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On the Edge

Alex Honnold has made his name climbing some of the world's most fearsome walls without ropes. As he looks to his next big climb, the world wonders: How far can he push it?

BY ALEX LOWTHER

ON THE LITTLE-KNOWN GREEK ISLAND of Kalymnos, Alex Honnold, the world’s greatest free solo climber, is maneuvering his way around massive rock chandeliers hanging from a concavity on the side of a mountain overlooking the Aegean Sea. The stalactites and tufas create an upside-down, three-dimensional limestone forest, which can be disorienting and take a long time to pick through. It’s relentless, physical, big-muscle climbing. And yet Honnold, who has been basically hanging upside down from his hands and feet for well over half an hour, never seems to tire. He moves neither quickly nor slowly, but with a calm deliberation. Near the top of the wall, the most difficult part of the route, called the crux, he grunts three times. A moment later, with no further fanfare, he clips his rope through the chains. The climb is over.

“Fun,” Honnold says of a climb that many would consider either the thrill of a lifetime or a flat-out terrifying ordeal. “Pre y mellow.”

The 25-year-old California native is one of the best-known climbers in the world, a status he secured by free-soloing—climbing without a rope or any protection—routes considered difficult even with a full complement of safety equipment. In September 2008, he shocked the international climbing community by free-soloing the north face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. It’s considered the most formidable free solo ever done, and when it was over, Honnold was hailed as a superhero by some and denounced by others as incredibly irresponsible. Critics said he was sending the wrong message to impressionable young climbers.

Nobody who knew anything of rock climbing was lacking for strong opinions on the ma er. “He told me he was going to solo Half Dome,” Chris Weidner, a good friend of Honnold’s, tells me. “My first reaction was, ‘Are you kidding me? Don’t do it.’ But he was obviously going to.” It is his unwavering confidence that sets Honnold apart from other climbers, says Weidner. “I genuinely believe he leaves the ground thinking there is a zero percent chance that he will fall.”

HONNOLD ISN’T ALWAYS hanging by two fingers from death’s doorknob. When I met him back in February, he had just completed the climbing equivalent of a pleasure cruise, what he called his Sport Climbing Tour of the Antiquities. It started with a sponsor’s expedition to Chad, where he clambered up Dalían towers of poorquality sandstone in the middle of the Sahara. Then he climbed in Jordan and Israel, and finally he met his girlfriend, Stacey Pearson, in Turkey. They’ve been monkeying around on these limestone drip features in idyllic spots (with ropes) for nearly two months.

In Greece, he was wearing a uniform of sorts: a red hooded sweatshirt bearing the name of his biggest sponsor, The North Face, a pair of dark gray pants and some badly worn running shoes. His hair is mussed and his irises, an odd metallic brown, are strikingly large. (Pearson, his girlfriend, describes his eyes as “bovine.”) His shoulders are broad, his fingers are expectedly thick. Sitting in his room on Kalymnos one night, still wearing that red hoodie, he describes himself as simply “nondescript.”

Honnold was born in Sacramento. “He could stand up the day he was born,” his mother, Deirdre Wolownick, recalls. “He could pull himself to his feet, and he had huge hands.” At 12, during summer vacation, Honnold made his first foray into climbing, in the French Alps. A er that, his father, Charles, started taking him to a local climbing gym. “He would belay me for hours,” Honnold says, using the climbing term to describe one person holding the rope so the other doesn’t hit the ground in a fall. “Dad would just be down there, looking around, feeding out slack.” When his father wasn’t around, Honnold would ride his bike 12 miles each way to the gym, alone, to climb sideways along the contiguous walls—for hundreds of lateral feet. With no one to belay him, he couldn’t go up or down. “I would traverse back and forth across the wall,” he says. “I had a Walkman, and I would just blast Megadeth and traverse.”

School was socially difficult for him. “Heinous,” as he puts it. “I was the world’s biggest loser. I wore the same pair of sweatpants every day for all of middle school.” But he fared well academically, and a er graduating high school with straight A’s, he le home in August 2003 to a end U.C. Berkeley’s college of engineering. The summer a er his freshman year, however, his father suffered a massive heart attack and died. Honnold, who had never taken to college, dropped out and entered what he calls his “blue period.” “I was alone a lot,” he says. He turned to climbing for solace and began soloing in earnest in the spring of 2005, spending long periods at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, a place peppered with hundreds of 30to 300-foot-tall domes that form a patchwork of endless climbing routes. Without a partner and usually too shy to introduce himself to potential ones, Honnold set off alone, soloing simple routes all day long. “It was just easier that way,” he says.

Soon afterward, he bought a white Ford Econoline E-150 and hit the road. The van was spartan, and Honnold lived like a monk: a rubber mat on the floor, a thin foam pad on a sheet of plywood for a bed, a simple camp stove, a crate of books. He’d wake up, make eggs and climb all day. Then after a dinner of macaroni and cheese and tuna, he’d read big books by headlamp until he fell asleep. He didn’t drink; still doesn’t. He was young, and it seemed as if he could hang on forever.

A year later he got his first taste of fame when he soloed two Yosemite Valley test pieces, Astroman and the Rostrum in a single day. Honnold treats this leap as nothing more than a logical progression. He had climbed them flawlessly multiple times with gear; the climbing was secure and suited his strengths. He had soloed countless shorter routes at similar grades, and he knew he wouldn’t fall. The achievement was impressive but not unprecedented.

His 2008 solos of the Moonlight Buttress and the Regular Route on the northwest face of Half Dome, however, put him indelibly on the climbing map. Moonlight is a striking pillar of Navajo sandstone streaking 1,200 feet above the main road in Zion National Park. Most of the climbing happens in a half-inch crack that splits the buttress for nearly its entire length. It’s called a “finger crack,” because that’s all a climber can get into it. There are times when no more than a few square inches of the surface of the climber’s body is actually in contact with the wall. For most people, even highly skilled climbers, this is wildly insecure. Climbing 1,200 feet of it without a rope is inconceivable.

Half Dome is considered even more risky. It is more than 2,000 feet tall, and the top is guarded by hard, nearly vertical slabs. Up there, the climbing happens on features like credit card edges and protrusions the shape and size of worn pencil erasers, all hanging over thousands of feet of empty air. It took Honnold two hours and 50 minutes to climb all the way up, and it didn’t go as planned. On an essentially featureless slab near the top, with no easy retreat, he froze. He had reversed a sequence, pu ing himself out of position to make a move. He was “gripped,” genuinely scared. He didn’t want to be there.

Honnold completed the climb, but he was so shaken he vowed to stop soloing. Yet word of his feat was spreading fast. He wound up with 5,000 Facebook friends and had to delete his account and set up a fan page. He won a three-year contract with The North Face and has been featured in ads for Black Diamond, climbing rope manufacturer Maxim and shoe company La Sportiva.

A year later, after several bold but not death-defying routes, he found his confidence again. Last year he soloed a challenging 1,000-foot wall outside of Las Vegas with almost no rehearsal. In late 2010, he soloed another 1,000-foot monolith in Yosemite via a route called the Crucifix, which he called his best solo yet. In the crux there was no hesitation, no fear. “For once I was like, ‘I’m up here because I want to be up here,’” he says, smiling. “Like, ‘This is cool.’”

WHAT HE WILL ATTEMPT NEXT is a topic of heated speculation in climbing circles. Honnold declines to say what his plans entail, but most people expect him to solo El Capitan, the 3,000-foot wall that dominates Yosemite Valley—and, as both cradle and crucible, American rock climbing’s history. The last thing Honnold needs is distraction while attempting something near his limit of perfect control. But that is part of the problem with El Capitan. People sit in the meadow below the wall with spo ing scopes, watching the seeming ants questing on the granite expanse. Nonetheless, the wall is on his mind. “That’s the elephant in the room,” he says. “I know that if I did it, it would be the raddest thing ever.”

It would also be the most perilous thing he’s ever attempted in a career of astonishingly perilous things, and that worries his friends and family. Pearson says, “When he talks about soloing and the possibility of death he always says, ‘Yeah, it would be, like, the worst four seconds of my life. But then it’s done. He just grazes over the idea.” His friend Chris Weidner adds, “I worry about him, because there’s a real possibility that he will die soon. He takes enormous risks, often, and the confidence that makes him a world-class climber also, in my opinion, leads him to take some foolish risks.” His mother worries too, but she trusts her son’s judgment. “He’s the only one who can decide to do it or not,” she says. “I would never tell him not to. It would be like telling a concert pianist, ‘You know, that’s bad for your fingers. You’ll end up with arthritis.’”

On Kalymnos one night, the rain provides a steady backdrop of white noise. The weather has forced Honnold to scrap a planned day of climbing. Antsy, tired of just si ing there, he gets to his feet and mills about in the kitchenette. I ask, trying to provoke him, “What would failure on a solo mean?” He replies without pause, “Plummeting to your death.” And a er a beat: “Which would be a huge bummer.” It’s semi-ironic, and we chuckle at it, but the quip nevertheless hangs there in the air for a moment against the sound of rainfall. Honnold moves across the room. Looking out the window into the night, he sighs. “I hope we get to go climbing tomorrow.”

ALEX LOWTHER, a New York–based writer, climber and documentary film producer, had to promise his mother and girlfriend he would not free-solo anything on Kalymnos.

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