Authors: Alex Honnold,David Roberts
ALONE ON THE WALL
Alex ‘No Big Deal’ Honnold is a professional rock climber whose audacious free-solo ascents have made him one of the most recognized and followed climbers in the world. Honnold has been profiled by
New York Times
, featured on the cover of
, and has starred in numerous adventure films, including the Emmy-nominated
Alone on the Wall
. He is also the founder of the Honnold Foundation, an environmental not-for-profit charity that seeks simple, sustainable ways to improve lives around the world.
David Roberts is co-author, with Conrad Anker, of
The Lost Explorer
, about the discovery of George Mallory’s body on Mount Everest. His most recent book is
Alone on the Ice
with David Roberts
To my family, for always supporting me
along an unconventional path
I started up the climb
shortly after dawn. I wasn’t even sure I’d found the right start, since I hadn’t been on these lower pitches for two or three years. The beginning of the route is kind of scruffy and ambiguous—ramps, traverses, and hand cracks angling up to the right—but it’s not as difficult as the upper two-thirds of the wall.
Still, I was nervous, even a little giddy. It had rained pretty much nonstop the day before, and now the rock was sandy, slabby, and a lot damper than I’d hoped. I probably should have waited another day before heading up the route. But I was overpsyched. I couldn’t bear the thought of sitting in my van another whole day, thinking the same thoughts I had recycled for the past forty-eight hours. I had to strike while the iron was hot.
Moonlight Buttress is a 1,200-foot-high, nearly vertical sandstone cliff in Utah’s Zion National Park. It may be the finest—the purest and most classic—route among Zion’s thousands of lines. It’s also one of the most continuously difficult crack climbs in the world.
The first ascent of Moonlight Buttress came in October 1971, when Jeff Lowe and Mike Weis, two legends of American climbing,
pioneered the route. It took them a day and a half, with an overnight bivouac on a ledge in the middle of the wall. They used a lot of aid, pulling or hanging on expansion bolts and pitons.
Nearly twenty-one years later, in April 1992, Peter Croft and Johnny Woodward made the first free ascent, as they took all the aid out of the route by finding sequences of moves they could climb without hanging on gear. They solved the route in nine pitches (rope lengths), but rated the climb a really stiff 5.13a (since downgraded to 5.12d). In 1992, that was near the upper limit of free-climbing difficulty anywhere in the world, and Croft and Woodward’s feat was a brilliant one.
Peter Croft was already one of my heroes, because in the 1980s and ’90s he had pushed free soloing—climbing without a rope or gear at all—to unprecedented extremes. Many of the routes he’d free soloed back then had never been repeated in that style during the decades since.
But as far as I knew, no one had even thought of free soloing Moonlight Buttress. That’s what I was hoping to pull off on April 1, 2008.
In the back of my mind was a nagging worry about the feature called the Rocker Blocker. It’s an ample ledge, about half the size of a queen-size bed, at the top of the third pitch. Because it’s loose, somebody has chained it in place with a two-bolt anchor, but it actually makes for a good stance about 400 feet off the ground.
It wasn’t the ledge itself that fueled my angst. From the Rocker Blocker, stretching on tiptoe, you can just reach a key hold above. Essentially you face a 5.12c boulder problem right off the ledge. You don’t actually have to jump to make the move, but it’s more like an upward lurch to a small edge. As I climbed the easy pitches down low, that move loomed over me. I was pretty sure I could stick the ledge if I fell off, but I’d sure hate to find out.
The day before, sitting in my van in the rain, I had deliberately
visualized everything that might happen on the climb. Including breaking a hold, or just losing it and falling off. I saw myself bouncing off the ledge below and going all the way to the ground, fracturing most of my bones as I rag-dolled down the mountain. I’d probably bleed out at the base.
I hadn’t slept very well the previous night. So I got the early start in the morning that I’d planned, hoping to beat the sun to the wall and get cool conditions on the route. To reach the base of Moonlight Buttress, you have to wade the Virgin River, which in early April was freezing-ass cold. I forded the stream barefoot. The rushing water came up above my knees. My feet quickly went numb, and my whole body went into mild shock. Plus I had to pay attention to my balance as I placed my feet carefully in the gaps between polished river cobbles.
At what I thought was the start of Moonlight Buttress, I cached my approach shoes and my daypack. I’d decided to carry nothing—neither food, nor water, nor spare clothes—up the route. I clipped on my chalk bag and laced up my rock shoes. My feet were still cold, but they weren’t truly numb—I could feel my toes all right. I was wearing only shorts and a T-shirt. At the last minute, I put on headphones and turned up my iPod. I was shuffling through my own Top 25 playlist of tunes—mostly punk and modern rock.
It may sound lame, but I didn’t have a watch, and I was pretty sure I was going to set the speed record for Moonlight Buttress. I could use the iPod to measure the exact number of minutes the climb would take. Music also has a way of helping you focus, although nowadays I prefer to climb without my iPod, because I consider it a bit of a crutch.
For me, free soloing a big wall is all about preparation. In a real sense, I had performed the hard work on Moonlight Buttress during
the days leading up to the climb. Once I was on the route, it was just a matter of executing.
Yes, I’d climbed the whole route only once before, with a philosophy professor named Bill Ramsey. In his midforties, he was still climbing really well, and he’d been working on freeing Moonlight. He recruited me to climb it with him for his free attempt, and we swung leads up the whole route. It was a great day as we both climbed the route clean with no falls.
But that was two or three years earlier. In the days before my free solo attempt, I’d focused on the upper 800 feet of the route. It’s a mellow hike along a paved trail to the top of Moonlight Buttress, so I hauled up 600 feet of rope, rappelled down it, and practiced the moves on toprope. To self-belay, I used a device called a Mini Traxion, which grips the rope on a downward pull but slides effortlessly up the rope as you climb. If I fell or even rested, the Mini Traxion would hold me tight.
With my toprope, I climbed the upper 600 feet of Moonlight Buttress twice. The crux of the whole route—the hardest single passage, which is the make-or-break stretch of an ascent—is an amazing clean inside corner, 180 feet long. It’s the fourth of nine pitches on the route, and it’s what gives the climb its 5.12d rating. It’s continuous and really strenuous, so your arms get pretty pumped by the time you reach the top of it.
Each toproped rehearsal of those upper 600 feet had taken me only about an hour. I felt super-solid. At no point did I fall off or even feel sketchy. But then I realized that the 600-foot rope didn’t reach down to a crucial 5.11c rightward traverse on the third pitch. So the next day I went back up to the top with 800 feet of rope, rapped down again, and rehearsed the traverse moves until I had them dialed too.
I ran into a few other climbers on my practice runs. I even rescued an aid-climbing chick who didn’t quite know what she was
doing and had gotten stuck on her lead. I yelled, “Hey, grab this rope!” as I swung the tail of my fixed rope to her, so she could liberate herself from her trap. She was pretty grateful. It’s not every day that somebody comes rapping out of the sky on a route like that.
Then came two days of rain. I sat in my van in a movie theater parking lot in Springdale, stared out the windshield, and thought.
I’d gone to a movie to pass the time, but the rest of the day, into the evening, and through most of the second day I sat in the van, just thinking. It’s not like I had work to do. I didn’t have anything to do except think. About the climb.
Sitting and thinking, hour after hour. Visualizing every single move, everything that could possibly happen. That’s what it takes to wrap your mind around a challenge such as the one I was about to attempt.
That’s what I mean by preparation. Now I’d find out if I’d prepared adequately—if I could simply execute what I’d visualized, every handhold and foothold on the long way to the top of the wall.
T THE END OF MARCH 2008
, Alex Honnold was little known beyond the small circle of his friends. Seven years later, at the age of thirty, he is probably the most famous climber in the world. That’s not to claim that he’s the best climber in the world—in fact, there’s no such thing as the “best climber,” because the sport has subdivided into so many genres, from Himalayan mountaineering to bouldering in indoor gyms.
The reason for Honnold’s meteoric celebrity is that he’s pushed the most extreme and dangerous form of climbing far beyond the limits of what anyone thought was possible. Free soloing means
climbing without a rope, a partner, or any “hardware” (pitons, nuts, or cams) to attach oneself to the wall. In its stark simplicity, that pursuit can be understood by the most casual observer. The stakes are ultimate:
If you fall, you die
What Alex has done is to free solo routes both longer and of much greater difficulty than anyone before him has thought possible. So far, he’s gotten away with it, though some of his closest friends are afraid that he’s going to kill himself.
Free soloing is far more than a stunt. It amounts to reducing climbing to its most elemental challenge: a man (or woman), with only rock shoes on his feet and chalk on his fingertips for better purchase, against the cliff. It’s climbing at its absolute purest.
This is not the only kind of climbing Alex does, however. His speed “linkups”—enchainments of two or three big wall climbs back-to-back against the stopwatch, with only a minimal reliance on ropes or protection—have rewritten the book in Yosemite. And since 2013, Alex has expanded his horizons to mountaineering, where he’s already doing things no one else has managed to pull off.
Alex Honnold, in short, is a climbing visionary, of the sort who comes along maybe once in a generation. He’s also smart, funny, a man with surprisingly little ego, and a person who wants to make the world a better place for people less privileged or talented than he is. Nearly everyone who knows or even just watches Alex likes him, because, as Jon Krakauer says, “He’s utterly genuine. There’s no bullshit there.”
Again and again, whenever he speaks in public, Alex is asked the same two questions by everyone from little kids to graybeards. Indeed, they are the fundamental questions about what he’s doing on rock. They are: