-ended at a left-facing corner bulging out of the wall in front of him. Beyond the corner, the Freerider drops almost straight down the wall for 90 near-vertical feet to a ledge cluttered with sharp boulders. Using a thin seam on the other side of the corner is the most common method of descent.

“To get into the left crack, you have to ease around the corner and brace your foot against the far wall,” says Pete Whittaker, a renowned crack climber. “It’s a bit of a tricky step, and the down-climb is really the first spot that can tire your arms out.”

According to Caldwell, Honnold rehearsed the movement around the corner. “The transition from up to down can always feel a little insecure,” he says. And Honnold had once again prepared a short detour to navigate through a treacherous section of the down-climb. “He did a variation where instead of doing the thinnest moves, he went farther left for part of it.”

“I was belaying Alex on that section in 2012, and I felt the rope go tight,” says big-wall climber Mason Earle. “I looked down and asked what happened, and he says ‘I dunno, dude, my foot just slipped.’ That’s a rare moment for him. Alex almost never makes mistakes; when he does, he figures it out.”

Once Honnold got down to the talus ledge and turned west, right shoulder to the wall and left shoulder to the drop-off, he’d have been facing a massive slab dubbed the “Hollow Flake” that leans against the wall, separated from the face of El Capitan by a wide gap that narrows as it rises for a hundred feet to a small ledge. Above it, a chimney splits the face for almost the same distance until it tapers into a 150-foot crack.

According to Caldwell, those sections probably weren’t much of an obstacle for Honnold. “It was probably the easiest part of the route for him,” he says. “Cruiser.”

Finished with the “easy” sections, he climbed left across the “Bermuda Dunes,” instead of splitting to the right, which would have taken him up a left-looping path called the “Ear.”

“Honnold went left up the Dunes because, otherwise, he would’ve had to lower himself down a tricky section at the top of the Ear,” says Whittaker. “The Dunes crack is the width of a few fingers in some places, the width of a hand in others.”

The crack slowly widened into the “Monster Offwidth,” a 200-foot section where the fracture in the stone is gaping enough that Honnold could’ve fit one of his legs into it and one of his arms, too, up to his shoulder.

“The Monster is a spectacularly beautiful spot on the wall,” says Caldwell. “At that point, it’s pretty much vertical, and you’re so high up that it’s gutting to look down. Alex said it felt easy, but the Monster shuts down tons of strong climbers — a lot of people say it’s the hardest section on the route.”

“You can’t stop and take in the view during tough free-solos,” says Gobright. “There’s no point where you can accept the vertigo — you have to be in the moment.”

Several hundred feet of chimneys and cracks later, Honnold passed the flat top of El Cap Spire, a free-standing pinnacle on top of which most climbers spend their second night. After another steep 130-foot long crack and a short sloping face scramble, he made it onto a ledge, more than 1,500 feet up the wall.

Just above him was “The Boulder Problem,” the most treacherous part of the route.

Section 3: Pitches 23–25

Smack on the face of El Cap, the Boulder Problem is a difficult sequence across thin handholds, some no wider than a pencil. The wall is nearly vertical.

“The Boulder Problem is the single reason nobody had even considered free-soloing Freerider,” says Caldwell. “It took Alex almost a decade to get comfortable on it. Otherwise, he’d probably have free-soloed it in 2009.”

To get there, Whittaker suspects that Honnold slotted his fingers into a narrow crack and leaned back, letting his arms take his weight as he worked his feet, then hands, upward, repeating the process for a few dozen feet. A few other quick moves, and he was on a small ledge, just beneath the Boulder Problem.

The section spans about 25 feet. Just above the last few moves, Jimmy Chin’s film crew had set up two remote video cameras on tripods to film Honnold.

“I was aware of how intense the sequence would be as I approached it, for sure,” says Honnold, “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.”

According to Caldwell, Honnold climbed up into the sequence by pulling on a few tiny edges, the soles of his shoes smeared against small, sloping patches of rock, and grabbing a handhold the size of “a fourth-of-a-finger-pad.”

After moving his left foot onto a “sloping, bad left foothold,” and gripping a small protrusion, Honnold “grabbed a hold shaped like a nose, then shuffled his feet across on terrible footholds and grabbed the nose-shaped hold with his cupped right hand, too.

The next move is the single toughest of the climb. Honnold had to plant his left foot far out to the side, higher than waist-level, braced against the raised left edge of a crack.

“It’s almost like a karate kick,” says Caldwell. From there, he would’ve been able to push himself up and secure a few of his left fingers in a crack.

“The Boulder Problem is the kind of series where nothing is ever 100 percent,” says Gobright. “You always have to hit the foot-kick just right on every little grain of rock and shift your weight over perfectly.”

Past the boulder problem, the route continues up into the “Sewer,” a steep, left-facing corner that oozes water in the spring. Though relatively easy climbing, slimy rock is a free-soloist’s worst enemy.

Honnold climbed through the Sewer, until it arced left overhead.

“For those final few feet of the pitch, you have to lie back as you pull yourself up and left,” says Caldwell. Honnold finished those 140 feet and pulled onto “The Block” ledge.

From there, the next section was the “Sous le Toit,” 160 feet of “glorious flake climbing,” according to Caldwell. “It’s a long, clean, sweeping line. The exposure there is huge, and it becomes even more beautiful because of it.”

“That pitch messes with your head a little bit,” says Whittaker. “It’s quite straightforward, but the holds don’t feel secure.” At the end of that pitch, Honnold was almost exactly half a mile above El Cap Meadow. Just above was the longest, most sustained stretch of climbing on the whole route.

Section 4: Pitches 26–33

The Enduro Corners are three sustained pitches of full-body climbing. The route follows the seam of a flaring, left-facing corner almost straight up the wall for 280 feet, then arcs left for an 80-foot traverse to the “Round Table” ledge. True to its name, there are no spots to rest during those 360 feet.

“The thing about Enduro is that you have fatigue and fear for such a long time,” says Gobright. “It would be terrifying to solo it.”

“If I was going to try and free-solo Freerider tomorrow, that’s the section I’d be most worried about,” says Caldwell. “When I climbed it with Alex recently, I looked down at the ground and tried to imagine myself free-soloing, and was thinking, ‘Oh, my God’…”

National Geographic’s video shows Honnold inching his way up, fingers slotted into the seam, pushing himself up the crack with his feet, right leg occasionally lifted wide right for balance or to press down against the face for leverage.

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

Once at the top of the corner, underneath a looming roof, Honnold had to cross the final 80-foot left traverse across shallow, pocket-shaped handholds, feet smeared against the wall, and stepped onto the Round Table ledge.

“Once I got on top of that, I was so psyched that I only rested there for like 30 seconds,” he says, “because I wanted to charge up the last five pitches to the top.”

“That section is really steep, but the holds are big and solid, so you can allow yourself to feel heroic,” he explained. “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.”

Earlier that morning, Honnold’s friend Cheyne Lempe had rappelled off the top of El Cap to help Chin film Honnold’s ascent. Only 300 feet beneath the finish, Honnold paused on a small ledge to chat with Lempe.

“He said he was stoked that I was there and that it was the best day of climbing ever,” says 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.

Finished with his hardest free-solo yet, “I spent quite a bit of time on the top just chattering with Jimmy and his film crew, hugging them — getting excited and all that,” Honnold says. “Just hugs all around.”

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