It’s Saturday evening and the 9th annual Squamish Film Festival is over. Alex Honnold and Cedar Wright have finished presenting their Sufferfest series, detailing their self-propelled adventures cycling and free solo climbing in California and Utah. The crowd has dispersed. Honnold and like-minded local phenom Marc-Andre Leclerc are in the lobby swapping beta on Squamish’s Grand Wall.
In 2013 Leclerc somewhat unintentionally broke Honnold’s speed record of the top-to-bottom Squamish Grand Wall link up, Apron Strings + The Grand Wall + Roman Chimneys by one minute. 15 pitches, 520 m of climbing, 58 minutes bottom to top without a rope.
Alex climbed the route yesterday as a reconnaissance mission. “How did you climb Perry’s Layback?” “I found some sections a bit hairy so I grabbed the bolts.” “Ya me too.” “The loose-ish block on the chimneys?” “Ya, it won’t break when you pull on it, but you know it won’t be there forever.” They turn their attention to other climbs, or “scrambles” as they refer to them. A scramble is traditionally defined as it sounds, not quite climbing, not quite hiking — normally reserved for hikers summiting the last few meters of a non-technical peak.
However; Alex has “scrambled” as hard as 5.13a, and Marc-Andre not far behind at 5.12. Mere mortals would refer to this as “free soloing,” or in the case of their style of speed climbing perhaps “ropeless speed climbing.” Climbing terminology breaks down a bit in speed climbing, where anything goes. Pulling on gear in difficult sections, “aid climbing,” is kosher. Pulling on rock, “free climbing,” is faster if within physical ability. Free climbing without a rope or belayer, “ropeless solo climbing,” is fastest if within mental ability.
Perhaps Alex and Marc-Andre are onto something with the “scrambling” term. It certainly best describes the rapid movement and mental state involved. At the right camera angle it almost appears easy. Almost. That ease of movement is the point.
“It just happens that the type of climbing I like to do looks good on a camera. I’ve made a career out of climbing really easy things without a rope,” says Alex. Again, unless you’re in the company of rock climbing legends, 5.13a is not often referred to as really easy. Even in that elite circle it’s debatable. But for Alex, that particular climb in that particular style [The Phoenix, a crack.] was easy. You don’t make a career out of climbing personally difficult routes, or at least a very long career.
“There’s a crimp on Sunset Strip [9 pitch 5.10d] on the crux pitch that’s like that.” says Marc-Andre. “It feels like if you put a nut tool behind it, it’d just pop off.” “Sunset Strip?” It’s a new route in Squamish and Alex hasn’t heard of it. “It’d be a good scramble?” You can hear the excitement in his voice. “Mmm…that crimp…maybe not.”
Alex doesn’t come out and say it, but it’s obvious he’s going to attempt to beat Marc-Andre’s record. Later, at a change of venue, Honnold in his van preparing mac and cheese, I ask him point blank. “Ya for sure. Yesterday I did it in 1:04 super casual style. There’s not a lot of people who play this game, so it’s exciting when someone tries to beat your record. Even on The Nose in Yosemite, it’s only once every couple of years that someone tries to go for the record. It’s not a super competitive field.”
Alex’s casual way of describing the game of highly difficult and/or high-speed free solos warrants a reality check. This isn’t roped rock climbing, practiced by tens of millions of people, portrayed by mainstream media as “one mistake and you die” — the kind of reaction given by your non-climber friends at parties, which, because it feels good, you fail to correct. This is the real ropeless free soloing practiced by very few, where yes, one mistake and you die — and sadly occasionally people do. The level of physical and mental commitment to this game cannot be understated, and one in which Alex reigns supreme. His feats continually smash records and redefine what is possible.
I read somewhere that one season you set out to climb every route in Squamish?
Hah. I don’t know what you read, but Manboy [Steve “Manboy” Townshend], a Squamish pilot / skydiver / super super hardman put together a list of every 5.13 or harder route in the Squamish area. He climbs 5.14d or something. He’s also real anal like me. So I just went systematically through the whole list. I saw him today, he’s like, “Dude, I’ve got an updated copy of the spreadsheet, I’ll send it to you.” Heck ya.
What does being a professional climber mean? Do your sponsors send you on trips?
They don’t send you on trips. For the most part you pitch what you want to do. It’s pretty mellow.
Do you get a salary, or is it all photo incentives?
It’s a salary. I hate photo incentives and I’ve taken that out of my contracts. I don’t want to be spending all my time sending in photos and being like “this is worth so much” and what not. Pretty much all my contracts pay me a salary to do my thing the best that I can. I do all the media stuff, interviews, presentations, as much as I can — plus climbing of course. I do as much as I can.
At some point in your climbing career, your current sponsors took notice and approached you?
Yeah, I suppose it was an organic thing. It happened through word of mouth. A friend of a friend was president of La Sportiva and they started sending me free stuff. From there it progressed, and pretty soon I was like “wow I’m a professional rock climber.” That took quite some time, for years I was just getting free stuff.
How did the Stride Health thing come together?
They approached me — well technically I have an agent now so they approached him. It was small start up in San Francisco and they wanted somebody young and hip who’s in their price range. It was sweet, I’ve never had insurance and they offered to pay for it.[Alex urban climbing in San Francisco for Stride Health, a health insurance marketplace.]
Did they get permission for the climbs?
No they didn’t get permission. They scouted San Fran by themselves, they were outdoor enthusiasts. I don’t think any of them were climbers but they were savvy — they emailed me saying they found some cool stuff for me to climb. I was like, “oh well, we’ll see” — because normally when non climbers scout like that who knows what’s going to happen. Turns out they took me to these really awesome objectives. Rad routes, really good climbing. It was all fast and discreet. We just did stuff and moved on. It was a lot of fun.
No security or police?
No. I mean it’s in a huge open area. Nobody ever looks up. You think that there’s so many people and they’re going to freak out. But it turns out there’s two people and they’re like, “Huh. Whatever.”
Had you done much buildering before this?
Yeah a little bit on the UC campus. Actually the other day I did get yelled at by a librarian or something. And some other dude said he was going to call campus security, I was like “whatever dude.”
You attended university there right?
Yeah I did civil engineering for a year, but I wasn’t fired up about it. I love climbing and did that instead.
On the Stride Health site it says “in his own words, Alex ‘wants to be a grandfather’.” Is it possible to retire with a rock climbing salary?
Hah. Yeah, well I’m saving up for retirement. The thing is: I already live a retired lifestyle. I just chat with people and climb. I’ll definitely do this as long as I can.
Is the Taipei 101 thing still happening?
That’s a fairly complicated story, but the long and short of it is that the TV airing seems to have probably died. It looks like we might go and do the building anyway and make a climbing film about it. It’s annoying the way it all happened. The networks were all crazy excited and NatGeo was really committed to it, and then they all backed out and everyone at the top got fired this year. So now the project is dead again and nobody wants to get into it.
At this point I just want to do it because everyone always asks me about it. If we make a climbing film out of it, it’ll look rad because it’s an amazing building. Then maybe the TV executives will see it and say “oh, let’s do a TV thing.” Also, it’s been annoying how they’re worried about safety, and insurance, and this and that. It’s like, “Dude it’s not that big of a thing let’s just go and do it.”
The building owners have been really supportive and they’ve been cool about everything.
Are the owners paying you anything?
I don’t think so.
You should ask your agent about that. Alain Robert makes a serious amount of money climbing buildings. Property owners pay him to climb for grand openings in Dubai and stuff like that.
Yeah I know, but it’s kind of a different deal because I don’t even care.
What’s this for again?
Oh buildering.net. Climbing buildings and stuff. Dudes doing weird things at night.
Maybe you should call it that. Dudes doing weird things at night. You might get more hits. Maybe Cedar and I will do a “Sufferfest 3, Buildering The World” this year.
A week after this interview, July 20th 2014, Alex beat Marc-Andre’s speed record of the Chief — bottom to top in 38 minutes. To put that into perspective, the current speed record running up the Chief’s backside trail (same elevation gain) is 17 minutes, 53 seconds.
In August, Honnold free soloed University Wall (8 pitches, 5.12a), and climbed 290 pitches on his 29th birthday.