The Story Behind the Climber in the Unicorn Suit

One of the climbing world's least important mysteries has been solved.

Editor’s Note on February 25, 2019: On Sunday, the rock climbing documentary Free Solo’ won the award for Best Documentary at the 91st Academy Awards. The film documented a magical moment during Alex Honnold’s free solo of El Capitan: a climber in a unicorn suit was also on the wall with him. 

Alex Honnold was roughly halfway up Freerider during his historic free solo of El Cap, looking for a water bottle he stashed on Heart Ledge when he woke a mythical beast slumbering on a portaledge.

Yosemite Valley stalwart Tom Evans captured the moment while chronicling Honnold’s ascent for his site, ElCap Report, and the climbing community did a collective double take. Was that climber wearing a chicken suit? Wait no, a unicorn costume? National Geographic even asked Honnold about it in his first interview after he sent. “What costume? I wasn’t paying attention,” he replied.

Honnold searches for his water bottle. | Photo: Tom Evans ElCap Report

The climbing unicorn starts his day. | Photo: Tom Evans ElCap Report

I wanted to see if I could find the unicorn-onesie climber and ask him a few questions, so I posted Tom Evans’ photo to Mountain Project’s Facebook feed, and it took all of 12 minutes to find Forest Altherr of Frisco, Colorado, who has to be one of America’s most stoked (and unique) climbers.

Do you always climb in a unicorn suit? Is this your thing? And, uh, why?

Well, I haven’t always been this way.

The lab group I worked for during my graduate research studied poop, and we grew to have a fascination with pooping unicorns after watching the best internet ad of all time while procrastinating studying for finals. That rainbow-pooping unicorn forever changed me.

I started climbing as a unicorn in North Carolina’s Linville Gorge. It’s surprisingly functional as a warm layer, but it does not breathe very well and also attracts a lot of bees.

Forest climbs Full Tilt Boogie (5.11 c/d) in North Carolina’s Linville Gorge. | Photo: Morgan Gerlitz

How long have you been climbing, and what are your favorite rock climbs to date?

I was introduced to climbing when I was really young, but I didn’t start to own an identity as a climber until I started living in my car in 2013. My favorite rock climbs are predominantly in Yosemite: The Nose, Freerider, the Rostrum North Face. I spent a couple years in the Southeast recently, and the climbing around Chattanooga is so good. One of my favorite single pitches of all time is Space Ranger at Sunset Park near Chatt. I hear someone has done it in a koala suit. It still needs a First Unicorn Ascent (FUA), though.

Is this the first known unicorn ascent of El Cap?

It wouldn’t surprise me if other mythical creatures have scaled the granite monolith before, and I hesitate to proclaim it’s the first of anything when it comes to El Cap. Resident historian, Tom Evans, would be better able to speak about the mythology of the wall.

[Editor’s note: We asked Tom, and he says that in more than a decade watching and photographing every day of every climbing season on the Big Stone, he has never seen a unicorn on the wall. He has seen a climber in a banana suit, however the climber only wore it on some, not all, pitches.]

What did you think when you woke up to Alex Honnold’s face?

As a unicorn, few things seem to be really magical, but this certainly was. Alex seemed far less impressed to see a unicorn than I was to see him, though.

Did you guys talk?

I recognized him right away because he had rapped past us on the Freeblast earlier so I looked over and said, “Hey.” He looked at us and said that we looked “pooped.” I misinterpreted this as him thinking we had pooped on the ledge and vehemently denied the accusation. I mean even unicorns use poop tubes! He corrected me, saying that he was actually commenting on our physical appearance, and then we talked about our plans that day on Freerider. It was a pretty mellow exchange. Seeing the focused intensity in his eyes will stick with me forever. And it was really cool watching him cruise up the Monster Offwidth.

Did you hear about the recent first naked ascent of El Cap?

Heck yeah! Jon and Leah are in another realm of legendary. If I could see them right now I would give them a hoof bump. It’s an epic first ascent, although I should point out that unicorns are technically always naked.

What future FUA’s are on your radar?

There are so many out there left to do it’s hard to say. I will be in the Southwest for the next couple years, so I’d like to do some walls in the Black Canyon and Purple Haze on the Shield in New Mexico’s Sandia Mountains. El Capitan always beckons, too.

Well, congrats on your send, and here’s your moment. What’s one thing you’d like every climber to know?

Please feed the dirtbags! Unicorns like to have their bellies rubbed! And donate to the ElCap Report to keep the phenomenal news from the Valley coming!