The world's most famous climber answers Mountain Project user questions on hangboard training, cookies, the environment, injuries, favorite routes and more
Editor's Note: Ask a Badass is a unique interview platform collaboration between Mountain Project and Black Diamond, in which a Black Diamond athlete hangs out in the MP forum answering users questions.
Hobo Greg: What's your middle initial “ J” stand for?
Alex: It's actually just the letter J. My parents thought I needed a middle initial but also that my name was already long enough.
AaronP: So what's your 2nd favorite hobby?
Alex: Maybe mountain biking or skiing? Nothing comes remotely close to climbing, though.
Tristan Mayfield: What are your thoughts on style relative to free-soloing? I bring this up thinking about stories from Peter Croft of adventures completely by himself, undocumented and almost John Muir-like in their sincere adoration of the outdoors versus something like your most recent solo of El Cap with camera and safety lines. It almost seemed like it was the opposite end of the spectrum. To be clear, I'm a huge fan and think you're doing super rad stuff. I just wonder about the evolution of climbing style in general and also wonder how the style in which you've been doing these cutting-edge free solos could potentially effect that evolution.
Alex: That's a legit question, and I often think about things like that. My golden rule is to try not to be douchey, which means posing too much or making too much of a production about climbing or simply over-hyping things.
In a general sense, I don't think that "good style" has changed over time. Peter Croft and John Bachar and people like Patrick Edlinger certainly free-soloed routes for TV or film, and occasionally for commercials—and that was back before cameras were ubiquitous. They had tons of "pure" adventures, but they also had to make a living in various ways.
A while back, I counted all the free solos that I was proud of and what percentage were filmed or re-shot later. I'd filmed or taken photos on between one-third and one-half of the things I was proud of, which is a ratio that I can live with. For example, for a long time my to-do list of hard soloing was: Romantic Warrior, University Wall, Sendero Luminoso and Freerider. Of those four, I shot on two of them. The other two were personal experiences that almost no one knows about. I'm happy with that. Style does matter, I do care, and I'm happy with how I've done things.
sherb: Do you use Mountain Project? If so, do you use (a) the route guide (b) the partner finder (this would be funny) or (c) the forums.
Alex: I use the MP app on my phone a fair amount when I'm going to new crags, but I've never contributed to it at all (I know, bad form). I occasionally read through some things on the forums, but only if I'm really diving deep into the internet late at night. In general, I think online communities are pretty cool. I just don't participate much.
michalm: When you climb, you are quiet and not breathing very hard. You move smoothly and statically to the point that it is a little boring to watch. No offense. What are some routes that you have actually had to try really hard on?
Alex: That's an interesting question, and something I've thought about a bit. I agree that to send harder routes, like 9a (5.14d), I'd need to try harder: Breath heavily and fight to the death and all that. But real effort doesn't come easy to me. I tend to keep things at a five or six out of 10 on an effort scale, rather than fighting all the way to a nine or 10.
When I freed the Shaft in a day on El Cap (35 pitches of 13c or so), I went to the absolute death, so much so that my partner burst out laughing because he'd never heard me wailing so much. That kind of effort is really rare for me, which is probably a good thing for alpinism or soloing, but certainly doesn't help for performance sport climbing.
Taylor Parkin: In your book, I read that you didn't get as much time with your father as you would have liked. Do you think you might one day become a father? If so, how would you spend your time with your son or daughter?
Alex: I think I'd like to have a family someday, but we'll see. If I do, I'll definitely try to spend quality time with my kids. I'm sure part of that would be playing outside or adventuring, maybe climbing. But really it would come down to whatever my hypothetical kids are into. I look at Tommy Caldwell as a good inspiration for what fatherhood should look like. He spends tons of quality time with his family but still manages to send the gnar. He strikes the right balance.
Kyle Harding: What originally made you adopt a plant-based diet? What is your favorite meal? And on a scale from 1-10, how good is Sriracha?
Alex: I originally went plant-based because of the environmental impacts of eating meat. I was looking for personal decisions I could make that would reduce my harm to the world, and I thought diet was the obvious place to start. Not sure about favorite meal. I like Asian noodles a lot, but I don't love Sriracha. I prefer Tapatío.
King Tut: Cake or pie? Also, Serenity-Sons? Is that route combo the best "pure fun" day in Yosemite Valley?
Alex: Cake, for sure. Serenity-Sons is one of my favorite routes, no doubt. I once went to solo the Steck-Salathe and then just sat in the parking lot all unmotivated until I decided to bail over to Serenity-Sons instead. And I once went to rope solo Lurking Fear, made it up four or five pitches, decided aid climbing sucked, and went and soloed Serenity Sons in the afternoon instead. I do love that route.
David Kerkeslager: Your consistency in hangboarding every other day, even on the day you soloed Freerider, has inspired me to do the same (the hangboarding part). What does your hangboard workout look like and do you do any training for power?
Alex: During Valley season this spring, I was just using the Beastmaker app workouts. They might not be the best for fully high-end training, but they were more than enough for me.
But then in the summer I've eased off the hangboarding, since I've been sport climbing more, and have been using my fingers a lot more. For me, the whole point of hangboarding a bunch in the Valley was because the climbing there isn't very finger-y, and I didn't want to lose too much strength.
I switched to doing one-arm pull-ups and one-arm negatives (lowering as slowly as possible off an edge) as a way to work "power" more. But my training is all pretty unscientific. And I travel around too much for a real, calculated program.
Mei: I read that you did not eat cookies in the two months prior to soloing Freerider. Why? To lose weight (how much did you lose) or for better health (how so, considering you were already super fit)?
Alex: Cookies!! I actually didn't eat any dessert (besides 85% or darker chocolate) for the four or five months prior to Freerider. I was just trying to stay disciplined and train well. I did wind up losing a bit of weight (4 to 5 pounds?), but that was probably also due to the high volume of climbing and cardio I was doing. Post Freerider, I've been eating desserts again a bit (and I'm back to my more normal weight), but it's still pretty limited. Like once-a-week desserts. I find that I live better when I'm not eating sugar: better recovery, better habits. But I do love sugar.
Josh Gates: One of the things that I've really appreciated about my recent (three years) switch to climbing is that there's a more supportive/less cutthroat vibe, even at competitions, than exists in other sports. Nobody boos a climber, you know? Have you had similar experiences, and is that something that drew you to climbing?
Alex: That's always been one of the things I really appreciate about climbing, as well. I like the positive community (occasional forum wars aside). I think it helps that climbing isn't an inherently competitive sport. It's so much more personal than ball sports. It's not zero sum, either. One person succeeding doesn't have to mean someone else going home disappointed.
But I never played any other sports so I can't really compare. I was drawn to climbing because it was fun. I loved the playful movement, and it never really felt like a "sport".
Jon Nelson: What is your favorite route at Index?
Alex: Amandla, the only route that doesn't feel like a slab.
Kat Hessen: Do you superhuman pro climbers live with reoccurring injuries/chronic pain? Can you share your secret to being an absolute shredsled? Also, can you distill your post-send sweat and market it to us, snake-oil style? I'll take 18 vials of Eau d'Honnold, thanks.
Alex: I've had random injuries over the years and have just had to deal with them like anyone else. Many years ago, I had chronic elbow pain that I never really did figure out. After nagging pain for almost a year, I finally took several months totally off, and it eventually got better.
Since then, I've had it pretty good until last year, when I had a string of unfortunate things happen.
I got lowered off the end of my rope (tie a knot!) and compression-fractured two vertebrae (surprisingly, it didn't seem to limit me too much, super lucky I guess). Then I tore a ligament in my hand in a silly aid-climbing fall a few months later. That also wasn't a huge deal, but I had to tape several fingers together for the summer to keep my fingers from separating at all.
Then, I fell and severely sprained an ankle, which has taken probably six months to actually feel normal again—and I'm still not running at all, not much anyway. All that to say, I think professional climbers deal with injuries just as much as anyone else. I think it's important to stay motivated and keep doing as much as possible, despite an injury, being careful not to prolong the injury, of course. Most finger injuries can be climbed through if you're careful, but
I'll probably be all arthritic and crippled when I'm old. So far it's going OK, though.
As for Eau d'Honnold, I don't think there's much of a market. At least I hope not.
Gavin W: How do you see the sport of climbing being affected by climate change in the next decade or two? Also, is there is any cognitive dissonance between wanting to protect the environment but also going on sponsored trips all over the globe? How do you deal with that?
Alex: Climate change is definitely having an impact on climbing. Lots of ice routes no longer form. Glaciers are disappearing in the mountains. In just my three seasons of going to Patagonia, I've seen the approach change on the Torre Glacier (as it's retreated, we now hike along the opposite side). But in general, a warmer, drier climate is probably a good thing for climbing. It's bad for the rest of the world, particularly the developing world, but I doubt it will wind up affecting climbing nearly as much as it affects the rest of life.
I don't think I experience cognitive dissonance about the amount that I travel. I've done the math on my carbon emissions several times and have a pretty good sense of how much harm I'm doing to the world. At the same time I have a pretty good idea about how much of a positive impact my foundation is having, and this year decided to start offsetting my travel in a more direct way (I use mossy.earth). And of course, I've made a bunch of lifestyle decisions to lower my impact. The thing is, I think I can do more good for the world by traveling than I can by staying at home.
GoBoy: Gate in, or gate out?
Alex: Gate in, not that it matters. Just the way that I've done it since I was a kid.
To read the interview in its entirety, including gems about who he'd pick for the ultimate pro-climber dodgeball team, head here.