Climber Alex Honnold On 'Relativity of Risk'

Alex Honnold poses in Minneapolis; photo by Ryan Phelan

Climber extraordinaire and The North Face athlete Alex Honnold stopped by GearJunkie HQ this morning. He’s in town to give a presentation titled “Relativity of Risk,” which is scheduled for tonight at Cowles Auditorium (301 19th Ave S, Minneapolis).

The event, a part of The North Face speaker series, will be moderated by Outside Magazine’s Grayson Schaffer, and on stage Honnold and fellow climber and TNF athlete Cedar Wright will talk all things climbing and risk on the rock.

Alex Honnold talks with the Gear Junkie editorial staff; photo by Ryan Phelan

We grabbed coffee and breakfast with Honnold on a steamy August morning after a night of thunderstorms in Minneapolis. —Stephen Regenold

Gear Junkie: Good to see you, welcome to Minnesota!

Alex Honnold: Thanks, good to be here, it’s so humid. It feels like the tropics.

We’re famous for our humidity in the summer. So, you’re here for The North Face. What should people expect tonight, and who should come?

Anyone should come. Not just climbers. There will for sure be a ton of climbers there, but everyone can relate to risk-taking. It applies to a lot of areas of life.

GearJunkie’s Amy O. arm wrestles Honnold at breakfast (close match, but Alex won!); photos by Ryan Phelan

Where’d you come from this week? Where is your van parked?

I was in Boulder and then before that Squamish. That’s where my van is.

What were you climbing up there?

I did something we called the “birthday challenge.” I turned 29 years old this month, so I decided to climb 290 pitches in a day. I went up and down the granite for 16 hours. I counted the up and down pitches, and I did 290 in all.

Honnold on a sandstone crack

That’s serious. How do you feel right now?

Still feeling it. It was probably 9,000 or 11,000 vertical feet of climbing in a day. From 5.6 to 5.11 routes. I kept down-climbing the same 5.7 route all day, and it started to feel like I was on an ultra-run or something.

What makes you, or anyone, a good climber? Really high level, what does it take?

You gotta be psyched! Really, that’s it. You need to be a serious and good climber, but if you’re not psyched then you never will be your best or stand out.

You’re most famous for your rope-less free solo climbs. What does it take to free solo?

It takes years of practice and building up. To me, free-soloing is a discipline of climbing, not a different thing. There’s sport climbing, there’s trad, there’s free-solo.

Are there common misconceptions around free soloing?

I’m not sure if there are any common ones, but I will say that where I grew up and learned to climb in California it was not as unusual. People would free solo 5.7 granite faces after work for fun.

Then there were the well-known famous climbers who I looked up to that were free-soling on the big routes. So, it’s for me been something I’ve done or was aware of almost since I started climbing. And it’s rarely ever a super extreme, do-or-die thing. It gets intense but most of the time it’s just climbing to me.

Are more climbers free-soloing now than in the past five years?

No, I haven’t seen it. There’s been the media focus around it, which some people think is encouraging people or kids to try free soloing. I don’t see that or know how true that is. Some people might try it, but once they get 20 feet off the ground and then look down they need to decide for themselves. They see it’s real there and decide to go up or not.

It’s different than skiing or whatever where you can stand on the top and psych yourself up to do a big run or drop. In climbing, it’s slower and you need to constantly assess what you are doing. With each handhold and reach you are thinking about the moment.

You have a high tolerance for fear. But what does scare you?

I’m not sure what my tolerance is. But I think I am good at assessing what kind of fear I should and should not have. What’s logical and what’s not.

When have you been scared on a route?

A lot of times. On rope and not. I can get gripped, and after years I have learned to deal with it. I take a deep breath and think ‘I not gonna go there’ and try and get calm.

Give me a concrete “I was scared” moment.

I remember once on a route on Half Dome. It was a 5.11 called “Southern Belle.” A huge slab. I was scared. It was just stupid. You are on rope but it’s so run-out. I was looking down thinking ‘I’m going to fall and break my legs.’

Where are you going to next?

We have the Speaker Series. I am heading to Austin after Minneapolis. Then for climbing it’s time to head back to the Valley. I’m looking forward to some hard free climbing this fall.

We’ll see you tonight at the Speaker Series. Thanks for meeting up!

See you there!

—Get info on tonight’s presentation and The North Face speaker series here.

Photo by Ryan Phelan

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Stephen Regenold is Founder and Editor-In-Chief of GearJunkie, which he launched as a nationally-syndicated newspaper column in 2002. As a journalist and writer, Regenold has covered the outdoors industry for nearly two decades, including as a correspondent for the New York Times. A father of four small kids, Regenold and his wife live in Minneapolis.

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