Alex Honnold is probably the most famous adventure athlete in the world. He’s a world-class, free solo climber, known for climbing without the help of ropes, equipment, or a partner. He’s been known to scale 2,000 feet with only shoes and a chalk bag for “equipment.” He doesn’t always solo, but when he does it’s truly breathtaking. This is a sport with a history, but Alex’s new generation has brought a new edge to it. He climbs up a vertical wall with his fingers, finding tiny cracks and spots to hang onto, and just-barely toe holds. Weaving his way like a spider man, he’s setting not just solo climbing records, but also speed records.
I don’t know anything about the skills or requirements for soloing, mountain climbing, bouldering or alpining. I’m just a regular hiker. Yet this book is so well-written I was fascinated throughout, and learned so much about the sport. The book’s design is well done, with the narrative decidedly split between Alex Honnold’s stream of conscious thought about the climbs he’s describing, and the narrative by the co-author David Roberts.
A veteran mountaineer who’s written 30 books himself, David Roberts was the one behind Alex’s book project. Alex’s primary interest in the book is that he hopes it will push readers in their own climbing ambitions. The included color photos of spectacular climbs are incredible, interspersed with photos of Alex’s van life and his growing up. The book recounts seven incredible climbing achievements, starting out immediately on page one with the climb that began his fame, free soloing Moonlight Buttress, which is a 1,200-foot-high, nearly-vertical sandstone cliff in Utah’s Zion National Park.
I was one of the fortunate in the sold-out crowd recently when Alex Honnold gave a talk in Seattle and a book signing. Alex said this was the biggest crowd he’d ever spoken in front of, and he said that’s a tribute to Seattle’s climbing community. And that didn’t even take into account the line of people outside that went all the way down the block hoping for a last-minute spot in the sellout crowd.
Before you judge him as crazy, Alex would remind you that there’s 20 years of practice and dedication behind his climbing choices. “If I thought I was going to die, I wouldn’t do this.” He chooses what he climbs and does a lot of both mental and physical preparation.
His physical preparation includes lots of gym training. He also often does a climb roped first in order to see how hard it is, and also to determine how tired he will get. His mental preparation includes detailed thinking through the whole experience and visualizing. He also does heavy thinking on the ground about his approach.
He insists that it’s all well thought through in advance, and then on the wall it’s an enjoyable experience. On specific tough “pitches” he’ll be intensely focused. As an example of the proportion — for most climbs the easy, relaxed part of the solo, for Honnold, could be about 1,500 feet and the hard solo requiring 100 percent of his focus could be about 500 feet of it.
As far as dying, Alex insists that what matters is what you do before you die — thought-provoking, as is the book.
He splits climbing into consequence and risk. The consequence — if fall, die. The risk — he can control some risk. He judges the risk by how confident he feels from the preparation he did. What’s optimal? Alex aims for high consequence, with managed risk.
Alex formed the Honnold Foundation after his life-altering experience on a climb in Chad in 2010. It’s an environmental nonprofit that helps raise the standard of living around the world. Proceeds from his book go to his Foundation.
Did you know that Alex’s support was instrumental in saving our nearby Index for climbers? A world traveler, he’s a native Californian through and through. His very favorite climb and his original training ground are Yosemite and Half Dome. He also loves Rainbow Wall in California.
Alex’s favorite thing is feeling like a tiny dot on a huge expansive rock all by himself. Soloing gives him a deep satisfaction, especially because it’s such a slow, methodical process. He’s committed to continually improving himself and his performance.
Despite his amazing accomplishments, Alex is a very humble person. His nickname is Alex No Big Deal Honnold, stemming from his nonchalant demeanor. His book will bring to the surface your appreciation for nature, and for people who passionately follow their dreams to wherever they lead, whether to the next granite wall, or to the next Honnold Foundation goal improving the lives of others. Don’t pass up this book and the chance for a glimpse into the mind of a great free solo climber.
Thereby hangs a tale . . . .
— By Wendy Kendall
Wendy Kendall is a writer, project manager and volunteer at the Edmonds Library. Follow her via her blog here or on Twitter @wendywrites1.