Life’s Work: An Interview with Alex Honnold

As a pioneer of “free solo” climbing—a controversial discipline in which cliff faces are scaled without safety ropes and failure results in death—Honnold, 35, knows how to perform under pressure. His free-solo ascent of the 3,000-foot El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, was captured in a 2018 Oscar-winning documentary. “Preparation,” he says, “is what stops the fear.”


Jimmy Chin

HBR: How have you developed the focus required to free solo?

Honnold: That’s actually the one aspect of it I don’t need to practice. It’s not that I’m gifted. Free soloing just forces me to focus naturally. It’s a by-product of being on a wall without ropes: You have to perform, so you flip that switch. For me, the preparation lies more in physical training and route planning.

What has led to the biggest breakthroughs in your climbs?

There’s a creative element to solving problems, like figuring out how to climb certain sections of wall. But when I’m free soloing, I’ve already prepared and want to stick to the plan. I don’t want to be improvising. That would bring more uncertainty and risk into the equation. So most of my creative processing comes on rest days when I’m lying around somewhere safe, just thinking about climbing. That’s when I’ll envision “enchainments”—combinations of climbs that people have never done before.

Is the way you train—memorizing and rehearsing your plan—typical?

Visualizing how you’re going to navigate a difficult section is pretty common. Where are my hands going to go? Where should I place my foot? Even recreational climbers in gyms make plans for themselves before they leave the ground. With free soloing, you’re both remembering or anticipating how to do certain climbs and trying to imagine the emotional component. What will it feel like to be up high in a crazy, contorted position without protection during a difficult stretch? When I’m not climbing, I spend most of my time reading books about training, psychology, and performance. If I get one good idea from one book, that’s a success.

All that memorization of a climbing route seems like a skill in itself.

Definitely. I remember reading that chess grandmasters can look at a game in progress and, with just a glimpse of the board, memorize where all the pieces are. But if they look at a board full of randomly placed pieces, they can’t remember the positions much better than a novice, because the board doesn’t look like part of any game they’ve seen before. I’ve also learned to think in patterns and remember large blocks of sequences. With El Capitan, I had 3,000 feet of climbing memorized.

I’ve seen you described as the Mozart of climbing for your ability to make the extremely difficult look easy from an early age.

I’ve never heard that. I’m honored, but it makes me uncomfortable. There was only one Mozart.

How do you decide which risks are worth taking?

The casual observer might think free soloing is all crazy and reckless. But you can’t have a long career unless you spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about risk and minimizing it to ensure your own safety. There’s a brief scene in Free Solo where an fMRI shows that the amygdala in my brain responds differently than a “normal” person’s to low levels of fear stimuli, and most viewers come away saying, “There’s something unique about his brain.” I find that slightly irritating, because I’ve spent 25 years conditioning myself to work in extreme conditions, so of course my brain is different—just as the brain of a monk who has spent years meditating or a taxi driver who has memorized all the streets of a city would be different.

Organizations are beginning to value neurodiversity.

That’s just a fancy manner of referring to people who see things slightly differently. Obviously, the more eyes you have on a problem, the more likely you are to find unique solutions. I spent the past two months bolting new routes on this cliff near my home in Las Vegas with a friend of mine who’s probably the strongest professional sport climber in America. I’m taller, but he’s stronger, so I have to be a little bit more creative about how I’m using my body. It’s been interesting to try to figure out the best way to climb these sections of rock with somebody who’s so different.

“Free solo” implies an individual pursuit. Do you prefer that or collaboration?

On the whole, climbing is very collaborative. Even during the two years we filmed Free Solo, I did a giant rope linkup with [the climbing legend] Tommy Caldwell. I climb with partners all the time. Free soloing is only a few climbs a year.

So what’s the key to great teamwork in such high-stakes situations?

Trust. In climbing, your partner is literally holding your life in their hands. I have a roster of people I want to climb with because we have the same standards and considerations around safety. I know they’re going to make the exact same decisions I would.

How do you manage climbing with someone less experienced or talented?

In a guiding role, it’s easy: You just take over as team captain and do what needs to be done. The real danger is when two people think they’re climbing as equals but are bringing very different opinions on safety to it.

Do all your climbs help prepare you for free solos?

A lot of it—with a rope, with partners, or on easy terrain—is strictly for pleasure and relatively relaxed. But there is value in all the time and mileage on rock, feeling comfortable. It’s hard to sustain the intensity you need to free solo, so I think there’s something to be said for making that effort only when I need to.

Recently you’ve been “speed climbing”—working with a partner to summit big walls as quickly as possible, often trying to break time records. What have you learned prepping and executing on those climbs?

A lot of creativity is involved in that hunt for efficiency. To trim the fat from the system, to eliminate waste, you have to come up with new ideas. For example, can we implement a different strategy through one section that might allow us to climb with less equipment? We spend a lot of time talking it out, gaming out scenarios.

Kaizen and other management concepts involve looking for continuous improvement—small changes that add up.

Yes, that philosophy of marginal gains is central to climbing. When I have a big goal—like free soloing El Cap—I look at everything I do. I’m training, I’m watching my diet, I’m making sure I sleep enough. I’m outrageously focused on constant improvement. But when I’m just climbing with friends, with no clear goal on the horizon, I’m off the program. I have a casual lifestyle mode: I stay up late watching TV and eating dessert. The key is to have the right balance and not be on or off the program too long.

Have you integrated data into your training?

Climbing is only just catching up to where other sports were 30 years ago in putting together plans for people training for big routes the way marathon runners prepare for big runs. I’ve always kept a food and climbing journal, but it’s basic stuff, and I only recently started wearing a heart-rate monitor and a GPS. I’m sure there’s huge potential for applying big data to climbing—but right now it hasn’t had a big impact on the sport.

Since the El Cap ascent, how have you been thinking about your career?

I still love soloing, and I’ve been doing it a fair amount. But after achieving that life dream with El Cap, nothing is calling to me quite as much as it did. There’s literally nothing else like it in the world. That’s what I’ve been struggling with. When you know that nothing you do in the future will ever matter as much as what you’ve already done, it does take a little steam out of you. Even if I do something more cutting-edge or physically impressive, there won’t be an award-winning film about it, so people won’t think it’s as meaningful. Of course, that’s not all that matters. The most important thing for me is to be a good climber. But to know you’ll never be able to impress somebody again—that it’s all downhill from here—is sad. So I’m at a crossroads and trying to figure out what’s next. I have a few ideas. A lot depends on the pandemic, because travel—particularly international travel—is still hard.

Could you apply some of the skills you’ve developed as a climber to figure out the next stage of your life?

It’s clichéd, but I do think climbing teaches you goal setting, work ethic, and perseverance. The majority of the time you spend sport climbing, you’re failing: falling off and then trying to figure out how not to fall. Climbing reminds you that to get better at anything, you’ve got to put in a tremendous amount of time and effort and keep beating your head against a wall to figure it out. So I guess my advice to myself would be to “keep moving.” I started the Honnold Foundation, which gives grants to advance solar energy around the world, because I wanted a positive outlet for the material rewards that were coming in from the film and doing commercials. Otherwise there’s no benefit to being famous. At least now I’m funneling a significant portion of my income to causes that matter. We’ll be giving away a million dollars in grants this year.

You do give away a lot of your income. Should everyone follow that lead?

I have strong opinions about this, I guess because I lived in a van for 10 years. I had a purpose—to be the best climber I could be—so I didn’t need many material possessions, and I was probably happier than most people, because I was doing exactly what I loved at the highest level. The less stuff you have, the more focused you are on the things that matter. And that’s good, because we live on a planet with finite resources. I have a house and more possessions now, but I still live by that philosophy.

That’s well said. My father was a world-class cellist, and when I asked what he was going to do in retirement after his 60-year professional career, his answer was, “Practice the cello.”

Exactly. When I’m no longer a pro climber, it will just give me more time to go climbing, which is going to be awesome.

You spent the third anniversary of your El Cap ascent at a Black Lives Matter protest in Las Vegas. What moved you to take to the streets?

Every individual has an obligation to make the world a slightly better place than they found it. For me, that’s mostly manifested in environmental advocacy. But I was raised in middle-class suburban California and have never had to really struggle. The more I learn about racial injustice, the more I feel an obligation to do something about it.

Climbing is a pretty white sport. What needs to happen to make it more diverse?

The growth of climbing gyms in cities has made it more accessible, and that’s changing the demographics. Kai Lightner, who’s African American, has eight national championship titles. The sport is growing here and internationally.

Are you worried that as climbing becomes more popular, the natural areas in which it’s practiced will be damaged? When you see pictures of queues for the summit of Everest or lines of cars to get into Yosemite, does it bother you?

Not at all. I think that people who have positive outdoor experiences are more likely to support environmental protection, which will be better for the planet in the long term. The growth in climbing and hiking is still a tiny, tiny pushback against the popularity of video games and people being sedentary and indoors. It’s worth having a crowded Yosemite if those people then vote to protect their public lands.