The Significance of Honnold’s Free Solo

Yosemite's El Cap enters a new era

Unless you live under rock (that’s not inside Yosemite National Park), you know that on Saturday, June 3, Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold free soloed the iconic El Capitan, becoming the first person to summit a main route on the 3,000-foot granite monolith, perhaps the most famous rock face in the world, without the use of ropes or other safety gear.

He cruised Freerider (5.12d) in just under four hours with nothing but the clothes on his back, a chalk bag, his TC Pros, and some water he previously stashed along the route.

This is a very big deal.

So stoked to realize a life dream today 🙂 @jimmy_chin photo

A post shared by Alex Honnold (@alexhonnold) on

“I think there is no doubt this El Cap free solo will be remembered as one of the major climbing events of the 21st century,” says Dougald MacDonald, executive editor of the American Alpine Club. “I’d rank this climb in the same region as the 1958 first ascent of the Nose (Harding, et al) and the 1988 first free ascent of a full-length El Cap route (Salathé Wall, Skinner-Piana), perhaps even Lynn Hill’s one-day free ascent of the Nose in 1994. Each of these feats pushed El Cap climbing into an entirely new realm. And, interestingly, each is about a generation apart.”

For most seasoned climbers, tackling 30 pitches of often-slippery climbing up to 5.12d (or 5.13a by the variation Honnold climbed) with protection, ropes, and a portaledge is the undertaking of a lifetime. And for any mortal, the thought of doing so without a rope, where one less-than-precise crimp or smear would result in a deadly free fall, goes against every self-preserving impulse a human has.

“The impressiveness of this feat is far more mental than physical,” says Tommy Caldwell, all-around legend and frequent climbing partner of Honnold’s. “This climb is far, far below his limit physically and highlights Alex’s genius, which is thinking very simply and logically about things that others find extraordinary or complicated. He doesn’t experience emotional fear the same way other people do. For him, it’s logical and about proper preparation.”

@alexhonnold composed and casual free soloing (sans cord) 2000ft above the deck on the Enduro Pitch of Freerider yesterday. Alex’s process to prepare for his dream of free soloing El Cap has been an incredible, and sometimes stressful, journey to witness and be a part of over the last two years while filming him for a feature documentary (co-directed by @mochinyc). In some ways I expected (and prayed for) nothing less on his big day but it was still mind bending to see how relaxed he was in the final days leading up to the climb and of course during the climb – as seen here locked off reaching full extension with mere finger tips in contact to granite, feet smeared on nothing. What I’ve learned over the last 10 years about Alex is he isn’t the kid that shows up to do well on the exam. If it counts, he’s there to ace it, knock out the extra credit questions and finish early. I’d say he aced his final exam yesterday with extra credit for style and composure. When he got to the top, he looked at me and said “I’m pretty sure I could go back to the bottom and do it again right now.” Congrats bud. You crushed. It was historic, it was brilliant, it was moving beyond words. Thanks to all of Alex’s climbing partners who supported along the way and especially to one helluva film crew for staying committed through thick and thin doing some of the best work I’ve ever seen. So so proud of everyone. See the @natgeo link in my bio for more.

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Alex had been training for this attempt, mainly in secrecy, for a couple of years (a close network of climbing partners and a film crew lead by Jimmy Chin were in the know). “We talked a lot about this project, and it weighed on me,” says professional climber and Sufferfest cohort Cedar Wright. “Last time we chatted, though, it was pretty obvious he was on his A-game. He had just climbed all five Cathedrals in a day, onsighting a bunch of devious 5.10 and 5.11 in the process, an accomplishment that unlike El Cap, you can’t really appreciate unless you’ve climbed all of those routes. A couple weeks ago he rapped in to work the V7 crux (known as “The Boulder Problem”) and climbed it eight times in a row. I asked him how it felt, and Alex says ‘It’s just a little bit slippery, but I never fall off. At some point, you have to accept it.’ Yeah, this freaked me out a bit! But what he accomplished is simply one of the most compelling human feats of all time.”

There are many physically stronger climbers out there (Honnold says one of his climbing goals is to climb 9a, or 5.14d, one day), but few, if any, possess Honnold’s ability to suppress or control fear, one of the most basic human feelings.

“When I transport myself into Alex’s head, it’s a comforting thing,” says Caldwell. “He’s thinking things like, There are only two or three moves on the whole thing that are hard, and I’ve rehearsed them so many times, I could do them with my eyes closedBut when I think about actually being up there on Freerider—on the Enduro pitch—with 2,500 feet below me and what that would really be like, I mean, it’s a gutting reality. Alex has an extraordinary ability to downplay that, and that’s the beauty of this climb and of his greatness. It’s inspiring and beautiful.”

Good job sending your project! I’m glad you survived @alexhonnold

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As Alex finished the final pitch, reportedly at a near run with the film crew struggling to keep up, and stood on solid ground, the climbing community exhaled a collective sigh of both relief and awe.

“Minus the doughy cow eyes, Alex Honnold is the climber I always dreamed of being,” says Cedar Wright. “Not just because of his hard soloing but because of his absolute well-roundedness as a climber and a human. He’s such a good person, and he deserves this historic achievement.”

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