Alex Honnold is a man like few others. The world-famous free solo climber, the complicated subject for Jimmy Chin and Chai Vassarhelyi’s record-smashing adventure documentary Free Solo, may sound nuts on paper but, turns out, is actually a remarkably normal guy. Quick-witted, personable, and calculated in every word and movement, Alex isn’t the reckless adrenaline junkie that those who hear his story may imagine at first glance. He just is willing to take risks that few of us can even imagine. And the payoff, it turns out, is huge.
Alex wanted to set the record straight on some critical components of the film while filling in a little bit of backstory for those behind the scenes things that had us all scratching our heads. Things like: How does he climb all that way without food and water? He doesn’t. How did he first get involved in making the doc? Short answer – friendship and the movie Meru. How does he perform life or death stunts with a bunch of cameras in his face? Practice, practice, practice.
Here are the 15 things Alex Honnold thinks you should know about his experience climbing El Cap, preparing for the climb of a lifetime, his totally normal everyday life, and everything else Free Solo related.
1. A failed attempt is a necessary step in the journey.
“I wasn’t really prepared at that point but the seasons were changing and winter was coming. The season was wrapping up and the rains were coming and if I was gonna try, it had to be then. The added stress of filming was something but it was inconsequential compared to the actual stress of climbing the route. You know what I mean? The climb itself is much more climbing than any added challenge. I think what changed was that I had had much more practice and time on it. The failed attempt was just a step down that road. It was a practice attempt. I was more prepared the next time.”
2. Alex’s previously sustained injuries were well behind him.
“A strained ankle happens to climbers all the time and it’s not that big a deal. But in the fall, before my failed attempt, it was a problem still – and that’s why I bailed – because my foot hadn’t totally healed and I couldn’t quite feel my feet. Where I gave up, I stepped onto this hold with my right foot and I couldn’t quite feel my toes so it was just too cold and swollen. By the spring though, I was 100%.”
3. No sneezing? No superhuman control required, just practice, practice, practice. And then some more practice.
“I’ve never really thought about sneezing that seriously but I don’t think you can really sneeze when you’re physically exerting yourself like that. I don’t think an elite marathoner sneezes mid-race. I don’t know for sure about the physiology of sneezing but I just think it doesn’t happen like that. Presumably if random events like that would happen while I was climbing, they would also happen when I was performing so I would get a sense that every fifth time I did this, I would have a random sneeze and I would know about it. But I had nothing like that mid-preparation so I thought it wasn’t gonna happen.
4. Alex does require nourishment and had hidden food and water on the ascent up El Cap.
“I had stashed food and water at one-third height and two-thirds height so it was like passing an aid station – which is totally normally to leave things on ledges or clip them to an anchor. Two of the places were I could sit down and chill, I had food and water because that’s pretty critical. You could maybe do it without but your performance would decline and I wanted to stay at one hundred percent.”
5. Deciding how to film the whole thing was a mission in itself.
“The crew was filming all my preparation so for the two years that I was up on the wall working on the preparation, they were next to me filming my rehearsal. They knew exactly how to get there. It’s not that easy for camera guys to repel 1500 feet down a wall with a camera – and some, like the Boulder Problem specifically – was with remote cameras so the thing is they had already filmed every single angle around the boulder problem while I was working with the ropes so they knew exactly how to rig into the wall. It’s not that easy to attach things coming straight out from the wall in a way that’s safe and secure. There’s a lot of things like that where they attach the cameras, they had to repel another 600 feet down from where they were gonna be filming anyways to where the cameras were, fix them, ascend the 600 feet back up, get that rope out of the way and taken care of so it’s not in my way or in the shot…Basically, it’s complicated logistics but they had two years to learn all that.
On the day that I did the solo, it was totally unintrusive. In some ways, it was actually kind of nice – it was like passing some of your friends in a marathon. Because every time I would pass a camera guy, and they’re all good friends of mine, you’d wave and go “Hey, it’s a great day!”, but then you’d have another 500 or 600 feet where you’re not seeing anybody. So it still feels very much like I’m alone but occasionally you see one of your friends and say “This is awesome!” and then I’m alone again. So it felt like a totally normal experience.”
6. There’s no time to think about death while free soloing. That work is done beforehand.
“I try to do all that thinking on the ground ahead of time. Because obviously that’s the more appropriate place to ponder your fate and mortality. So I’d have those thoughts while I was sitting in my chair and in my van and hanging out. “What would happen if I fall there?” or “What would happen if I slipped there?” The point is to process all that while I’m on the ground so when I did the actual climb, I was 100% committed and knew exactly what I was doing and didn’t have to think of those things.”
7. His relationship was young at the time of filming and he probably would have said things a little differently if he had the chance.
“I think that some of the things that I say in the film that sounds particularly harsh or would make it seem like I’m undateable are because of where I was at that particular moment. Sonnie and I started dating basically once we started filming so our entire relationship took place throughout filming. El Cap was something I had been dreaming about for years and then I met Sonnie and then we started dating. So some of the things I had said to her – like I don’t take her opinion into account – are because we had only been dating for like six months at the time and this was a dream that I had had for seven years.”
8. Once committed to the Boulder Problem, there was no backing.
“I sat down below the Boulder Problem, which is a ten or twelve move sequence, and once you start that sequence, it’s pretty full on. Right below it, there’s a little area where I sat and took my shoes off for a minute and chilled and tighten my shoes and said, “Here we go.” As soon as I committed to it one hundred perfect, it was game on and I performed.”
9. Turns out this is a hard movie to watch. But not for Alex.
“I wouldn’t have thought that until we started watching it with audiences. The very first time that I watched the film, there were two women who were friends of Chai’s sitting in front of me, and I think they maybe cried and just left right at the end. And I was like “Respect – now that’s a film.” You want it to have some weight and have some impact on people.
It’s cool. It’s the embodiment of living your dream. I literally did the thing I’ve always wanted to do and that’s awesome. It’s interesting because with El Cap and all these screening, I see the end of the film and it makes me happy every night. I see it and I think “That’s awesome.” I’ve been in a lot of movies and YouTube videos and stuff before this and I see them and I think I could do better or there’s always something more. But when I see the end of Free Solo every night, it gets me in a good mood. That’s me at my best. And they get to see El Cap in all its splendor so they get to experience a bit of what motivated me. I tap right back into the joy every time I see it. It was a really good day.”
10. ‘Free Solo’ was born of friendship and admiration.
“Jimmy and I had known each other for a decade and worked together a ton and I saw their film Meru, like everyone else, and thought it was amazing. They were looking for the next project, post-Meru, and so they approached me about making a film and I said “Of course.” It was a huge opportunity for me as a professional climber and I had been thinking about El Cap for such a long time and so it was an obvious thing to make a film about. Then it all just came together.”
11. Climbing is all-encompassing for Alex and preparing for El Cap, he exercised 35 hours a week.
“Normally, I’d still be climbing outside somewhere with good weather, which is why I’ve lived in a van for so long because you can just tour and go wherever the weather is good. And now I live in Las Vegas because the weather is always good. If you go up high, there’s amazing four season climbing. There’s climbing at 9000, 1000 feet that’s in the shade and just amazing. So normally I’m climbing outdoors full-time but with the tour I’m focusing on climbing indoors. So long as I get to go climbing, I’m happy enough. Before Freerider, I was exercising – climbing and hiking – about 35 hours a week, which is a lot of volume for any kid of athlete – I think pro cyclists train in the 25-35 hours a week range. I don’t think people generally do more of that because your body declines. With this tour, I’ve been in more the 15 hour a week range but at a higher intensity. I’m just training indoors and trying to do extra hard things. We’re coming up on two months of this tour which has seen much lower volume but much higher intensity. In some ways, I think that this is a way for me to remake myself as a climber, after years and years of doing high volume things like El Cap, it’s a bit of personal interest for me to do something that’s smaller and harder. I’m kind of into it and it’s a nice way for me to find some purpose.
12. Mt. Index and Little Si are Alex’s favorite climbing spots in the Greater Seattle-area.
“When I met Sonnie, she was living in Fremont so I was roughly based in her basement in Fremont so I’ve climbed all the gyms in Seattle and climbed Index quite a bit with Sonnie. We were here this summer for about a week or so. Favorites are Index and Little Si. Seattle is one of the few cities in the countries that is great for outdoor access.”
13. There isn’t necessarily a “next step” when it comes to his future climbing goals.
“I’m kind of figuring that out. Doing harder things is appealing to me. Not necessarily bigger but just climbing a higher number grade and being stronger is appealing and that’s what I’m trying to work on while we’re touring with the film. I’ve been putting also a lot of time into my foundation and more quality time with Sonnie. Focusing on life a little bit. I don’t feel like I need some all-consuming, obsessive goal right now. I’m trying to focus on life. Be a good boyfriend. Or at least a mediocre boyfriend.”
“For years I had a list of things I wanted to do and El Cap was at the end of the list basically and so you get there and I’m pretty content with that. I’m continue to seek out other climbing challenges but they don’t need to be bigger free solos or harder free solos because I really don’t know if there are any. Obviously there are harder things in the world but I don’t know if they are as inspiring than El Cap.”
14. Alex acknowledges that he may be responsible for a climbing traffic jam on El Cap.
“Someone said that the Freerider route has been really busy this season. Like it’s a complete shit-show and I kinda feel bad about that but there’s plenty of routes so you can always do other ones. I went into the film with the sole goal of climbing El Cap by myself. All I really wanted was it to do justice to the climb and the route and my motivation and I certainly feel like the film did that. Beyond that, I didn’t have a particular agenda for it.”
15. Watching the material about his family and relationship is by far the most difficult part of ‘Free Solo’…for Alex.
“I had no editorial control at all. I saw none of the footage and knew nothing about it. That entire first hour with my relationship with Sonnie and my family and all the backstory. That entire first hour is so hard for me to watch. It doesn’t really matter what I think about it because the film isn’t made for me. And it seems like audiences enjoy it or at least certainly get something from it. My opinion is the least important because I remember it. I was there. “