Adventures / Climbing / Exclusive: Alex Honnold, the ROAM Interview

Alex Honnold free soloing El Capitan in Yosemite Valley.

By Mary Anne Potts

It was one of the most phenomenal athletic feats of all time. Though it’s compared to the sub-four-minute mile, this feat could easily result in death. And it was captured from start to finish by a film crew for Free Solo, which was just nominated for an Academy Award and co-directed by ROAM Chief Creative Officer Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi.

The incredible film goes beyond Alex Honnold’s athletic achievement to be the first to climb Yosemite’s 3,200-foot El Capitan without ropes to present a portrait of a man with a singular commitment to a goal and his friends’ struggle—most notably his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless—to support him in this goal, which could result in his death.

In November 2015, I interviewed Alex at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in New York City, resulting in a short cameo in the opening of the film. Among my questions about his dating life, writing a book, and the expected risk-death set, I asked if he thought he’d be the one to climb Yosemite’s 3,200-foot El Capitan without ropes, or free solo, the ultimate unclaimed prize in rock climbing. He told me the he would love to, but thought it was so next level it would be left for the next generation.

However, on June 3, 2017, with a respectful hush maintained by all climbers in Yosemite Valley, Alex quietly claimed this prize via the Freerider route, bottom to top without a rope. It took 3 hours and 56 minutes. From there, the news exploded across the world.

ROAM caught up with Alex at the American Alpine Club Annual dinner in Boston to get his thoughts on a life well lived, Honnold style. Listen to the audio version of the interview or read it below. We’re pretty sure Alex is one of the most intelligent and fascinating people on the planet.

#1 On starting to climb with his dad

My first memories of climbing are all from the climbing gym in Sacramento, where I started. I know that I climbed before that, at a different gym, when I was even younger, but I don’t really remember it. I don’t even remember the first time I went into the gym. I just have vague memories of certain walls of the gym, and my dad belaying me on top rope, and just being at the gym, as a kid.

It was my dad who always took me into the climbing gym, as a kid. He wasn’t a climber, so he didn’t exactly introduce me, but he thought that I would like climbing. So, he took me in and he belayed me, and he sort of supported the whole process.

I wouldn’t say – I don’t have any great training secrets, certainly no secrets. I try to train in various ways. Basically, I read the same books that everybody else does. I talk to all of the same people about them. I don’t really know the best way to train.

#2 On training

I think, no matter what, training is hard work. It just takes some time and effort. That’s why not that many people train that much, because it’s hard.

Historically, I’ve been really bad about training. For the last ten years, I’ve lived in a van and basically travelled and climbed full-time. Just in the last few months, I’ve been getting a little bit more regimented about my training. It’s a bit of an experiment, to see how it affects my climbing. We’ll see.
It’s funny, because I’ve been training pretty seriously for the last six weeks or so, so I’m like “Oh, yeah. I’m into training.” But when you look at the last ten years, I’ve always been really, really bad about training.

For me, it’s not really a challenge to balance the fun climbing versus the job. Being a professional climber doesn’t really affect your climbing. It affects all of the things that you have to do on your rest days. All of the travel, going to events, going to give talks, meeting with sponsors, things like that. Being a professional climber doesn’t really impact your climbing, except that it just takes time away from your actual climbing, because you have to go do other things.

So, it’s not that I have to change my climbing at all. It’s just that it’s more of a challenge to find the time to go do the type of climbing that I want to do. I mean, I always climb for fun. I’ve always just gone climbing, because I like going climbing. Even if I wasn’t getting paid to be a climber, I would still go climb.

#3 On nutrition

Diet is interesting for me. I’m basically a vegetarian. I often eat vegan, though none of the labels work that well, because I do occasionally eat meat. I occasionally eat anything, really. I try to eat as low impact as possible.

I went vegetarian, and I eat occasionally vegan, in order to minimize my footprint. Basically, to have less of an impact on the world. And a little bit for human health, as well. So, that means that occasionally I’ll eat meat or something, if it’s going to go to waste anyway. Or my friend ordered something that they’re not going to finish. I’m like “Well, if it’s going to get thrown away.” Not that I would always do that, but if I’m hungry, and if there’s meat there that’s going to be thrown away, I’ll eat that, because it’s like “Why not?”

Or on expeditions, or when I’m traveling in far-flung places, I’ll sort of eat whatever is available. But in general, I definitely think about the impact of my food choices. I think that’s kind of the important thing, is making clear choices.

I think you can definitely perform as an elite athlete, on a vegan diet, for sure. I’ve never actually been on a vegan diet long enough to really say that with certainty. Though actually, for the four or five months before soloing Freerider, I was basically eating a vegan diet, and I felt great. I was lean, I was really strong. That was great.

But in general, I sort of lack the discipline for a full vegan diet. I think, partially, because I travel so much. The thing is, because I care more about the environmental impacts, if I’m eating an 80% vegan diet, that’s 80% of the environmental impact, so that’s still pretty good. Even though I don’t necessarily apply the label, I’m still most of the way there.

#4 What’s a guilty pleasure when it comes to food?

As far as guilty pleasures go, I’ve always had a big sweet tooth. I like desserts. So, there are a lot of, like eating a pastry or something that maybe was cooked with butter or eggs. The environmental impact of a pastry is so much smaller than eating a fillet of meat, that I could be eating vegetarian or eating mostly vegan, but then eat the occasional pastry, and not feel that guilty about it.

It’s still such a lower impact than other choices. And I’m aware of that. I realize that eating a chocolate chip cookie does impact the world negatively, in certain ways. But occasionally, I’m like “Oh, I just want that cookie!” You know? And I just don’t feel that bad about it.

#5 His approach to dating

I think in general, it’s probably slightly harder to date, as a professional climber, just because the lifestyle is so migrant. You’re constantly moving. You just don’t really have roots in places. It’s all just a bit random. That said, once you find somebody that you connect well with, you maintain your relationship, just the same as for anybody else, really.
I think in my experience, it was slightly harder to meet people.

Actually, in some ways – I don’t know. That’s an interesting question. In some ways, as a professional climber, it’s easier to meet people, because you have this huge pool, and you’re constantly moving around the climbing community. So, it’s easy to meet people.

It’s just harder to actually see them – it’s harder to go on dates, and actually see them multiple times, and see if there’s a connection. And then, actually get together with somebody more seriously. But then, once you do, you find a way to make that work. Your lifestyles just sort of meld, in whatever way. It makes more sense.

Dating is always about finding the right person. In my case, my girlfriend enjoys the van lifestyle and traveling, and climbing. I think it would be really hard to date a non-climber, just because my entire life is wrapped up around climbing. I mean, everybody sort of works through it in different ways.

There are other professional climbers who spend more of their time training indoors. That schedule looks a lot like a normal nine to five. So, they could probably easily be dating somebody that lives in one place, and works a normal job, and the lifestyle could work. But for me, I travel more, and go on expeditions more. I just don’t think I could make that work very well.

ROAM: Exclusive: Alex Honnold, the ROAM Interview
Alex Honnold in front of El Cap in Yosemite National Park; Photo by Samuel Crossley
ROAM: Exclusive: Alex Honnold, the ROAM Interview
Free Solo directors Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

#6 His approach to risk

I actually don’t necessarily think that I have a higher tolerance for risk. I never gamble. I would never gamble. I live in Las Vegas now, so I’m around casinos all of the time. But I would never gamble, because the games are designed for you to lose. So, why would you ever risk like that? It’s just stupid. You’re going to lose, because you’re supposed to lose.
On the other hand, I do engage in other risky behavior, like fast driving or fast downhill skiing, or things like that, that are conventionally considered risk-taking. But I just don’t see it as that risky. If you’re driving a decent car, and you’re going fast, it’s just you’re on the freeway. I don’t know.

It’s sort of the same with my climbing. It’s all about controlled risk-taking, like feeling in control, while doing something that other people might think is sketchy. Actually, even my driving on the freeway, if I’m driving 80 on the freeway, you’re like “Oh, that’s fast!” But a racecar driver would be driving 160 in the same car, feeling totally in control, totally comfortable, and that would be fine. So, everybody’s levels of risk are different.

#7 What’s next

I don’t know what the next chapter in my life will be. I know that right now, I’m sort of in physical training mode. I want to climb harder graders. Really, that probably should have come earlier in my climbing career. That should have been something that I was working on as a teenager, but for whatever reason, that’s just not the way I’ve done it.

I just don’t think I’ll be happy as an old person, if I haven’t climbed harder grades. This is kind of the time for me to do it. So, I’m sort of working on that, even though it’s pretty silly, because it’s just sort of a personal goal. It’s definitely not cutting-edge, by any means, but I just want to climb harder. I feel like I won’t be able to take myself seriously as a professional climber, if I’ve never actually climbed hard grades. I’m like “Alright. I just need to do that, at some point.”

#8 His thoughts on alpinism

I think alpinism will probably always play a small role in my climbing. I kind of like doing one trip to the mountains a year, or one expedition every year or two, just because you do see the more beautiful places on Earth. You have these outrageous experiences. There’s definitely something to be gained from alpinism. But it’s just not my primary passion. It’s just not quite my thing. Maybe if it weren’t so snowy.

#9 On his critics

With any free-soloing that I’ve done over the last ten or 15 years, there is always some sort of criticism. People online, thinking that I’m being a daredevil, I’m taking risks, that I’m throwing my life away, all that kind of stuff. That’s fine. It’s never bothered me. I think that anybody doing something challenging and unusual, anybody pushing the edge of human potential in different ways, is going to get that kind of criticism.

I think that’s perfectly natural, perfectly healthy. That’s fine. I certainly don’t mind having people second-guess my decision-making, because I second-guess my decision-making. I try to think things through. Is this something that I truly want to do? Is this something that means enough to me?
I think about all of that, and eventually I choose “Yes, I want to do this. I’m going to.” Then, I work toward it, and then I do it. If other people don’t appreciate that whole process, who cares? They can do other things. That’s the really polite way of saying fuck ‘em.

#10 On failure

Climbing is mostly about failure. Most routes that I go out, every day that I go sport climbing outside, I mostly fall off of projects. And then, there’s this one day when you finally actually do it. Then, you move on to the next one. Then that, you fail on and fail on and fail on, and eventually you might do it.

I think that I spend most of my time climbing, failing. Then, you have the occasional moment of glory, where you feel amazing and it all comes together, and you get to do something that you’ve worked hard for. That’s what makes those moments so satisfying, is because you’ve had to work really hard for them.

Asking about failure, it’s funny, because right now, most of my failure is around, like my last training session. I was trying to hang on this little edge, with different amounts of weight. It was my first really bad session, in the last six weeks of various training stuff.

I just didn’t hit any of my numbers. I just couldn’t really do it. For whatever reason, I just could not hang on, with the amount of weight that I wanted to. I was like “Oh, I failed.” But whatever. That’s part of training. The whole point of training is to push yourself to failure, and to push past that, and to keep working. It’s all part of the process.

ROAM: Exclusive: Alex Honnold, the ROAM Interview
Alex Honnold gets a haircut courtesy of Sanni McCandless, his girlfriend; Photo by Jimmy Chin
ROAM: Exclusive: Alex Honnold, the ROAM Interview
Housekeeping in the van; Photo by Jimmy Chin

#11 On his process for a big free solo climb

If I were going to talk you through the process of a big free solo, it wouldn’t really start at the base of the route. It would start years before, when I think about maybe doing the route. Then, it would be the months of preparation ahead of time, where I’ve worked through it, and visualized it, and just believed that it’s possible.

The actual process of going from the base of the route to the top of the route is probably the least interesting part of the whole journey, because that part, I’m on autopilot. I’m just executing. It’s all the preparation ahead of time. There’s a lot that goes into believing that you can do a free solo.

The actual moment of soloing it is all pretty, I don’t want to say anti-climactic, because it can feel amazing to get to the top and everything. But the actual climbing just feels like climbing. It’s all your body, just executing the way it’s supposed to. It’s quite a long process, really.

When you get to the top of a big free solo; like when I free-soloed El Cap, I was ecstatic on top. I was super-happy, super-excited. I still get pretty psyched when I think about it, just because it’s still probably the most I’ve put into anything, and the most rewarding experience that I ever had in climbing.

But there have been plenty of other free solos that I did, that I was glad to have done, and happy to do, but didn’t feel great about. I’d get to the summit and just think “Oh, that wasn’t as good as it could have been,” or it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I think that’s sort of the nature of any human endeavor. You get out of it what you put into it.

So, some solos, I’ve had to work really, really hard for, and I’ve dreamt about for years. Those feel super-rewarding. Others, I maybe haven’t quite put in the work, or I rush it, or I sort of get away with something, Then, on top, it doesn’t feel that great, because I’m like “Oof, that was kind of ugly. I just got away with it.”

#12 On faith and spirituality

I am not superstitious at all. I am very unspiritual, unreligious, and do not care about any of that stuff.

#13 On being an “advocate”

I’m trying to figure out to frame this in a nice response. It’s funny, you ask me about advocacy, because just yesterday, someone was doing an interview with me about what it’s like to have a platform, and my responsibility as an athlete. What I realized was that I’ve never felt a responsibility as an athlete. It doesn’t matter to me that I have a platform.

What matters to me is that I am an engaged, moral, caring human. I feel like I respond to issues in the same way that I would like for all engaged voters to respond to issues. I think it’s important for any informed adult to have strong opinions about the issues that affect the world. And people should act in line with their values, and speak out about their conscience, and all of those sorts of things.

The fact that I happen to have a bigger platform than most, just means that when I speak about those issues, it’s slightly amplified. But I think that I speak out about issues, the same as everybody should be. I think that you can’t live in this world, without caring about the oppressed, or the environment, or whatever issues, really.

There’s a lot going on around us, that we should care about. I’m not like an advocate, in any way. I’m not out pushing for reform for certain things. I’m just speaking my mind about things that I think are important. I’d like to think that everybody should be doing the same.

I care about protecting the environment, and I think that protecting our public lands in the U.S. is certainly an important way to protect the environment. So, particularly in the current political administration or political climate, public lands are a much bigger issue right now, than they have been in the past.

But that said, ultimately, I think with all issues, it’s more important to go to your actual values, like what do you truly care about? I care about the concept of leaving no trace, minimizing the impact, not doing harm in the world. So, protecting our public lands is a very easy way to minimize our harm, because when you open up public lands to exploitation, that is now no longer a pristine, wild place. You can’t take your grandkids there someday, because there’s a freaking open coal mine or something. I just went down a dark path, and now I’m sad.

I wouldn’t say that I’m an advocate for public lands, exactly, but I am all about protecting the environment how we can. Right now, protecting public lands is an important way to do that.

It’s a surprisingly charged thing to talk about public lands, or talk about gun control right now, or talk about climate change, all of these issues. It’s too bad that those all have to be considered so politically divisive, because I feel like if you get to the values behind that, I don’t want to harm other creatures.

I don’t really care about gun control. I don’t want to take away somebody’s guns. I want to make sure that people are not harmed inappropriately. I would never kill another creature if I didn’t need to. Which is why I try not to eat meat, and try not to eat meat products, or as few as possible, because I want to do as little harm as possible.

I wish people would think more about underlying values, like that. Like what are the things that really matter to them?
That was the thing, doing an interview about it yesterday. I was sort of like “Oh, I don’t know if it’s really fair to call me an advocate for any particular issues.” I just think of myself as a normal human, that cares about the world around me, and wants to see it protected in the best way.

No, it’s still climbing. I don’t know. I don’t know. What am I excited about?

#14 Beyond climbing, does anything excite him?

I just got an Air-pop popcorn thing, which has made my life a lot better. I love popcorn. It’s just like a little bowl. You just fill it to the line, and then it just air pops, and it’s the most perfect popcorn I’ve ever had. It’s amazing, and it saves you all of the calories from the oil.

Oh, and I just got a blender. I just got a Vita-Mix. I’ve been making a lot of smoothies. So, between smoothies and air-popping popcorn, I’m on a good diet, and I’m pretty happy.
Actually, it is interesting for me, just because I’ve been really into training in the gym right now, and I’m really into domestic stuff, like using my new blender. I’m just like, I kind of like it! I’m like “No wonder people like living in houses!” It’s nice, it’s comfortable, it’s fun.

I’m sure pretty soon, I’ll start to feel the itch again, and have to go out and have some kind of adventure. Already, I’m thinking about Yosemite season, which I’ll go in April. But for now, I’m really enjoying home life. It’s pretty nice.

#15 On climbing in the Olympics

I’m pretty excited about climbing in the Olympics. I think it’s cool. I’m looking forward to watching it. Actually, I really want to be a commentator, in some way. I really want to go and be a part of it, somehow. But I’m too old and too weak to be an athlete, to actually compete. I’d love to go and participate somehow.

I think it’s good for the sport. I know that the competitors are all super-excited about it, so I think it’s great. I know every time anyone asks, I’m like “Just putting it out there!” I’m sure somebody will hear.

ROAM: Exclusive: Alex Honnold, the ROAM Interview
Tommy Caldwell (left) and Alex Honnold are perfect climbing partners. In 2018 they set a new speed record on the Nose that may never be beaten (except by Alex and Tommy); Photo by Jimmy Chin

#16 On what he’d be if he weren’t a climber

If I wasn’t a climber, I’ve always thought I would be an engineer or something. I really like systems management-type stuff, like efficiency. I could see running a factory, and trying to make sure all of the widgets move in the best way possible. Or I was thinking about being a traffic engineer. Any time I’m driving through cities, I’m just like “Oh, why is this light not better synchronized with these other lights, so that things would move a little bit more smoothly?”

I just love optimizing systems, which actually reminds me a lot of speed climbing. Because a big part of climbing is being efficient with your transitions, and just moving efficiently. So, I just love to see the world move that way.

#17 On his public versus private life

I’ve pretty much never had any split between my public persona and my private persona. The things that I post on social media are exactly what I would post in normal life. I think for me, though, it’s because it’s just easier that way. Like doing interviews, it’s easier if you’re just totally honest all of the time.

Because if you’re constructing a persona, then you constantly have to stay in character, and act and perform. For me, it’s much easier just to show up and just say “This is who I am. This is what I like. This is what I do.” I think it just comes more naturally, just to be yourself.

#18 On being a professional climber versus a “lifestyle” climber

Obviously, it’s very subjective, what it means to be a good climber. For me, it’s hard for me to take myself seriously as a professional climber, if I can’t go out and actually climb well. I don’t have to be the best. I don’t have to be at the highest grade. But I have to be climbing well enough, that people are like “Oh, that’s a good climber.”

If I’m going to be paid as a professional climber, I need to be able to climb better than most people. That’s just the way it should be.

This is actually a bit of a rant, because there are definitely a lot of people that are Instagram influencers and whatever. I’m sort of like, if you’re going to be paid as a climber, you need to be a good climber. I’m not the best climber, but I certainly try. I try to be a good climber.

I think I am good enough, that I can at least hold my own. I can go to any crag in the world, and I can definitely climb 5.13 anywhere. I’m sort of like, that’s not elite. Obviously, people are flashing 5.15 now, which is crazy.

But at least high enough that there aren’t going to be many nine to five recreational climbers climbing better than me. There certainly are some, probably many. But it’s at least a good enough climber. To me, I differentiate between a lifestyle climber and sort of a more serious climber. Lifestyle being “I just go climb for fun, and I just like the experience of climbing.”

I like that, too. I go climb for fun, also. But I will also just flog myself in the gym, because I want to maintain a certain level of fitness, because I have a certain pride. I need to be a good climber.

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