What it took to free solo El Capitan
“SO STOKED. I just sent the proj!” Alex Honnold said in a voicemail from El Capitan on June 3. “Hiking down the East Ledges. Thanks for the support up here this season and, you know, just in general. I’m feeling pretty stoked out of my gourd.”
That day, Honnold, 31, made the first free solo of a VI on El Capitan. At 5:32 a.m., Honnold pulled on a pair of TC Pros and began up Free rider, a 2,900-foot 5.13a on the southwest face. Honnold navigated 10 pitches of slab on Free blast to Mammoth Terraces, where he down climbed 190 feet to Heart Ledges. From Heart, he deviated onto an unbolted 5.10 face to avoid a 5.11c slab move. Higher, he stepped away from the standard line and entered the 200-foot 5.10d Monster Off width lower than normal to avoid an exposed 5.11d down climb traverse. Honnold continued on Free rider, climbing the Huber Boulder Problem pitch, a delicate V7 slab at 1,700 feet. With nowhere to stop, Honnold linked the two 5.12b Enduro Corner pitches into the Free rider Traverse (5.12b), a 150-foot section usually broken up into three pitches with hanging belays. From Roundtable Ledge, at the end of the Free rider Traverse, Honnold climbed the last 600 feet of 5.11+ crack and off width in 20 minutes, topping out at 9:28 a.m. He’d been on the wall for 3:56.
In the summer of 2006 in Squamish, British Columbia, I met a 21-year-old kid from Sacramento with big ears, huge puppy hands, and doe eyes. He wore sweatpants all the time and abstained from all vices save free soloing. We climbed on the Chief, the slabs on the Apron, and on the sport routes at Cheakamus where he on sighted his first 5.12d, Boiler Maker. We spoke often of free soloing. I had free soloed hundreds of pitches across the United States, but in 2004, I fell 100 feet on sight free soloing North Overhang in Joshua Tree. My desire to climb cordless had been tempered by eight surgeries and a body full of metal. Still, I could relate to Honnold’s desire for the freedom and purity. That summer, Honnold on sight-soloed Pipeline, a 170-foot 5.10+ off width at Squamish. “It’s pretty much been all downhill after Pipeline,” Honnold jokes. He soon transferred his granite skills to Yosemite. In September 2007, Honnold climbed Astroman (V 5.11c) and the North Face of the Rostrum (IV 5.11c) in a day unroped, attracting media attention and sponsorship.
IN 2008, I DROVE into Zion and called Honnold, who had been Mini-Traxioning on Moonlight Buttress (V 5.12d). We talked beta on Moonlight, then made plans to meet up. Then, I received a text from Mikey Schaefer: “Did you hear Honnold soloed Moonlight?” Honnold had neglected to mention it. It didn’t surprise me that he’d soloed this 1,000-foot climb, a finger-crack stamina fest. Though Honnold’s most difficult ascents have been three 5.14c sport climbs and two V12s, he has established a huge base of endurance and fitness. He rarely tires on long routes and thus rarely gets scared on them. As George S. Patton Jr. wrote in War as I Knew It, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”
Over the next few years, Honnold continued to push his soloing. Later in 2008, he free soloed the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome (VI 5.12). In February 2010, he made the second ascent of Ambrosia, a 50-foot V11 highball in Bishop, California. In 2011, it was Astroman and the Rostrum, exiting the Rostrum via the 5.12 Alien. In 2012, Alex and I shared an apartment in Bishop. That winter, Alex convinced a crew to hike 34 pads out to the Luminance Boulder in the Buttermilks so he could establish the 50-foot Too Big to Flail (V9), after he’d worked out the moves on top rope. The boulder problem/short solo contained some of the hardest un roped climbing he had done—delicate patina crimping way off the deck. By the time of his solo of the Free rider, he’d climbed an estimated 2,000 individual pitches rope less, including multiple 50-pitch days and a day of 290 pitches in Squamish for his twenty-ninth birthday.
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