Alex Honnold has climbed the Northwest Face of Half Dome, free-soloed El Sendero Luminoso in Mexico and, most famously, El Capitan in Yosemite. But this is (probably) the first time he’s free-soloed nude.
On Sept. 4, Honnold appeared stark naked for ESPN The Magazine’s annual Body Issue. The athlete can be seen hanging in several black-and-white photos taken by his friend, photographer Cory Richards. Richards and Honnold have been friends for years—before Honnold made a name for himself and Free Solo cemented his legacy.
The Body Issue has been published every year for the past 10 years. In 2019’s issue, Honnold appears with Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, paralympic sprinter Scout Bassett, U.S. women’s soccer player Kelley O’Hara, UFC fighter Amanda Nunes, and over a dozen other athletes, all of whom can be seen here.
Honnold isn’t the first climber featured in the Body Issue. The magazine featured mountaineer Kirstie Ennis in 2017 and pro climbers Daila Ojeda and Chris Sharma in 2013. But Honnold will be the last rock climber to appear in the special edition—this year’s is the final print issue of ESPN The Magazine.
“Doing the Body Issue is a right of passage, of sorts,” Honnold said in a behind-the-scenes video of his photo shoot. Posing nude for the magazine reminded him of how much climbing has pushed him out of his shell: “As a child, I was so shy that I couldn’t speak in the class, I couldn’t, you know, stand in front of a group, you know, I couldn’t do public speaking at all.”
The issue doesn’t only spotlight Honnold’s physique. Special attention is paid to the physical toll of competitive sports like rock climbing. One photo shows his hands in closeup, covered in chalk. They’ve worn yet stronger and larger from years of scaling mountains and sheer rockface. “You wind up with sort of unique-looking hands.”
In a prior profile on Honnold for Men’s Journal, Josh Dean put it this way: “The palms are normal enough, but the fingers that stretch out from them are anything but: Each one is sausage-size and swollen as if attacked by a swarm of bees. The skin, from years of gripping rock, is calloused and leathery.”
The black-and-white photo of his hands in the Body Issue reminds you how much Honnold has trained, how his body has evolved to accommodate his wild passion for climbing.
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Shout out to my dear friend and victim (for the shoot), @alexhonnold for putting up with me for the @espn body issue, out today. And a massive thanks to @espn for trusting me with this. // The first time I photographed Alex Honnold was over a decade ago when our respective cars were our castles, means of transport, and kitchens. I remember the drive from Canada to Yosemite as a jittery sprint fueled by caffeine and gas station cashews. The pictures I took of Alex back then left me wanting, as if there were a depth to his character that was expressed through his action but escaped my ability as a photographer. He struck me as an athlete more sculpted by his medium than any other I’d met. I wondered if his physical form was a necessary response to repeated stimuli or if he represented something entirely unique. Photographing him all these years later was an opportunity to celebrate him as form born of the stone he surrounds himself with, seeing him as wholly human but somehow simultaneously transcendent of that definition. Plus, it’s not everyday you get to tell your friend to get naked and curl into a ball and NOT have that abruptly make your friendship forever awkward… // Check back for more images from this incredible shoot.
“Photographing him all these years later was an opportunity to celebrate him as form born of the stone he surrounds himself with,” the photographer, Richards, said in an Instagram post. “Plus, it’s not everyday you get to tell your friend to get naked and curl into a ball and NOT have that abruptly make your friendship forever awkward.”
After appearing in ESPN The Magazine’s swan song issue, Honnold has few definite plans. He’s finishing promotional appearances for Free Solo, using his spare time to visit climbing gyms. In the fall, he plans to team up again with Tommy Caldwell in Yosemite National Park to plan a new climbing route.
“That’s the beauty of doing a new route from scratch—not having any idea and tackling it in the moment,” Honnold recently told Men’s Journal. “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.”
For this climb, however, they’ll be using ropes. And wearing clothes.