The Rise and Rise of Alex Honnold

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Alex Honnold climbs the Tangerine Trip route on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park on June 3, 2014. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

 

HHis mother calls them “monstrously huge” hands.

Universally, it is agreed they are massive and preternaturally strong—the kind usually dubbed mitts or hams. The fingers are the size of ballpark franks swollen on a hot grill. They’re thick and round all the way to the nails. The tips are so strong that the topmost joints, which most people have trouble even bending on their own, can curl over and clamp down on the most miniscule protrusions, moving the entire 160 pounds of the long, lean body to which they are attached—fingertip pull-ups, if you will—often done in defiance of death while hanging thousands of feet above barren ground.

On the pads, the fingerprints are worn away from being jammed into cracks and pressed on ledges during years of rock climbing. What’s left has been ruthlessly, purposely eroded with a sanding block to prevent bulky calluses. These hands will never pick your pocket or fix your watch. It is difficult to conceive of them comfortably gripping a pen, and who knows what mayhem they wreak on texts. They are extremities that are both the product of the trials they have weathered and a testament to the physical prowess of their bearer. You would not want to thumb wrestle this guy.

These hands belong to climbing legend Alex Honnold, a 29-year-old Carmichael native who is considered the top free solo climber in the world—a niche of rock climbing that takes him thousands of feet into the air on some of the earth’s most precipitous peaks with no rope, no safety equipment, and no chance of survival if he falls. He claimed his place in the elite ranks of the sport in 2008 by mastering the Regular Northwest Face of Yosemite’s Half Dome that year, becoming the first person ever to climb the route this way.

Alex Honnold’s “monstrously huge” hands, whose fingerprints have been worn away from years of rock climbing (Photo by Max Whittaker)

Since then, he and his hands have adventured, with and without ropes, across the globe.

This year, Honnold did his fifth ice climb (using gear) by conquering the five-day Fitz Roy Traverse with fellow legend Tommy Caldwell in Patagonia, a never-before-done combination of routes up a series of seven peaks that crosses three miles of terrain and more than 13,000 feet of vertical gain. Before that, in January, he became the first person to free solo El Sendero Luminoso, scaling the 1,750-foot sheer Mexican rock face in just two hours. And this fall, he hopes to King Kong his way up the side of an urban peak—Taipei 101, a nearly 1,700-foot-tall skyscraper in Taiwan that was, until 2010, the tallest building in the world—on live TV.

He has also become a master of speed climbing, another tangent of the complex culture of the sport that challenges the small cadre of people who do it to see if they can reach the summit just a bit faster than the guys before—and yes, it is mostly men. Honnold owns about a dozen of these pace records in Yosemite, including one up the center of El Capitan (considered some of the most extreme “big wall” climbing in the world) called The Nose. Those hands took him up the 2,900-foot ascent in two hours and 23 minutes, an achievement that takes an average climber four to five days, while a crowd of spectators in the field below cheered and rang cow bells. He is a celebrity in the world of stone.

John Long, another celebrity of the sport who was, in 1975, a member of the first team to scale El Capitan’s “Nose” route in a single day and was one of the early pioneers of free solo climbing, says Honnold is “setting the bar” in adventure climbing and is “the most accomplished free soloer ever.”

But Taipei 101 would be an entirely different kind of coup—a televised spectacle that drives him from fringe sport notoriety to prime-time fame. It’s an idea that was inspired in part by Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner skydiving 24 miles to earth in 2012 for a stunt funded by energy drink maker Red Bull. Always searching for bold and singular adventures, Honnold began scouting for a man-made monument to scale. But there were not that many buildings interested in the scheme. “There’s a very short list,” he admits.

He went to Dubai and checked out the world’s tallest structure, Burj Khalifa, but found its futuristic architecture too daunting for his first televised exploit. Taipei 101, he says of its clean and simple design, is “super aesthetic,” a spire of blue-green glass and aluminum created from eight repeating square segments that angle slightly outwards, rising out of the dense city center with lonely grandeur. He climbed up to the top of the antenna while researching the possibility and dubbed it “pretty impressive.” While fame is far from Honnold’s goal, ascending the tower would be a drama for the masses that moves him from athlete to performer, an Evel Knievel for a new era of vicarious thrill seekers—a daredevil at the pinnacle of his game.

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Daybreak hasn’t yet reached the Yosemite Valley when Honnold arrives in the small hours before a warm June dawn. This early, the park is quiet and deserted as the deep black of a wilderness night breaks into purple shadow, although by breakfast the road will be clogged with buses, RVs and cars cruising for a view of the stately peaks and falls.

Parked in a blue ’80s VW van on the side of the road at the base of El Capitan, he and his climbing partner for the week, David Allfrey, are readying their gear to attack a route up El Cap called Eagle’s Way. The granite monolith, the largest in the world at 3,000 feet, has more than 100 established climbing paths up its faces, and Allfrey and Honnold are on a quest to complete seven of them in seven days. No one has done this before, but the idea has been floating around in the circle of speed climbers for years.

They’ve finished two complicated paths already—New Jersey Turnpike and Tangerine Trip, breaking the speed record on both by combining their talents. Allfrey is an aid climber—adept at pounding pitons and other gear into the rocks to create his own route, and hauling himself up with ropes and ladders when the face offers no grips. Honnold is the stronger free climber, able to lead the way when the natural surface provides its own path.

They are after another speed record today. Ammon McNeely and Brian McCray, top climbers and friends of Honnold and Allfrey, completed this route in nine hours and eight minutes in 2004, though regular climbers take about four days, hauling gear and sleeping on platforms pegged to the wall. Honnold is certain they can do better. “There are probably very few people who do exactly what we’re doing right now,” he says, describing the effort as a “game” more than a competitive sport. “I mean for me, this is more a test of fitness and mastery of skill than necessarily difficulty,” he says.