As a creaky 38-year old, I daydream of reincarnation in the form of Lebron on a 50-point playoff night, or Messi scoring 5 goals in a Champions league battle. But no vision comes close to Alex Honnold soloing 7,000 vertical feet of the sheerest, most exposed rock on earth in an 18-hour period, knocking over the Lower-48’s three biggest rock faces in less time than it takes most parties to get to the ¼ mark of El Capitan.
In scaling El Cap, Watkins and Half Dome in perfect style, Alex incorporated 50 years of the greatest advancements in Yosemite climbing, bringing together big wall techniques, hard free climbing, bold free soloing, and speedy link-ups into one grand event that, in my opinion, is the greatest climbing achievement in the history of the universe. And given what we know about Alex, it all seemed so… predictable.
Over the past year we’ve been filming with climbing’s newest celebrity, documenting his journey — from the awkward savant who spent his non-climbing hours alone reading Dostoyevsky in his van, to the guy from 60 Minutes with billions of facebook fans who still reads Russian classics in his van, but now usually with a lady at his side.
We set out this filming project (provisionally titled “Honnold 3.0”) asking one big question: how would fame and celebrity affect Alex in his pursuit of the world’s boldest free solos? Because let’s face it, he is famous not for his ability to dunk over 7 foot giants, or for his golden left foot, but rather for his ability to scale the world’s steepest walls without a rope, facing certain death should he slip at any point, for hours on end, and all with a boyish charm that has us truly convinced he believes that what he does is “no big deal.” Its one thing to shoot hoops for the wrong reason. It’s quite another to free solo.
We’ve seen Alex go through some ups and downs over the year, at times feeling hostage to the on-line chatter and digital philosophers pontificating in 4th grade English about how, when and where he is going to die. We watched him disappear for months in the boulders of the Sierra to “get stronger,” dragging his butt on ridiculous sit-down cave boulder problems in an effort to build up his core. We saw him journey with friends to far away countries in pursuit of potential big walls to rival Yosemite. He climbed crystalline granite in Mexico, alpine walls in Peru, limestone in Morocco and China, and cliffs all across Europe.
And though he seemed to lose his way a few times, when he came back to Yosemite for the prime May season, it was clear that everything was going as planned. Back together with his girlfriend after a 5-month separation, Alex was bounding through El Cap meadow with the boyish step of a kid in a candy store – specifically the kid who gets to eat whatever the hell he wants in that candy store, everyday. His core training on the small boulders, his time spent on foreign rock learning how to climb in different conditions, his obsessive day-in, day-out rock crushing everywhere he went this past year, not to mention the years of his young life logged on the Yosemite granite, was all in preparation for this.
Alex immediately teamed up with Yosemite’s other demi-god, Tommy Caldwell, to free climb the Big Three in a day — an historic achievement in itself. He then went on to speed solo the 2,200 foot Half Dome in 1 hour 22 minutes. Another day, he casually free soloed the West Face of El Capitan, making it clear that he is able to treat Yosemite’s massive walls the way many of us treat our local boulders — a place to play around, get stronger, run laps and have fun.
And then came the main event.
Walking through plans with Alex, it quickly became clear that he had been strategizing for the triple solo for a long time, and his calculations were precise. In order to avoid the summer heat while maximizing the long days, he would start Watkins at 4 pm in the shade, top out at sunset, hike to Tioga pass, drive the hour to El Cap meadow, jump on The Nose just after dark, solo through the night and top out pre-sunrise, run down the East Ledges, drive to the stables, hike the Death Slabs at sunrise and climb Half Dome in the morning before the shade would hit him. Sitting in the meadow, listening to him talk through the details, it starts to sound pretty damn logical. Until you look up. El Cap through the night solo? Start Watkins at 4 and top out by sunset?! Solo Half Dome after climbing 5000 feet through the night?!! Is this guy crazy?!!!
In order to film the climb, we began calling the Monkeys, who, it must be said, all have that same locals-view of Yosemite where preposterous things can be done in exceedingly short times. Sean “Stanley” Leary, who has starred in more than one Reel Rock show and is now honing his wall shooting skills, would go to the top of El Cap, rap in to the great roof to meet Alex at 1 am, jug out with him shooting the last 600 feet of the wall, hike down the ledges and up to the base of Half Dome, filming the whole way (he stuck it). Cheyne Lempe would aid solo up to the boot flake and shoot from 12 – 1 in the morning as Alex chimney-ed Texas flake, traversed the bolt ladder, soloed the boot flake and disappeared into darkness off the King Swing (Cheyne stuck it). Colin Delehaney, Kyle Berkompas and Alik Berg were positioned around the valley with a RED, 5Ds and 7Ds to capture long shots and time-lapses of Alex on each formation (Stuck it, stuck it, stuck it). The uber-fit Ben Ditto and I would rap in on Watkins, hike out with Alex, drive him to the meadow with his girlfriend Stacey, see him off on El Cap then meet him at top of Half Dome for the zig-zags and final summit shots. (We stuck it, but I am a bit sore). Throw in footage from Mikey Schaeffer who’d filmed a practice run with Alex on Watkins and helped with logistics, and we would have an impressive document of a historic event.
When the climb began, things went predictably smooth. The thing with Alex is — and this sounds cliché, but its true – when his mind is set on something, nothing stops him.
Example #1: It rained hard for seven hours till 9 pm the night before he went up on the triple. We’d all decided his climb wouldn’t be happening. But Alex just calmly said, “Lets wait and see, things dry up here surprisingly quickly.” The next morning by 8 AM he was out at the Manure Pile feeling the rock, and he decided that, while a bit damp, it would be good enough for climbing later that day. And so he stayed on task. As it turned out, there were some wet spots on all three routes, but apparently they didn’t bother him much.
Example #2: In the middle of his link-up, at 9:30 PM, after scrambling up the first pitch of El Cap in the dark, he realized that he left his chalk bag in the car. Instead of wasting an hour sprinting down to the meadow, he yelled “FUUUUUUCCCK” at the top of his lungs, then calmly began soloing the damp Nose by headlamp. Eight pitches up he passed some aid climbers who were on a multi-day assault of the Nose. They happily gave Alex a chalk bag to continue his journey.
Arriving at the finish line atop Half Dome at almost 11 AM the following day, Alex was as exhausted as I’d ever seen him. He admitted that this climb required everything he had and then some, and that “No Big Deal” Honnold had finally found something that was indeed a big deal.
No less than 50 tourists on the summit recognized the 60 Minutes guy and lined up one after the other to shake his hand and pose for photos. It was a perfect finish for a guy who has become world-famous for doing the thing that he is most driven to do. He made climbing history in Yosemite, but the first to congratulate him were people who really had no idea what he was up to. They did understand one thing though: Alex Honnold is someone special.
- Pete Mortimer