DEATH-DEFIER ALEX HONNOLD IS HEADED TO THE OSCARS
ALEX HONNOLD'S 2017 free solo (no ropes) climb of Yosemite's El Capitan, the iconic 3,000-foot-tall granite wall, was hailed as one of the most impressive athletic feats in history. And in the vertigo-inducing, Oscar-nominated film Free Solo, viewers are invited on Honnold's death-defying journey. SI talked with the 33-year-old about his fears, his first free solos and Olympic climbing.
SI: Obviously the fear of climbing El Cap without a rope wasn't so much a factor for you, so what are you afraid of?
AH: Well, it's not totally fair to say fear wasn't a factor. The reason I spent so long preparing for it is because it seemed so scary. On the day I did the climb, it didn't feel scary, but that was after a long, long process. So my point is, I'm just as afraid of falling to my death as anybody else is.
SI: Why did you start free soloing?
AH: One factor was wanting to climb outside but not having any partners. It was easier to just go out by myself. But even if I'd had partners, I would've wanted to free solo a little bit because it's a part of climbing. Growing up in California, where there's a history of it, I grew up thinking it was something cool that I at least wanted to try.
SI: What was the feeling you got from that first free solo you did?
AH: It was all just a lot more intense. Everything was kind of heightened. The first free solos I did are very easy. But at the time, I remember thinking, This is so, so epic.
SI: Watching the movie, what were your thoughts as the crew grappled with the ethical dilemma of making this movie?
AH: That was new to me, and it was meaningful to watch because throughout the making of the film, they had done such a good job of insulating me from those feelings. So seeing how conflicted they were, how emotionally invested they were, was kind of moving. I sort of felt bad to put my friends through that.
SI: Climbing is entering the Olympic program in 2020, and I'm reminded of when some of the "extreme" winter sports debuted, how some felt like it was totally selling out.
AH: Yeah, I know what you mean, and there's definitely a lot of that in climbing too. But I genuinely am stoked on it. I was part of the first generation of gym climbers who became pros. So I think I've always seen it as an athletic activity to some extent. I think the old guard saw it more like a lifestyle, like a countercultural pursuit. But for somebody like me, who grew up thinking of it as a sport, seeing more people participating at a higher level doesn't bother me. I'm just impressed, like, Wow, these kids are so much better than we were as kids.
Free Solo wasn't alone on the rock-climbing documentary film circuit last year. Also debuting was The Dawn Wall, which chronicled the 2015 journey of Tommy Caldwell (a prominent figure in Free Solo) and climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson as they scaled a face of El Capitan that had never been climbed before. Their 19-day ascent, and the accompanying media frenzy that broke while they lived on the wall, is engrossing in itself. But add to that Caldwell's life story—from his start in climbing, to being held hostage by militants in Kyrgyzstan in 2000, to losing a finger on a table saw and then coping with heartbreak by throwing himself into El Cap for years—and The Dawn Wall is a portrait of teamwork, perseverance and triumph after incredible challenge.