Alex Honnold, the GOAT, the champ, the master of free-soloing is the most recognizable figure in American rock climbing.
He has made a name for himself as the world’s foremost free-solo climber, clinging to the rock face with nothing but a chalk bag and a pair of TC Pros. He takes a sport with an already significant amount of risk and turns it into a life-or-death scenario. Free soloing leaves absolutely no margin for error; if you fall, you die. It is as simple as that. Yet, that is precisely the reason why Alex and other rock climbers free solo.
How Is Alex Honnold Still Alive?
What has captivated audiences around the world about this unassuming, doe-eyed and soft-spoken young man is his apparent immunity to fear; to trust absolutely in his ability to scale a rock face, unfettered by equipment. And yet, perhaps the most incredible thing about Alex Honnold is the fact that he is, indeed, still alive.
How does he do it? Many free solo climbers have met their fate, so what keeps Alex still on this earth? Luck? Perhaps.
Free-solo climbing is something of a fringe undertaking in the rock-climbing world. The cost-to-benefit ratio is so high that very few people are willing to accept the risk. Any mistake, any misstep, even an uncontrollable event like rock fall could send you plummeting to your death. Many very strong and very competent climbers have met their end in this fashion. John Bachar and Derek Hersey, just to name a few.
Alex Honnold’s accomplishments in the free soloing realm stand as a testament to an intense power of will combined with a drive to train which even the word “obsessive” could not hope to describe.
He has soloed Moonlight Buttress in Zion, 5.12c, The RNWF of Half Dome, 5.12 and Freerider on El Capitan, 5.13b (just to name a few), the last of which is considered to be one of the most significant athletic accomplishments in history.
And yet, audiences might be surprised to know that none of his free solo accomplishments are in and of themselves very difficult, at least by the standards of today’s elite rock climbers. That is because he has always stayed within his range of abilities as far as the difficulty of a climb goes. The ability to control his mind and fear is perhaps what has kept him alive.
Is Alex Honnold Still Free Soloing?
In recent years, Honnold has taken a step back from free soloing. That’s not to say he doesn’t engage with that aspect of the sport any longer, he has merely revised his list of goals. His wife, Sanni McCandless gave birth to their first daughter, June, in 2022. As his family has grown, so too have his values.
These days, Honnold has taken a more cautious approach to climbing. He and his family live in Las Vegas, near the Red Rocks conservation area, and Honnold has an endless playground of sandstone to content himself with. Still, while there are no more “El Cap” caliber solos on the horizon for him, that doesn’t mean he has thrown in the towel.
In two recent installments of the hit rock climbing series Reel Rock, Honnold has showcased projects of his that are more endurance-based; the free soloing component of films like Cuddle with Tommy Caldwell and The Hurt – a 36-hour straight traverse of the Red Rocks – is comparatively mellow to what he used to engage in, but the consequences are still very real. Nonetheless, it shows a shift in his thinking and in the way he imagines, plans and executes his climbing objectives.
In his mind, this modest step back from big free solo projects like El Capitan or Half Dome still places the risk he is taking in an acceptable range. The reality of the situation is that he is still a professional climber. Moreover, he loves it! But as even he will tell you, there are things about starting a family that are not to be missed and things he wants to be around for.
Honnold has also taken up the mantel of sport climbing in a much more serious way. Historically, most of his interest in sport climbing was for training purposes; simply a means to an end, something to give him strength for larger free-solo projects. Now, as a husband and father, the prospect of being home with his family means that lower commitment projects – like sport climbing – are fast becoming the norm.
In years past, including on the film set for the Oscar Award-winning documentary Free Solo, Honnold would often comment on the concept of responsibility; who he was beholden to when considering a solo attempt of a route.
In his mind, the only person he really had to consider was himself, and the risk to his own life was an acceptable one. Even with Sanni, his then girlfriend, he was painfully frank in this regard. During a discussion centered around the responsibility he felt toward her vis-à-vis the risk he was taking in attempting to free solo a route on El Capitan, he tells her in no uncertain terms that he would not limit himself to her expectations.
(Sanni): “Would putting me into the equation actually ever change anything? Would you make decisions differently?”
(Alex): “No. I appreciate your concerns, but I in no way feel obligated.”
Whether by choice or out of necessity, it is encouraging to see the change in the way Honnold regards rock climbing. For many years, it consumed his entire life. There wasn’t a single moment that did not, in some way, serve the greater purpose of helping him toward his climbing objectives. He had blinders on and there was nothing else in the universe. Even when a woman came into his life, it was difficult for him to look past his goals.
Although I can’t comment definitively on the lives of other free soloists, I wonder if they were able to make concessions in the same way that Alex Honnold has. They doubtlessly had families or loved ones who cared about their well-being, maybe even some who tried to insist on an amended set of climbing goals.
Ultimately, their ambition pushed them onward toward some nebulous state of higher consciousness, one that only free-soloists would ever be able to understand. They flew too close to the sun and fell back to earth.
What Is Alex Honnold Doing Now?
Alex Honnold is far from done. As long as he can, he will continue to climb, but what is impressive about this behemoth of the climbing world is that he has demonstrated his ability to grow; to change with the wrenches that life throws in the spokes of life’s bike. Who knows what is next for Alex Honnold?
It’s doubtful that even he knows, fully. But, with another kid on the way, I think we will probably see Alex free soloing less and less. For my part, I’m stoked to see what is left in store for this guy. I’m sure he’ll come up with something pretty cool, even if it’s timid compared to what he’s done in the past.