Alex Honnold’s Insane Free Solo Climb of El Capitan

May 24, 2018

Bet you’re not as brave as Alex Honnold.

The veteran climber is the only person to have ever free solo climbed El Capitan, the most imposing rock face at the core of Yosemite National Park. At 2,700 feet in the sky, over half a mile, that would be a difficult walk, and is a scary climb. I’m afraid of heights and get nervous just writing about it.

A single slip-up would have sent him falling to certain death.

Alex Honnold persevered, and became the first person ever to accomplish the feat.

Alex Honnold holds on for his life while hanging from the sheer face of El Capitan (Source: alexhonnold.com)

At 31 years of age, Honnold is the most renowned climber in the world, having won the respect of his peers and admirers. El Capitan is a storied destination, having been the object of such icons as photographer Ansel Adams and naturalist John Muir. It would be a meeting of an unstoppable force and an impassable wall.

El Capitan is a gigantic granite monolith. It attracts rock climbers and BASE jumpers – crazy people of all sorts – although it has defied free solo climbing. That means that up until now, El Capitan had not been climbed without the aid of safety ropes. Even with ropes, it is one of the most difficult climbs in the world and is considered the pinnacle of achievement for climbers.

No one else alive today has the reputation in the climbing world of Alex Honnold, who was believed to be the only person capable of giving this climb a shot. While not yet prepared to attempt a free solo ascent of El Capitan, a younger Honnold tackled several other impressive rock faces in Yosemite, always with his ultimate goal in sight. Gradually, he filled in the gaps in his ability to take on his dream climb. Already an incredibly gifted climber, the California native dropped out of college at 19 to pursue his dream full-time. Living out of his van and driving to crags around the country, he simplified all aspects of his life in order to focus on climbing.

Exercising finger strength in his converted van (Source: National Geographic)

Honnold’s free solo climbs have been featured in films and on television. His ability has also allowed him to travel and climb all over the world. He now lives in Las Vegas, and runs a charitable foundation focused on solar energy. 

Freerider, considered the easiest route up the face of El Cap, is fearsome to say the least, not to mention far more difficult than any of the routes up the 2,000-foot-tall Half Dome just across the valley. Long stretches lean out over fatal drops, requiring unflinching grip to get up extended cracks. Other sections are basically sheer vertical assents, so flat that they appear smooth. Starting at dawn, he had to tackle lengthy reaches requiring strenuous and precise exertion. Essentially, he had to exercise total control over the climb – or plummet to his death.

Freerider: one of the many challenging routes up the face of El Capitan (Source: beyondtheedge.co.uk)

The crux – the climb-defining greatest challenge – came at around 1,700 feet above the valley floor. There, Honnold had to hold onto grips facing down and out – practically pushing him off the face. At one point it features a tiny 1/8” hold followed by a karate kick maneuver. Other zones required him to climb up stretches so flat that they offered no hand grip at all, 600 feet in the air, requiring foot smearing. 

As hard as it is physically to hold on, the mental fortitude requirement is even higher. Honnold has been free soloing for a dozen years. In that time span, he has become accustomed to managing the psychological terror, mainly by acknowledging it and then moving on. He finds peace and beauty in the austere ruggedness of the rocks.  Honnold’s unique ability to manage fear has even been the topic of study by neuroscientists.

On a previous venture, he completed the “Yosemite Triple Crown,” comprising El Capitan along with Half Dome and Mt. Watkins. The complete climb took an impressive 18 hours and 50 minutes, and he free soloed a very substantial portion.

Training for Freerider on one of Yosemite’s most challenging routes, Excellent Adventure (Source: National Geographic)

Honnold trains rigorously for the climbs, more so than other climbers. Perhaps this stems from his engineering mindset, and perhaps this connects him with top performers in other sports and activities. He also lives clean of alcohol, coffee, and other drugs. The lean Honnold avoids sugar and eats a breakfast consisting of oats, flax, chia seeds, and blueberries. He exercises every day, and spent three months training specifically for El Capitan, spending extra time on the hardest sections. 

In preparatory climbs, with safety equipment, Honnold got to know the course well. He climbed it repeatedly, with training partners, chalking up how he would tackle the rock face solo. In one of the climbs, he and another climber set a speed record at five and a half hours – for a route that usually takes climbers four days.

Using regular clothes, climbing shoes, and a bag of chalk, Honnold monkeys his way up impossible looking climbs. He had a small group friends sworn to secrecy as he prepared for El Capitan. He made a first attempt at the free solo run, but aborted it when things didn’t feel right.

Honnold has fallen before – while climbing with safety ropes. On one of his training runs, he fell twenty feet. Luckily, the rope prevented serious injury. He also fell in a training run a mere two days before the solo ascent.

Finally, he took on the daunting frees solo climb and, after a grueling yet rapid rise totaling three hours and fifty-six minutes, made it safely to the top.  

Alex Honnold after successfully completing the first free solo ascent of El Capitan (Source: National Geographic)