Climbing between heaven and earth
BY NADINE PELZER
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2016)
He is a visionary climber of the kind that comes along only once in a generation. A thirty-year-old climbing phenomenon, Alex Honnold pushes the limits of free soloing beyond anything previously attempted, as he climbs without a rope, without a partner and without any gear to attach himself to the wall. If he falls, he dies. At the moment, Honnold is one of the most famous adventurers in the world. His extraordinary life has much to teach us about risk, reward and the ability to maintain focus even in the face of extreme danger. In his book “Alone on the Wall”, he recounts the seven most astonishing achievements thus far in his meteoric career, including free-soloing Sendero Luminoso in Mexico and climbing the Fitz Traverse in Patagonia. Each chapter narrates the drama of one climb, along with reflective and introspective passages that get at what makes Honnold tick.
How was your first time being on a wall?
ALEX HONNOLD: It depends on what you consider being on a wall, as I started climbing in an indoor climbing gym when I was a kid, but most people wouldn’t really consider that “wall climbing”. I first started soloing walls outside when I was around 19, but even then it was on routes that were fairly easy and low angle. The first time I soloed something that I still consider to be a truly impressive wall was in 2007 when I soloed two routes in Yosemite called Astroman and the Rostrum. Each of them is tall enough, they are round about 250 m high, and steep enough that they definitely feel like being on a big wall. But whether soloing or with a rope, I’ve always loved the position of being up on a vertical face. I love the air around me and the amazing views.
What does this sport give to you?
A. H.: Well, I’ve always loved climbing, even if it’s only on trees or a playground. I love the movement of swinging my body around and getting to the top of something. And I like the satisfaction of attempting something difficult and managing to do it. But now as a professional climber I get so much more from it as well. My entire community is made up of climbers, even all my friends. And all my travel is built around climbing, so I’ve got to see very big parts of the world because of climbing. And of course I make a living from it as well now. So basically climbing is everything to me right now. It’s my whole world. But at the heart of it there is still a very basic love for the movement and the sensation of climbing up something.
How important is mental strength if you want to be an extreme climber?
A. H.: I think mental strength is pretty important, though it’s also something that you just naturally develop by climbing a lot. I don’t think I had any particular mental strength before I started climbing, but now after many years of continually pushing myself and always finding bigger challenges I think I’ve learned a lot of mental toughness. And it’s not just managing fear and deal with those kinds of emotions, it’s also the simple fact of making yourself get up early to go out into the mountains or having the motivation to train even when you’re tired.
Could you imagine to live another life?
A. H.: It’s funny, because climbing is pretty much everything to me, but I can sort of imagine another life as well. I think if I got terribly injured or couldn’t climb anymore for some random reason I could find joy in other things in life. I could be satisfied with life by working on sustainability issues – in a lot of ways it has a much bigger impact on the world than climbing ever could. It would be nice to do something that’s actually significant.
Picture credits © Jimmy Chin