Episode 015: Alex Honnold on Freerider — 5 Things We Learned

Alex on Freerider. Picture: Jimmy Chin

If you’ve listened to episode 015 of the Looking Sideways Action Sports Podcast with Alex Honnold, you’ll know we got deep into the details of his legendary free solo ascent of Freerider on El Capitan.

So what did we find out?

  1. He had the idea to free solo El Capitan back in 2009

Alex made his name with free solo ascents of routes such as Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park, and Half Dome in Yosemite. It was after he ticked off the latter in 2008, that the idea of soloing El Capitan began to take shape.

“As soon as I soloed Half Dome in 2008, El Cap was the obvious next thing. Starting in 2009, I was like ‘Alright, El Cap is next’. But then every time I showed up in the valley, I would look up at the wall and be like ‘Hell no!’ Because it just looked so scary”.

2. Overcoming the mental barrier was the main difficulty.

Alex in the zone on Freerider. Picture: Jimmy Chin

During a near decade-long process, Alex split his preparation into “…two halves — the physical and the mental side”. While endlessly practising the route on rope, and visualising and memorising the moves were an integral part, mental belief was the biggest challenge.

“It took a long time to believe it was even possible to solo El Cap. I mean, I climbed El Cap without falling as early as 2007, so technically it was possible then. But mentally it was completely out of the question for a long time”.

3. Endless preparation was the key.

A compulsive journal keeper, list maker and goal setter, Alex broke the task down into smaller, achievable tasks which he methodically worked his way through until there were no more tasks to complete.

“I broke it into all these little pieces. Initially there were 10 or 12 sections of the climb I was really worried about. Then I worked through those and got it down to 3 or 4. Once I’d worked through all of them — then there was nothing left to work through. I’d done all the prep work, so I was like ‘Right, it’s time to do it’”.

Alex and Jimmy celebrating at the top

4. He wasn’t scared on the climb itself. He even had time to enjoy it.

This approach meant, when the time was right, Alex was so well prepared and so mentally ready for the climb that fear wasn’t even a consideration. “It wasn’t like I went up there being scared”, he explained. “Climbing Freerider wasn’t about overcoming fear. It was a natural consequence of all the preparation. It wasn’t scary any more. It seemed normal. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to do it”.

This preparation also meant he had time to enjoy the moment while he was up there. “As soon as I finished the crux I was like, ‘I am crushing this route!’”

Alex happy to kick back in Alaska.

5. He enjoys being a beginner

Freerider is not Alex’s only notable recent achievement. He also ticked off the Fitzroy Traverse with his friend Tommy Caldwell, and he has been dabbling more and more in Alpinism. Yet as he explains, one of the main things he enjoys about this aspect of his climbing life is not being in charge and how it gives him the chance to learn new things. “It’s fun being a beginner in a new sport. You get to learn really quickly”, he explains.

“For me its nice to have somebody else be the boss. When I’m rock climbing, I’m certainly going to be the person leading. But in the mountains, all of my friends are better than me, so I can almost be a tourist. I’m just tagging along, doing my best”.

To hear the whole interview, click here.