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Rock talk: A Q&A with climbing legend Alex Honnold

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alex honnold
Paul Hara

Alex Honnold in his comfort zone.

Known among his peers for humility, Alex Honnold says he’s not the best rock climber in the world. Still, he’s probably the best-known, because of his specialty: free-solo climbing (“soloing,” he calls it); that is, with no harness or rope. He’s done this on some of the most challenging routes in the world, such as Half Dome at Yosemite — and in our own back yard, such as Moonlight Buttress at Zion. As he does more often than not, Honnold spent December and January in Las Vegas. During a promotional party for his new book, Alone on the Wall, he talked to Desert Companion about where he — and his sport — are going next.

Why do you like climbing here?

Because of the weather, and because there’s so much climbing here. It’s one of the climbing hubs in the country, for sure. Lots of my best climbing friends live here, and there are three or four houses where I know where the spare key is, and I can just make myself at home. So, I mean, it’s homey.

What’s your favorite climb here?

Maybe the Rainbow Wall at Red Rock, because it’s, like, proud and big and inspiring. It’s Chapter 3 of my book.

You’re known for soloing, but you’ve also said in interviews that you like being on a rope. What is your favorite style of climbing?

Support comes from

Probably sport-climbing, which is actually what I’m doing here. I’ve been climbing out at the Virgin River Gorge in Utah, so I’ve basically been projecting a sport route out there for the last month and a half. Just climbing with friends, climbing with a rope — just hard, physical work.

You’ve also said that you’re at a plateau. What’s above it? I mean, you’re widely considered the best in your field.

Maybe, but that’s because there’s hardly anybody in my field. The last two months, I’ve been training in a disciplined way, while I’ve been book touring and doing other stuff, so I’d be able to push my physical limit a little bit. Once you have a higher physical limit, then all the other stuff sort of follows. Then you see if you can solo harder routes, or potentially do harder things in the mountains. Basically, your physical ability is the core of climbing, and all the rest follows. It’s my physical ability that’s been plateaued. That’s the thing that’s surprising to people: I’ve been doing all kinds of interesting things in my climbing career for the last five or six years — exhibitions, expeditions — but all that stuff doesn’t rely on my pure physical strength as much.

Is rock climbing a challenging sport to make a living at?

Yes, in general, but I’ve been lucky because the soloing thing is such an appealing mainstream sport. The best boulderers in the world have a hard time making a living because it just doesn’t look rad, and people don’t want to tell their story in the same way, whereas with soloing, even though the things I’m soloing don’t require being the strongest climber in the world, it looks amazing, so it’s a spectacle.

What do you think is coming next for the sport in general?

There’s potentially a demonstration in the Olympics in 2020, so climbing might be an Olympic sport at some point. Bouldering, sport-climbing — it’s all pretty fractured. We’ll see what people do harder, bigger and faster.

Speaking of harder, bigger, faster, do you worry that rock climbing will get to a point where it’s too dangerous?

No, not climbing. … Climbing just doesn’t feel dangerous. It’s much slower and more methodical (than other extreme sports, such as base-jumping). And what I do takes a lot of preparation and training. That’s not to say there are no climbing accidents. And not that I might not have some kind of accident. Who knows? But it’s just not crazy like some other activities are.

You’ve also made the argument that everybody takes risks in things like diet and lifestyle choices.

Yeah, it’s funny. For the book tour, for the month of November, I was doing radio interviews for several hours every day. And the interviewers were all like, “Have you ever thought about death?” And I’m like, “Yeah, for several hours a day. Have you ever thought about death? Because either way, we’re all going to die.” How much time do you spend thinking about your life and the choices you’ve made and whether you’re happy with them?

How many pairs of climbing shoes do you go through in a year?

Oh, probably like 12, I guess.

Custom?

No, off the shelf.

What can non-rock climbers take away from the sport?

I don’t know if rock climbing offers this, but what I hope that my life offers people is living with a certain intention — choosing your actions, making choices: This is what I value in life. These are the things that are important to me. I will seek them out. Rather than just going on auto-pilot.

Will there be a second sequel to your film Suffer-Fest?

We’ve talked about boating, maybe. The biking thing is played out, because we know how to do it now. … And the thing about those projects is, they’re a big step back from me being a strong rock climber. The more exhibitions like that I do, and the more going to foreign places, the less time I’m spending getting stronger. That’s kind of why, over the last five or six years, I haven’t improved beyond a certain point.

So that’s your focus now?

Yeah. I think for the next year, I’m going to be a real climber, which is what I’m doing here in Vegas.