Fifth Street

April 21, 2022

Rock star rock climber Alex Honnold scales new heights | The Wave In festival promises fresh ideas | Lessons I learned from canoeing the Colorado River | Flying high with acrobats and circus acts at VIVA

THANKS TO the success of the Oscar-winning 2018 documentary Free Solo, Las Vegas resident Alex Honnold has become the most famous rock climber in the world. He’s embraced that success with an increasing pop-culture presence, including the podcast Climbing Gold, further documentary appearances, the VR film Alex Honnold: The Soloist, and a partnership with Nat Geo that includes the upcoming Disney+ series On the Edge with Alex Honnold, which will feature Honnold exploring cliffs in Greenland. He’s also funneled his fame into charitable efforts with the Alex Honnold Foundation, using his prominence to promote environmental causes, with a particular focus on solar energy.

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Before On the Edge debuts later this year, Honnold appears in Nat Geo’s Disney+ special Explorer: The Last Tepui, premiering April 22. Honnold is part of a team supporting biologist Bruce Means as he travels into the Amazon to a remote rock formation known as a tepui, where Means hopes to continue his work cataloging new species of frogs and other animals. Honnold puts his climbing skills to use forging a path for Means and the rest of the team, to be the first ones to ascend this imposing, treacherous cliff deep in the jungle.

What drew you to the Last Tepui project?
I saw it as a good opportunity to go climb somewhere totally new to me. I’ve had a lot of friends climb on tepuis and say that the rock was incredible, that the climbing was incredible. And I’d never been. More broadly, I’d never been to the jungle, and so I saw it as a great way to see the jungle and climb somewhere incredible and new. And also to be a part of a cool project. What Bruce was trying to do in the jungle, looking for new species — to be able to help felt important.

Not having climbed in this kind of terrain before, how did you prepare?
To be honest, I didn’t really need to do any prep for this. It was more about showing up with a good attitude and just maintaining high morale through a month of festering in the mud and the jungle. Mostly because what we were doing wasn’t physically that cutting-edge. It’s kind of like basic exploration, where you just have to show up and be willing to put in the work and try hard and go to this new place and do the thing. Just my day-to-day normal climbing is a high enough level of fitness for this kind of a trip. What mattered more was the psychological side of it, being excited to go into this kind of a place.

How did this climb compare to the difficulty of other climbs that you typically do?
It was challenging but not cutting-edge. What made it challenging was the remoteness of the jungle. It’s funny, we were there in the dry season, and I think that meant that it only rained about eight hours a day instead of 16 hours a day. To go from living in Las Vegas to going to a climate where it rains eight hours a day, I was like, this is a lot. It was all so wet and muddy.

Do you think you’ll return to this region?
Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in my life I went back. Maybe not to the Guyanese side, where we were, but maybe to the Venezuelan side, just because the walls are a little bit bigger there. We were in this particular location because the tepui hadn’t been climbed before, and because Bruce had already been working on an elevational transect of that river basin. So it made sense from the perspective of our expedition, to go finish his work in this region. But from a strictly climbing perspective, there are bigger and more impressive walls in Venezuela. Depending on the political climate and all the other things, at some point in my life I’d love to go visit those walls.

As you do more TV shows and movies since Free Solo, have you adjusted to being on camera more and even becoming something of a TV personality?
I would hate to ever consider myself a TV personality. I have gotten way more comfortable on camera. I think the most important thing is that I’ve adjusted my perspective a little bit. In the past, when I’d go on a climbing expedition, it was just about the climbing. Climb the hardest thing possible, do something rad for climbing. And I think particularly on an expedition like this, I realized that the climbing was cool, but it’s not really the most important part. What matters is getting Bruce into that location and facilitating his science. Allowing him to discover new species. Overall, the work that he’s doing is much more important for both human knowledge and for the potential for conservation in the region. Us climbing a new route on a new tepui is fun, but it doesn’t really matter compared to what Bruce is doing. I think that working on these kinds of projects helps keep those kinds of things in perspective.

Now that you have a child, has that changed how you approach climbing or the risks you’re willing to take?
So far that hasn’t really come up yet. I have a daughter now who’s six weeks old. I’ve still been climbing quite a bit, but I haven’t really had the opportunities to do any types of climbing that I would have to re-evaluate. I haven’t been in any places where there are risks to be taken. Climbing close to home, it’s all sort of training climbing, things like that. I think that the next real opportunity for this kind of thing will be another Nat Geo expedition this summer to Greenland. That’s really the only major trip that I have planned for this year, just because I wanted to try to be close to home more and focus on not being a deadbeat dad. So we’ll see this summer. It'll be another combination of climate science and climbing expedition. We'll see how that feels.

Can you reveal any more about the plans for that show in Greenland, On the Edge?
We’re going to Greenland. I think the exact itinerary is still a little bit TBD. We’re sort of combining climbing some new objectives with some climate science. There’s a French climate scientist who will be traveling with us and doing some research along the way. I think we’ll be crossing an icecap to get to a couple different climbing locations. It’ll be much like The Last Tepui, where it’s combining primary science with adventure.

When you are doing training climbs in Vegas, do you have any particular favorite places?
Mt. Potosi and Mt. Charleston, the two limestone mountains above town, they’re covered in great climbing areas. And then obviously Red Rock is what it’s most known for. I’ve done most of the climbing in Red Rock at this point. Yesterday I went for a 20-mile run around Red Rock, on Turtlehead (Peak) and went around White Rock (Trail), and did the Grand Circle (Loop) and a bunch of other stuff. That’s me transitioning to dad mode, going for runs. It’s all sport climbing, so it’s all with a rope, and just focused on difficulty and training.

Do you hope for your daughter to follow in your climbing footsteps someday?
She’s already starting to come out to the wall with us a little bit, hang out in her little pile of puffy jackets and nap while we climb. We’ll have to see what she’s into and how it all goes. But she’s definitely spending a lot of time hiking with us already and a lot of time outdoors.

How do you see these big TV and movie projects tying into your environmental activism and charity work?
Part of the appeal of doing all these broad public-facing things is that they can be harnessed to do something useful in the world. Big picture, I’d like to do something useful with my life. I like climbing, and I like doing new things in climbing, but realistically, that just doesn’t really matter that much. So I think that the work that I do through the Honnold Foundation and experiences like The Last Tepui — going and contributing to basic science — it’s just nice to feel like I’m working on things that have real value sometimes.

Within the climbing world, are you working to make it more equitable and diverse?
I think that climbing is trying to be more inclusive right now, like many aspects of society. I think that in a lot of ways, that’s an issue that’s sort of solving itself for climbing, just because the majority of climbers come from the gym nowadays. Climbing gyms have become so much more ubiquitous. Every city in the country has great climbing gyms now. So really anybody can access climbing through the gym now. Whether or not they wind up using that to go outside and have adventures in the mountains, I think maybe that’s a step that's not being taken yet. But I think that the opportunity to climb is greater now than it ever has been before.

What would be your dream project?
Honestly the Greenland trip is in some ways a dream project. And this tepui trip is also sort of a dream project. The idea of going somewhere new for me, climbing on new rock, and good new rock, climbing good routes in a new place in a way that’s meaningful and useful to the world is really all I can hope for as a climber. So I think that both of these trips are ideal for me.

Explorer: The Last Tepui premieres April 22 on Disney+.

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AFTER A TWO-YEAR hiatus, the Black Mountain Institute’s annual festival of words and ideas returns with a new name and a few new twists. Rechristened Wave In, this year’s three-day lit bash has a shorter roster but a deeper bench, with marquee names such as author and commentator Roxane Gay, experimental critic Maggie Nelson, and poet and sociologist Eve L. Ewing headlining Wave In events around the valley.

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But what is Wave In, anyway? If the festival title and its thematic aim of exploring “movement, connection, actions, and consequences” sound deliberately vague, that’s because, well, they’re deliberately vague, BMI Managing Director Kellen Braddock explains. “We chose an intentionally abstract theme this year,” she says, “because we wanted our guest artists to have a lot of room for interpretation at numerous points of inquiry. And that felt important, knowing as well that we haven’t gathered in person for events outside of the Zoom sphere for a couple of years.” In other words, heck, a lot of us are still getting used to just hanging out together again, let alone hanging out together under the sanction of a thinky literary premise.

But if thematic unity is a must-have for you, try this one: Whether intentional or not, many of the fest’s main events this year stand as an assured showcase of some of the core initiatives BMI has been quietly pursuing for decades. Consider its City of Asylum program, now 20 years old. Since its inception in 2001, it’s saved the livelihoods — and lives — of persecuted writers around the globe, giving refuge to everyone from Chinese dissident Er Tai Gao in 2003 to BMI’s current asylum writer, Egyptian journalist and novelist Ahmed Naji; in 2016, the Egyptian government jailed Naji for 10 months for “violating public modesty” with his 2014 novel Using Life. That BMI has learned to leverage Vegas’ reputation and infrastructure as a global landing pad to rescue imperiled writers is one of its unsung feats — and better yet, it hopes to expand City of Asylum this year to accommodate more writers fleeing oppressive regimes. BMI’s humanitarian credentials were only burnished in 2007 when it took on publication of the journal Witness, renowned for its literary engagement of global issues.

So, naturally, free expression in perilous circumstances is the premise of one of the festival’s headline events, May 5’s “A Portal to Creative Expression” at Area 15. In this event, three artists in exile from their home countries — playwright Margaret Namulyanga, cartoonist Pedro X. Molina, and musician Mai Khoi — will discuss creative conditions under state censorship and hostile regimes in a talk moderated by freedom of expression activist Ashley Tucker. No doubt hitting some of the same notes is Wave In’s May 7 Witness spring issue launch party with readings by featured writers.

But the festival isn’t just leaning on its strengths; it’s modestly expanding into new territory as well, with a family component slated for May 7 at the Writer’s Block, which include family activities and a children’s reading hour. “We’ve just found that there’s a hunger for this kind of programming,” Braddock says, “So we really wanted to fill a community need by expanding that aspect in this year’s festival.” It all suggests that literary festivals and organizations do their best work when ideas break loose from books and become real agents of change in the community.

Wave In takes place May 5-7 at various times and venues. Visit bmifestival.org for tickets and more information.

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THE GUIDE watches me knife the cold Colorado River with my oar. Knifing the water is a violent way to describe this peaceful interaction. But knifing invokes the image of what he needs me to do. I plunge the broad tip of the oar into the river. In unison with my son, who is at the bow, I push past the oar’s buoyancy and the water’s resistance. Working together, we should place the gunwale first, then the bow in the direction of Hoover Dam. This performance is done out of sheer vanity — to show the guide that we know what we are doing. So, of course, we veer into a circle near pylons with signs saying, “Do not enter.”

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“You’re in the wrong spot!” the guide yells over the voices of day kayakers coming up from Willow Beach. Perhaps he senses the obviousness of his statement. He clarifies: “Your son should be in the back of the canoe.”

My son beams with validation. He’s been saying he should be at the stern since we lugged the 70-lb canoe from the dirt parking lot. At 13 years old, his upper body strength already surpasses mine. It doesn’t matter that I am conditioned from years working in professional kitchens and lifting 50-pound sacks of food across my shoulders.

We are out on the river in late March. Though the river seems higher than the last time I was here, I know the Colorado River system is already operating at a deficit. Scientists forecast a 10- to 30-percent additional reduction in flow by 2050. There seems to be little time left to guide my son into adulthood, particularly on matters of our responsibility to the planet. He’s grown up in a time where billionaires talk of colonizing nearby planets, perhaps as a Plan B to ours. He’s seen me place order after Amazon order of stuff I will use a few times and forget about. Still, I need my son to have a connection to nature, even if I do not exemplify the behavior. And especially to the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the Mountain West.

I think I am late to do this. I only started thinking of my role in climate change during the pandemic, when we were holed up in our houses. The Colorado River saved our sanity during the first few months, when we would watch the pandemic death scroll on the nightly news and there were more arguments than togetherness. That should have caused us to cherish our time, but instead, it made everything irritating. The direction one person placed spoons in the dishwasher sparked a huge argument. But the magnificence of the Colorado River squashed those arguments. We didn’t have a kumbaya moment where the kids listened and my husband started picking up his socks from the bedroom floor. The river just reaffirmed for us the power and beauty of nature and how responsible we are for keeping it that way.

I worry my son, a city kid, will view nature as a philosophical adventure without ever recognizing our responsibility to it. People view rivers as salves that heal, nourish, and inspire. But the Colorado River is actual life. It’s the main supplier of drinking water to 40 million people in seven states, 30 tribal nations, and Mexico. The river enables us to eat because it irrigates 5 million acres of farm and ranch lands. It is possible that, in a few years, we will have to curtail much of our water use in Las Vegas.

On April 18th, the conservation nonprofit group American Rivers published a report on the 10 most imperiled rivers in North America. Topping the list is the Colorado. Outdated water management, hotter temperatures, a prolonged drought caused by climate change, and the overallocation of limited water supplies have caused the river to flow at historically low levels. Brad Udall, a senior scientist at the Colorado Water Institute says in the report that what we are facing now is the permanent warming and drying of the American Southwest.

“Scientists have a new term for this, called aridification. What we are seeing here is anything but normal, because normal implies predictability, and unfortunately, we don’t have predictability — climate change has ‘change’ in it for a reason.”

If you doubt him, then believe your eyes. The ring marks in Lake Powell and around Lake Mead bear witness to this climate catastrophe.

The guide is satisfied we’ve synced our paddling and are back on track. He goes off to help another straggler. My son and I paddle along, passing ducks and grebes diving for food. This is only my second time in a canoe and my son’s first. It’s a bonding trip, though I didn’t sell it as such when I asked my son if he wanted to go. Instead, I asked if he wanted to see nuclear-looking green water near Emerald Cove.

Previously, I had canoed from the base of Hoover Dam to Willow Beach. Unbothered, bighorn sheep greeted my canoe group from above the boulders. We filled our caps with the cold water and poured it over our heads to keep cool in the above-100-degree heat. This was 2016, a year after the Animas River ingested 300 million gallons of toxic wastewater from a defunct mine in southwestern Colorado. The heavy-metal stew spread to rivers in Arizona and Utah. Parts of the Colorado River near Lake Powell turned a freakish orange-yellow. Even though I knew this when I was in the water, I felt like it would sort itself out, like the ozone layer or acid rain. But it hadn’t sorted itself out. I just grew inured to any news about it. I do not want this for my son. 

I first encountered the Colorado River in a children’s book about a girl who wanted to raft the river from its start in the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California and into the Pacific Ocean. Later, Christopher McCandless, the subject of the movie and book, Into the Wild, would go on to use the river to cross into Mexico undetected. McCandless was the well-to-do kid with a bright future ahead of him who opted out of society to live a solitary life. He later died alone in the Alaskan wilderness. My 13-year-old son mostly tunes out my voice. He tells me I don’t get things and that we don’t have much in common. I wonder if I feel the same as McCandless’ mother did. Still, I believe it’s not too late to pass on my newfound and urgent value.

My son and I are each lost in our own thoughts as we navigate toward the queue of kayaks and canoes leading into Emerald Cove. Along the way, I point out what I think are fault lines set deep into the rock face. A light breeze comes off the water. The pale desert sky stretches out above us. I marvel aloud at the high scalers, the men who drilled into the canyon while suspended on ropes to build the Hoover Dam. My son shrugs. I don’t know if he is listening or feigning interest.

Because the guide is nearby, watching, I make sure my oar strikes the surface of the water at the same time as my son’s to keep us near the cave. It took us the time of two full-length podcasts to reach the cove. We will probably stay for a few minutes. That’s how long the line is to get in and get a picture for the Gram. For a few leaden moments, I feel the opposite of calm. My son may never experience this river as I have in the last decade.

But what do I know? His is a generation that can stretch their thinking to actually inhabiting Mars. They’ve lived through a pandemic and figured out online school. They’ve bonded together over pivotal times in history. I plan to do my part. Who knows — if we strike at the problem with the same intensity and at the same time, we ought to turn this ship around.

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IN A DARK gymnastics studio in Henderson, a woman flies 20 feet above the stage. There are no wires or harnesses, only a rope braided seamlessly into her hair. The routine is called hair-hanging, which is a cornerstone of aerial circus. Maybe it’s an effect of the stage lights (or maybe it’s the weed I smoked before the show), but when she tucks her elbows into a spin, her silhouette becomes something superhuman, more ethereal shape than physical body.

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I’m here with my roommate, Mark, who works as an acrobat in Cirque du Soleil’s O. Mark is short and extremely fit, and before I met him, I had little understanding of the circus industry. Even after he moved in six months ago, it took time to get to know him since he’s basically nocturnal. He sleeps until midafternoon most days, getting up to make “breakfast” at 2 p.m. before heading in to work. For the past several weeks, he’s been sidelined with a thumb injury, so when the Vegas International Variety Acts (VIVA) Festival returned to Henderson April 14-17 for its annual program, he took the opportunity to show me what circus is all about. “This is where I got my big break,” he tells me before the show starts. “In 2019, my partner and I won the Duo Ground category in the Emerging Pro competition, and now we both have full-time gigs in Cirque shows.”

VIVA Fest is composed of two primary components. The event I’m attending is called the World Circus Arts Championships, a competition-show where professional acts from around the world come to compete. With a judge’s panel comprising coaches, consultants, and casting agents, the show acts as a professional pathway for performers to get noticed by people who can help them make the big-time. As the night unfolds, we’re treated to a contortionist from Ethiopia, a juggling act from Mexico, and a hand-to-hand acrobatics pair from Cuba, among others. But this isn’t just a beefed-up audition — it’s most certainly a show: Sweeping curtains hung from steel beams frame the performers, who command a stage awash in lights. Bantering hosts and mischievous clowns keep the crowd on their toes and help lighten up the more serious acts.

Yet the professional festival is only one aspect of VIVA Fest. The event also hosts a youth development component, including workshops and consultations. “For four straight days, we invite youth to compete from all over the world in a variety of different categories,” says Event Director Carly Sheridan. Sheridan herself has performed professionally in various circus acts, and now works as a choreographer and coach for performers around the world. “We’ve got 300 kids from as far away as Ecuador, Japan, Canada, as well as 22 different U.S. states. There are kids as young as nine doing aerial silks, and then there are emerging artists, who are usually in their early 20s.”

Overall, the crowd is youthful and vibrant. Of all the artistic subcultures I’ve been around, performance artists might be the most fun. They’re extremely in touch with their bodies, which gives them a sense of buoyancy as they interact with one another. I also admire their courage: Somewhere along the line, they ditched the nine-to-five and decided to let their freak flags fly. Becoming a professional circus performer comes with a lot of risk, and nowhere is this better illustrated than the sheer number of injuries I notice around the room. The event is saturated with people in shoulder slings, knee braces, and splints. When I ask Mark about it, he tells me that at any given time, about 30 percent of the performers in any circus show will be sidelined with injuries. “It’s just part of the gig,” he tells me. “It happens to everyone at some point, but the community is so strong that everyone gets the support they need one way or another.”

Halfway through the show, we break for intermission, and Mark introduces me to his friend, Garret Allen, who just showcased his corde lisse routine, which is French for “smooth rope.” For nearly 10 minutes, Garret (pictured right) twirled up and down a length of rope while barely touching the ground — and I can only imagine how his forearms, shoulders, and core feel at the moment. Yet the physical element is only one aspect of circus performance.

“It takes a lot of vulnerability to put something like that on stage,” Allen says. “I’ve been here in Las Vegas for three weeks preparing for this, and it’s been hard. I’ve gotten really down on myself, and I cannot tell you the amount of support I’ve received from the community.” Originally from San Diego, Garret has been on the road since he was 18 years old; at 27, road life is starting to get old. He dreams of landing a residential gig where he doesn’t have to deal with the setup and teardown, the travelling, and most of all, not being able to sleep in his own bed.

“My biggest dream is to host a cabaret show,” he says. “I was in New York not long ago and I went to a lot of funky, weird sideshow gigs, and I definitely consider myself a humorous person, so I would love to have a speaking role like that where I could host and also do the finale. If I could do that,” he says with a laugh, “I could die happy.”

But what Garret loves, most of all, is the community. “Circus is a fun nexus where you get the awkward eccentricities of theater kids combined with the athleticism and enthusiasm of jocks.”

His description couldn’t be more apt. As we funnel back into the studio to watch the second half of the show, I see performers of all shapes and sizes, many of them clowning around — but all of them no doubt dreaming of their own moment in the spotlight.

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Photos and art: The Last Tepui: National Geographic/Renan Ozturk; Wave In: courtesy Black Mountain Institute; canoe illustration: Gleb Tagirov/Shutterstock; VIVA fest: headline photo and unicyclists, Maike Schulz; Garret Allen, Rob Riingen

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