A 3,000 foot drop
The story of Alex Honnold’s life of passion.
Alex’s mother said that she knew he was a born climber before he was even 1 year old. She explained that he had full mobility and was already climbing onto kitchen appliances before he turned two. Little did his mother know, 30 years later he would be climbing 3,000 ft. of vertical rock wall with no ropes or safety gear.
Scaling the side of El Capitan free solo style is something that has never even been attempted before. National Geographic called Alex’s paramount climb “the moon landing of rock-climbing”. The toughest moment of the climb is about 2,500ft up with no handholds. Alex managed the “Freerider” by using technique called “smearing” in which he would use his rubber shoes to generate enough grip to walk across the glass-like ledge without the use of his hands. He climbed up the smooth granite wall by his fingertips in a little less than four hours. After his climb, he did a short hang board workout simply because he does one every other day and it was the other day.
Despite his massive success, he remembers his humble roots growing up in Sacramento, California. At the age of 11, a rock climbing gym opened up in his town and he soon started spending hours every day climbing the walls. He was so dedicated that when he could not catch a ride, he would ride his bike there. In a recent interview, he said that he could be blindfolded and still climb the wall accurately because he had memorized the wall pattern in the many hours he spent there. Despite the amount of time he spent at the gym, he did great in high school with a 4.6 GPA and got into UC Berkley where he studied to become an engineer. However, he wasn’t happy in college. After the sudden death of his father, he decided to drop out.
During his childhood, his parents had a very unhappy marriage. He mentions that his home life was did not have the happy closeness that most families had. When he left for college, his parents got a divorce. Then be began to know what his father was like when he was happy. He said after about a year of knowing this new version of his dad, he suffered a heart attack and passed away. This taught Alex that life is not worth living if you are not going to be happy.
He started dedicating his life to climbing. He competed in the Mountaineering Federation’s Worth Youth Championship and came in a less than impressive 39th place. He began training on mountains across California before eventually making a name for himself climbing 1,200 feet in 83 minutes on Moonlight Buttress. A feat so impressive that since he did this climb on April Fools Day many believed it was a joke. When asked how he deals with the fear of climbing such impressive heights he shared,
“I’m under no obligation. I do this strictly for my own satisfaction…. I’ve done routes where I’ve climbed 200 feet off the ground and just been, like, ‘what am I doing?’ I then just climbed back down and went home. Discretion is the better part of valor.”
He had recently been tested on by University of South Carolina and an MRI showed that he had an under-active amygdala. This part of the brain is used to register fear, without this acting properly he is able to climb fearlessly. He stated that he accepts that death is inevitable and so he will not baby himself along the way. Some may consider this philosophy a death wish, but Alex believes that if you are not living courageously, you are not really living at all.
Many impressive climbs later, he reached fame, earning multiple sponsorships from companies like North Face. Later, he was the center of a 60 Minutes special and National Geographic cover gaining him quite a following for his crazy climbs. His sponsorships give him the income to focus solely on his climbing career. In exchange, he has to keep doing headline making climbs and ones that might not be enjoyable or challenging for him but make for a good picture. He called his fame, “a means to an end, that end being that I can climb my whole life.”
Even though he is undoubtedly the best climber in the world today, he still acts like a normal guy. His biggest problem with his fame was that he was scared of being arrogant. He is so humble that his friends call him “Alex ‘No Big Deal’ Honnold” because of how casually he thinks of his accomplishments. For his climbs, he typically wears an old t-shirt, shorts, climbing shoes, and a bag of chalk around his waist.
After donating a third of his income to his charity, The Honnold Foundation, he lives simply. He has lived in a van for about a decade. He likes to consider himself a “dirtbag” which is, in his words, “being a committed lifer, someone who has embraced a minimalist ethic in order to rock climb. It basically means you’re a homeless person by choice.” He loves the fact that he can travel with ease. He is a man that makes six figures and urinates in a bottle in his van and has all of his possessions within arm’s reach. In an interview, he stated, “living in a car makes you realize that you don’t need that much to be content and to live a fulfilling life.” This is a philosophy he lived by. He exemplifies that extraordinary people don’t necessarily have to live by extraordinary means.