Rock Climber Alex Honnold

“one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever”

Alexander Honnold is an American rock climber best known for his free solo ascents of big walls. Honnold rose to prominence in June 2017 when he became the first person to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

Honnold was born in Sacramento, California on August 17, 1985, to his German dad and Polish mother. He started climbing in a climbing gym at the age of 5 and was climbing “many times a week” by age 10. He participated in many national and international youth climbing championships as a teenager. After graduating from Mira Loma High School as part of the International Baccalaureate Programme in 2003, he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, to study civil engineering.

I was never, like, a bad climber [as a kid], but I had never been a great climber, either. There were a lot of other climbers who were much, much stronger than me, who started as kids and were, like, instantly freakishly strong – like they just have a natural gift. And that was never me. I just loved climbing, and I’ve been climbing all the time ever since, so I’ve naturally gotten better at it, but I’ve never been gifted.

Alexander Honnold

He dropped out of Berkeley after his grandfather died and his parents got divorced. He spent time living at home and driving around California to go climbing. In 2007, he bought a 2002 Ford Econoline E150 van, which allowed him to focus on climbing and follow the weather.

I’d use it to drive to Joshua Tree to climb or I’d drive to LA to see my girlfriend. I destroyed that van fairly quickly; it died on me one day, and for the next year I lived just on my bicycle and in a tent.

Alexander Honnold

He gained mainstream recognition after his 2008 solo of the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome[1] was featured in the film “Alone on the Wall” and a subsequent 60 Minutes interview. much of the rock on Half Dome is alpine in nature, and it is often quite loose. There is speculation that much rock will exfoliate off other routes on Half Dome in the near future.

In November 2011, Honnold and Hans Florine missed setting the record time on the Nose route on Yosemite’s El Capitan[2] by 45 seconds. On June 17, 2012, Honnold and Florine set a new record of 2:23:46 on that same route.

The worst fall I ever had happened while I was in Aspen, Colorado, in 2002. I broke my neck, my pelvic bone and four ribs. I collapsed my right lung, too, and had kidney and liver damage. I didn’t think about anything as I fell. I was just waiting for my equipment to catch me, but it didn’t. It all came away from the wall and I hit the ground 11 metres below. I don’t remember the impact so there was no trauma associated with that. I just remember waking up pretty disorientated, with about eight heads looking down at me.

Alexander Honnold

Climbing Facts

In November 2014, Clif Bar announced that they would no longer sponsor Honnold, along with Dean Potter, Steph Davis, Timmy O’Neill, and Cedar Wright. “We concluded that these forms of the sport are pushing boundaries and taking the element of risk to a place where we as a company are no longer willing to go,” the company wrote in an open letter.

Jason Wells, 46, of Boulder, Colorado, and Tim Klien, 42, of Palmdale, California died after falling from Freeblast on El Capitan on Saturday, June 2, 2018. This was the 25th accident resulting in a death on El Capitan. The first was back in 1968 when Jim Madsen rappelled off the end of his rope.

Dierdre Wolownick, Alex Honnold’s mother, started climbing
at age 60 and is the oldest woman to climb El Capitan
(first at the age of 66 and then, breaking her own record, again at age 70).

Hansjörg Auer is the prolific big wall and high-altitude
big wall free soloist, whose 2007 solo of Fish Route in
the Italian Dolomites were then the most daring in climbing history.

John Bachar was the first free solo “superstar” and
prolific American free soloist of the late 1970s and the early 1980s,
who pioneered big wall soloing (Nabisco Wall, Yosemite).

Michael J. Ybarra, age 45, died in July of 2012 climbing solo on
The Matterhorn Peak in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Alex Honnold has taken functional magnetic resonance imaging scans[3] that revealed, unlike other high sensation seekers, his amygdala[4] barely activates when watching disturbing images. He however confesses feeling fear occasionally. Through imagination and practice, he has desensitized himself to the most fearful situations.

On June 3, 2017, he made the first free solo ascent of El Capitan, completing the 2,900-foot Freerider route in 3 hours and 56 minutes. The feat, described as “one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever“, was documented by climber and photographer Jimmy Chin and documentary filmmaker E. Chai Vasarhelyi, as the subject of the documentary Free Solo. Prior to filming, directors Vasarhelyi and Chin struggled with the ethical ramifications and decisions behind creating Free Solo knowing Honnold may die on camera.

I haven’t watched the documentary. I’m not sure I can hold my breath for that long. I still hold my breath every time I watch Apollo 13 and I know how that comes out!

Doyle Tatum – Doyle’s Space writer

Honnold is a vegetarian, and he does not drink alcohol or use drugs. He runs to maintain his fitness and is an avid reader with interests in classic literature, environmentalism, and economics, and he describes himself as an anti-religion atheist and a feminist. Honnold met Sanni McCandless at a book signing in 201 and they are now married and have a daughter born on February 17, 2022. In 2012, Honnold began giving away one-third of his income to solar projects that increased energy access worldwide. Soon, this idea expanded to form the Honnold Foundation.

The Honnold Foundation’s mission is “promoting solar energy for a more equitable world”. Alone on the Wall: Alex Honnold and the Ultimate Limits of Adventure is the book he penned with  David Roberts,  climber, mountaineer, college professor, and author of books and articles about climbing and the history of the American Southwest.

  1. The Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome was the first Grade VI climb in the United States. It was first climbed in 1957 by a team consisting of Royal Robbins, Mike Sherrick, and Jerry Gallwas. It is recognized in the historic climbing text Fifty Classic Climbs of North America and is considered a classic around the world. Although the first ascent took five days, most ascents now are accomplished in two. The record for the fastest ascent of the route is 1:22 and was set during a solo ascent in late May 2012 by Alex Honnold, who had previously recorded the first free solo ascent in 2008. This improved on a longstanding record of 1:53 set in October 1999 by Jim Herson and Hans Florine. [Back]
  2. El Capitan is a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park, on the north side of Yosemite Valley, near its western end. The formation was named “El Capitan” by the Mariposa Battalion when they explored the valley in 1851. The granite monolith is about 3,000 feet from base to summit along its tallest face and is a popular objective for rock climbers. The top of El Capitan can be reached by hiking out of Yosemite Valley on the trail next to Yosemite Falls, then proceeding west. For climbers, the challenge is to climb up the sheer granite face. There are many named climbing routes, all of them arduous, including Iron Hawk and Sea of Dreams. [Back]
  3. Functional magnetic resonance imaging or functional MRI (fMRI) measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. This technique relies on the fact that cerebral blood flow and neuronal activation are coupled. When an area of the brain is in use, blood flow to that region also increases. [Back]
  4. The amygdala is one of two almond-shaped clusters of nuclei located deep and medially within the temporal lobes of the brain’s cerebrum in complex vertebrates, including humans. Shown to perform a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional responses (including fear, anxiety, and aggression), the amygdala is considered part of the limbic system. The term “amygdala” was first introduced by Karl Friedrich Burdach in 1822. [Back]

Further Reading


Alex Honnold
Harvard Business Review

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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