Rock star: After “Free Solo,” climber Alex Honnold unsure of next step
DENVER — Rock climber Alex Honnold meticulously chalked his hands before pulling himself up to the thin ledge inside the climate-controlled climbing gym. He dangled by his finger tips for a bit and then fell back to the bouncy mat.
Nice and safe. No heart-pounding fear of a 3,000-foot drop, either.
In the aftermath of the Academy Award-winning documentary “Free Solo,” Honnold is trying to get a grip on his sudden fame (he’s recognized everywhere), his image (he’s not really that aloof) and most of all what exactly he does next to top that spine-tingling feat.
His realization: Maybe his 2017 ropeless climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park that’s chronicled in the film just might be the summit of his career. Maybe his cliff-hanger sequel doesn’t exist.
If so, he’s at peace. These days, he’s content taking a less treacherous path inside climbing gyms.
“Everybody already thinks I’ve done the best thing I’ll ever do,” Honnold said in a recent interview as young climbers gawked, pointed and stared at him before a competition at Earth Treks Englewood in Colorado. “So I don’t feel any obligation to top that. Even if I did top it, there would never be a better film about it. It will never be documented in a better way. It’s just not possible to make a better film than that. So it’s like, ‘Cool — a-once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.’ It’s like, ‘Let’s move on.'”
Move on to what? That’s his hang-up.
There’s no new endeavor he’s eyeing. Perhaps, at 33, he’s proceeding through life with a little more caution. He’s dating the same person he was in the film — Sanni McCandless — and has a house in Las Vegas.
“So far, I haven’t been taking the same kind of risks in climbing, but it has more to do with opportunity,” Honnold said. “I’ve been promoting the film and not out climbing crazy mountains all the time. We’ll see.”
In the film, Honnold took an MRI of his brain to see how he responds to fear. Turns out, fear didn’t seem to faze him. Still, there was one poignant scene after he halted an attempt to scale El Capitan, when producer Jimmy Chin commented, “it’s reassuring that Spock has nerves” — an ode to the stoic nature of the Star Trek character.
Undeterred, Honnold remained persistent. It’s just one of the takeaways from the documentary — a tunnel vision that drove him and sometimes made him come across as aloof. Especially in his blossoming relationship with McCandless.
“People come out of it thinking I’m super cold, but you’ve got to keep it in context. Whereas when we first started dating, the relationship was much less important to me than this climbing goal I’d been holding on to for the last nine years,” Honnold explained. “Everybody comes out of the film taking what they want. They cherry-pick the lesson they want, cherry-pick the personality traits they want. Everybody chooses their own adventure.”
Around the climbing community, Honnold remains a polarizing figure. That’s due in part to his free soloing ways, which is when a climber doesn’t use any ropes, harnesses or other protective equipment and is forced to rely on their own strength. He’s got numerous free-soloing firsts under his belt. But nothing quite like scaling El Capitan, a feat he accomplished in just under four hours.
For the record, he doesn’t have a death wish. He diligently trained for the danger-filled climb that included sections called Freeblast (precariously smooth), Monster Offwidth (shimmying his way up a vertical crack) and Boulder Problem (executing a karate-kick move to reach a toe hold).
“That’s why I spent two years practicing, to make sure I wouldn’t fall off and die,” said Honnold, who has a foundation dedicated to supporting solar energy and serves on the board of a company that operates indoor climbing facilities (El Cap). “If I didn’t care, I would’ve gone the first day and rolled the dice.”
Ashima Shiraishi, a teenager who’s become one of the big names in climbing, said she watched the documentary on a plane and felt, well, “terrified.”
“Free soloing? I can’t,” said Shiraishi, who figures to be in the medal mix as climbing makes its debut at the Tokyo Olympics next summer. “It’s a different world.”
Should anyone want to follow his lead, his advice would be basic: Be careful.
“It’s a very long, personal journey,” Honnold said. “If someone wants to spend the time and dedicate themselves to the process, more power to them — as long as they do it slow and carefully.”
To promote the film directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin, Honnold traveled around for months, which meant putting his outdoor climbing pursuits on the backburner. Along the way, he met some big names — Prince William, actor Bradley Cooper — and lost some privacy. He’s constantly recognized on subways, in grocery stores and of course anywhere he climbs.
He recently went back to Yosemite, but didn’t dare venture out too much in public because, “I’ve got serious anxiety,” he said.
While hiking in the area, Honnold overheard a group in front of him actually discussing the movie. Then, he sped right by them.
“They’re like, ‘That’s the guy!'” Honnold recounted. “As I’m hiking by, they’re like, ‘Did you get him on the ‘GoPro?'”
That’s just his reality now.
So is this: Making the most of his training sessions at climbing gyms. He invents challenges for himself, like attaching heavy weights around his waist and suspending himself from a ledge by his fingers.
Any chance of another free solo ascent of El Capitan?
“If I had a reason to. If I was excited,” Honnold said. “Because I know I can now.”