Adventures / Climbing / Alex Honnold on Climbing for Solar Power

Cedar Wright

By Mary Anne Potts

Video by Cedar Wright

Alex Honnold may have lit up the world when he climbed 3,000 vertical feet entirely without ropes from the valley floor to the top of El Capitan in Yosemite—a first that may never be repeated. But did you know his foundation, the Honnold Foundation, has helped bring solar-powered lights to people around the world who are completely off the grid? Here Alex answers some of our questions about how he chooses to give back, life after El Cap free solo, and fueling his adventures.


What keeps me motivated is the fact that we’ve had a real, tangible effect.
—Alex Honnold

What motivated you to even start a foundation? What keeps you motivated?
Alex: I wanted to start supporting environmental nonprofits and felt like I might as well do all my charitable giving through one place in the hope that it would inspire others to do the same. Basically, I wanted to do something positive for the world and it seems like doing it publicly allows for it to have a bigger impact. What keeps me motivated is the fact that we’ve had a real, tangible effect. The world is ever so slightly better because of our efforts. That’s awesome!

Why do so many on your projects focus on sustainable power?
Alex: I’ve always looked for projects that help the environment and improve standard of living. Anything that lifts people up while making the world a cleaner place. Sustainable power projects fit those criteria perfectly, though I’m open to whatever has the biggest impact.

How do you pick which projects to do?
Alex: I like projects that are simple and elegant – projects that are obviously win-win for people and the planet. Those have mostly been solar projects it seems.

What have you learned about trying to help people?
Alex: That’s a good question. I think that people can mostly help themselves if given an opportunity. That’s part of what I like about energy-access projects—it’s basically just a way to give people the tools to help themselves.

It was pretty amazing to see— such a simple system had such a big impact.
—Alex Honnold

Can you share an anecdote of a time when it really felt worth it to help just one person on one of your projects?
Alex: In Angola we did one simple install on a hut in a village outside the area we were climbing—it was just a 20 watt panel, a battery, and 4 LED lightbulbs. Because the huts are a single room and because families were clustered together in the village that meant that we installed the panel on a father’s house and then his two daughters, living on either side, also got a light. And there was one left over for the outside, which meant that when we came back at night the whole village was congregated around the one public light in the village. It was pretty amazing to see—such a simple system had such a big impact.

After the free soloing of El Cap, have your priorities shifted at all … regarding climbing, the foundation, your friends and family?
Alex: Not in a fundamental way, at least not yet. Climbing goals have taken a step back for now, but that’s mostly because I’m resting a bit and focusing on other things (like sponsor obligations and the foundation) for a little while. But we’ll see how things change in the long term. I’m not sure.

What’s an upcoming Honnold Foundation project that you are excited about?
Alex: We just started supporting the Solar Energy Foundation in Ethiopia, which is basically an organization that a local Ethiopian started in an effort to spread off-grid power. We met Samson Tsegaye, the founder, while we were on a climbing expedition in Kenya and were super impressed by the work that he’s been doing, especially considering how difficult the business climate is in Ethiopia. We’re hoping to help him scale his organization.

In ten years, what do you hope the foundation is doing?
Alex: I hope we’re doing the same kinds of projects but on a larger bigger scale. It would be great to be having a bigger impact and truly making the world a better place. The transition to a 100 percent renewable world will probably be in full swing in 10 years—it’ll be great to play a very small part in that.

I try to always think about the impact of what I’m eating— what does the least harm and what makes the most sense?
—Alex Honnold

Does your van run on any sustainable fuel sources?
Alex: Unfortunately, it runs on gasoline. I looked into electric vans but they aren’t quite here yet, at least not quite to the degree that I need them. I’m pretty excited about going electric as soon as I can, though.

The last time we spoke you were vegetarian, almost vegan. Is that still true?
Alex: I’m still about the same: 95 percent vegetarian (I eat the occasional meat on trips and things), and probably 75 percent vegan (I always eat eggs and the occasional dairy).

The main thing for me is that I try to always think about the impact of what I’m eating—what does the least harm and what makes the most sense? With the amount of travel I do it’s really hard to be a strict vegan, though being most of the way there is certainly better than not trying at all.

Do you find what you eat has any impact on your mental or physical abilities?
Alex: Well, eating lots of fruits and vegetables keeps me feeling healthy, for sure. Other than that I don’t notice a ton of change with diet. For the 4 or 5 months before I soloed Freerider this year I was really strict about eating an almost entirely vegan diet with no desserts and I definitely noticed improved recovery. But it’s subtle since I’m always in pretty good shape.

What did you eat the night before soloing El Cap? Did you have breakfast that morning?
Alex: Don’t remember my dinner, it was probably pasta and veggies or maybe an asian noodle veggie mix. My breakfast was muesli and berries with hemp milk.

Your life is going to be on the big screen this fall. Does that make you nervous?
Alex: Not really, my life is already on display to some extent. And movies come and go – this will just be a new phase in life for a little while. In 10 years no one will remember or care. Or certainly not in 30. . .

Have you done much free soloing since El Cap?
Alex: Haha, almost none at all. I’ve been sport climbing a lot. Lovely change of pace.

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