A Climbing Phenom’s Life in (Mostly) His Own Words

Alex Honnold in the Bugaboos, British Columbia, Canada; Photograph by Jimmy Chin
Alex Honnold in the Bugaboos, British Columbia, Canada; Photograph by Jimmy Chin

In the fall of 2010 I spent most of a week with Alex Honnold at Smith Rock in Oregon, watching him climb and interviewing him for a profile for Outside. I was puzzled and amused by the apparent contradictions in Alex’s character: a raw brashness undercut by self-effacing modesty, his deadpan putdown of other climbers applied every bit as ruthlessly to himself. Watching him climb was a revelation. I had never seen such grace combined with such focus, and when he free soloed I wiped my palms on my trousers and held my breath.

Toward the end of the trip, I asked Alex, “Have you thought of writing a book?” He snorted and responded, “Why? I haven’t done anything yet.” True, Alex was only 25 at the time, but he’d already notched his belt with free solos of the Rostrum, Astroman, Moonlight Buttress, and the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome.
alex-honnold-alone-on-wall-jimmy-chin
Alex and I kept in touch over the years after Smith Rock. By the spring of 2014, Alex had certainly done something, having recently knocked off a free solo of Sendero Luminoso in Mexico and the Fitz Traverse with Tommy Caldwell in Patagonia. By then he’d also written a number of climbing articles, some of which showed a real flair for narrative. I emailed Alex and asked him if he was ready now to contemplate a book. I told him that I thought that he was a good enough writer to do the book by himself, and I’d be happy to recommend him to my agent. Or he and I might collaborate.

I didn’t hear back for almost three weeks. I figured Alex was too busy climbing to pay attention to my proposal, or that he was simply blowing me off. Turns out that he was brooding. Finally I heard from him. Yes, he said, not without misgivings, he’d like to try a collaboration. Writing was too slow and painful for him: if he wrote the book himself, it would take at least seven years. (I had promised to produce a first draft in six months.)

We met in July at the climbing festival in Lander, Wyoming. During most of another week together, I subjected him to marathon tape-recording sessions, as I asked him everything I could think of about his climbing and his life. Alex found the sessions to be a brutal workout, relieving the tension by doing pushups in my motel room or playing me clips from some of his goofier moments in the mountains.

I had previously collaborated with Conrad Anker and Ed Viesturs, and I thought I had the process down. I didn’t need to go home and laboriously transcribe the tapes. The week of listening had planted Conrad’s and Ed’s voices in my brain, and when I wrote the chapters I simply channeled their voices.

With Alex, it wasn’t so easy. The tropes and idioms of his speaking voice were inimitable, and an inevitable gulf loomed betweeen his 29-year-old sensibility and my 71-year-old outlook. I couldn’t get his voice right, so I was driven back again and again to the tapes. When it came time for him to proof my chapters, he was a withering critic. I wrote, for instance, about the approach to Moonlight Buttress, requiring him to ford the Virgin River, which “in early April was ass-freezing cold.” “I’d never say ‘ass-freezing,’” he scolded. “The river was freezing-ass cold.” Duly corrected.

From the start I realized that the biggest obstacle would be Alex’s famous “No Big Deal” Weltanschauung. As filmmaker Nick Rosen remarked in a 2014 open forum in Boulder, “The only thing Alex does better than free soloing is downplaying. If that was a sport, he’d be in the Olympics.” (On stage, Alex grinned sheepishly, but did not refute the charge.)

I also realized from the start that the book would have to alternate between Alex’s voice and mine. Only in my voice could could the astonishingness of Alex’s deeds get full justice. During the early stages of my writing, Alex’s then girlfriend, Stacey Pearson, told me that his greatest fear about the book was that, in an effort to counteract his understatements, I might go overboard with hype. (Alex would never have told me this himself.) As it turned out, he kept a tight reign on my superlatives. To place a climb such as Moonlight Buttress in perspective, I quoted the remarks of commenters on Supertopo.com, including “Holy living f#ck!” and “Just the thought gives me chills.” But Alex emailed me, “All that stuff is so cheesy. Let’s cut it.” “Cheesy,” I already knew, was a term of ultimate derogation for Alex. I fought hard to keep what I could.

Even as my six-month deadline neared, Alex kept reserving for himself the chance to rewrite the text down the road. This safety valve persisted long into the editorial process, but when it came down to it, Alex never applied himself to rewriting my prose line by line. Meanwhile, I passed on Norton’s moratoriums about the publishing schedule as if they were acts of God.

Finally the book was a done deal. And Alex seemed to reconcile himself to its existence. At some point he emailed me (I’m quoting from memory), “Well, I guess this is something I won’t be totally embarrassed to have out there.”

Alex turned 30 several months before the book was published. That milestone took a toll on his psyche that cannot be disentangled from our collaboration. “I keep telling people,” he said, “that I’ve got a book coming out about all the rad things I used to do.” With our opus hovering over him like a graven stone, he chastised himself by wondering what climb he might pull off for an encore.

To my surprise, Alex threw himself into the book tour. It was music to my ears when he wrote on Facebook, “It’s been surprisingly satisfying for me to do so many book signings the last few weeks. Great to see so many psyched climbers out there! And thanks to everyone who’s come out or checked out the book.” Throughout the fall, I was overjoyed to read the enthusiasms of so many reviewers. Alone on the Wall had been the most difficult of my collaborations, but the most rewarding. I like to think Alex was equally pleased with the final result.

In any case, my admiration for Alex as a climber and human being has only soared as a result of the project. I still cross my fingers every time he sets out to try some new challenge, because there’s no disputing the fact that he’s as rad as ever. We’re all lucky to have stood on the sidelines, cheering what Alex has done, and what he’ll do next.

Comments

  1. TJ
    CA
    December 10, 2015, 3:45 pm

    REALLY well done.
    I’ve hinted enough times to my girlfriend that this is THE Christmas I want (along with some new baselayers) so I’m stoked to read it.
    Thanks for providing some interesting perspective for when I do and kudos on the collaboration.

  2. Erik Hornby
    Mesa
    December 10, 2015, 8:35 pm

    David, I thoroughly enjoyed your dedication and focus on bringing all of Alex to light. He definitely downplays his great climbing feats to the point where they almost can lose their mystique, so to have a realist painting a much loftier picture of him was rewarding but nonetheless integral. It was especially touching to hear your description of his climbs in Alaska, especially on the route that you pioneered with Ed Ward and Galen Rowell. Continue keeping up the great work and trust your intuitions! That email to Alex only blessed the world and Norton Publishing aught to keep you as theirs for life!

  3. Nelson Day
    Joshua Tree
    December 11, 2015, 2:35 pm

    I really liked the video of him free soloing Equinox in Joshua Tree in the Nikon commercial. Stoked to keep following his progress!

    Nelson Day
    Director, The Climbing Life Guides
    http://joshuatreeclimbinglifeguides.com

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