Alex Honnold Tells His Story In ‘Alone On The Wall’

You might know Alex Honnold as that guy who climbs without a rope. But he wants you to know he does a lot more.

Alone On The Wall book review

In his first book, Honnold discusses why he free-solos, and he recounts his life of climbing — including adventures you probably haven’t heard about.

I suppose it’s inevitable that most of the media attention I get is for free soloing,” Honnold, now 30, writes in the closing pages of Alone on the Wall.But I’m just as proud of my speed climbs and link-ups. Even though they aren’t as glamorous, and don’t really capture the public imagination the same way, they represent the same spirit as soloing.

If there is one conclusion you will draw from Alone on the Wall, co-written by Honnold and accomplished climber and writer David Roberts, it’s that, indeed, Honnold climbs a lot and under a diverse number of disciplines, all over the globe.

‘Alone On The Wall’ Review

The book recounts Honnold’s biggest projects, from the 2007 back-to-back solo of the Rostrum and Astroman in Yosemite that initially caught the attention of the climbing world, through his 2014 Fitz Traverse in Patagonia with Tommy Caldwell.

In between there are characteristically nonchalant recaps of his solos up the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome in Yosemite, and El Sendero Luminoso in Mexico. He covers his speed records on The Nose of El Capitan with Hans Florine and the Yosemite Triple Crown (Mount Watkins, The Nose, and Regular Northwest Face), among other projects.

Not An Autobiography

Alex Honnold Van

Alone on the Wall is not an autobiography. Roberts covers parts of the story that have been covered in other outlets — Honnold dropped out of UC-Berkeley at 19, his parents divorced, and his father died of a heart attack shortly thereafter — but the only reference to his childhood is Honnold disputing a tall tale his mother tells about her turning her back at a climbing gym only to see the toddler Honnold, a climbing rookie, thirty feet up the wall.

Honnold does take a break between regaling readers with climbing stories to recap his on-again, off-again (and now, according to the book, permanently-off) relationship with Stacey Pearson, as well as the development of his conscience on sustainability and poverty as it led to his establishing the Honnold Foundation.

Climbers Will Love It

Honnold climbing 2

The book chronicles Honnold’s most significant climbing years. His journal-like passages, set in italics for the entirety of the book, trade off with Roberts’ narration, in which he provides historical context for Honnold’s climbs and records, defines and explains climbing methods and jargon.

Words like “pro” and “trad” get thrown around a lot by Honnold, who does not hold readers’ hands in explaining what he does. Climbers, even those intimately familiar with Honnold’s resume, will enjoy the detailed, introspective reports from each of his major accolades on rock — how the idea formed, how he went about pursuing it, and how he ultimately executed it.

Through it all, Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold shines through, writing in no more grandiose tones than if he were putting together a cookbook.

Honnold Explains Himself

Honnold Climbing

Much of Honnold’s social media presence lately has been dedicated to pushing back against his portrayal in the media as a reckless, thrill-seeking daredevil who risks and defies death daily. Alone on the Wall seems, at times, like a definitive attempt by Honnold to tell his side of, well, everything.

He dedicates page space to disputing his portrayal by other climbers, such as Mark Synott, who brought Honnold on a trip to Mount Kinabalu and later, Honnold felt, recounted the trip in a Men’s Journal article “tinged with paternalism.” (He expresses admiration and gratitude to Synott overall, however.)

He explains at length why soloing routes well within his ability (most are rated below 5.13) on which he has prepared and rehearsed does not constitute “risk.”

I don’t like risk,” he writes. “I don’t like passing on double yellow. I don’t like rolling the dice.

Roberts, meanwhile, acknowledges those who fear Honnold will kill himself, and why, but he stands by his co-author, providing context rather than sowing doubt.

Honnold Wants To Tell His Story

You get the sense, throughout, that Honnold is not grandstanding, arrogant, or petulant when he hits back at his critics and declares both his skill level and his awareness of it. And mostly, he just wants to tell us about all the other climbing he does — the speed records, the linkups, and the expeditions that constitute the majority of his professional pursuit (and, more importantly, his passion).

He wants to tell us about how a trip to Chad still informs his conscience and his work to improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people, as well as how aware he is of his lot in life.

The only hyperbole is in Honnold’s use of adjectives like “heinous,” “wretched,” and “disgusting” in any and all situations. And the only cliché comes at the end, when Honnold himself acknowledges he cannot summon a better or more original explanation.

What keeps me motivated is an insatiable hunger and curiosity,” he writes. “The best way I can sum it up is to paraphrase the ending of [an op-ed piece he wrote for the New York Times – a measured, thoughtful piece on the calculus of risk penned after Clif Bar fired him and other free soloists from their team]. The mountains are calling, and I must go.

–Alone on the Wall (W.W. Norton & Company, $26.95 US/$34.95 Canada) is available nowBuy on Amazon for $20.

Alex Kurt

Alex Kurt is a Minnesota native, an avid runner, a novice climber, a begrudging cyclist, and an enthusiastic skier. A graduate of St. John's University and the University of Minnesota, he is most proud of his 6:48 PR in the beer mile.