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Tall Order


And what doings they are. Honnold, a professional climber in his early 30s, recently made it up the dauntingly vertical 3,000-foot rockface of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park, freehand, ropeless and solo—the first and only person to ever do so. You may find the climb, which was Alex Honnold Tall Order filmed for an upcoming National Geographic documentary, hard to watch—Honnold did it, and discusses it below without a smidgen of humble-bragging, reflectively, calmly, and all the more chillingly for that.


ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST—Some years ago I interviewed Philippe Petit, who had walked a high wire between the Twin Towers not long before, over lunch at the Windows on the World, the restaurant on top of the North Tower. I have covered wars and been in harrowing situations, but when I looked down from that height, even through thick glass, I was appalled. When did you realize that you were capable of doing this? Was there a lightbulb moment?

ALEX HONNOLD—I don’t know that there was a lightbulb moment. I have always loved to climb. I was climbing at ten years old. Everybody does their thing, I think that’s pretty normal for little kids. Does that make sense?


AHG — It does indeed. I happen not to feel that way! Where did you grow up?


AH — In Sacramento, California.


AHG — I’ve been watching your videos online. Everybody should watch them. In one of them you described yourself as “a bit of a dark soul…melancholic…”


AH — [chuckles] Yeah. I was shy for a kid. And then the typical teenage stuff.


AHG — Was climbing any kind of antidote to that?


AH — Yeah, I think so. It was the one thing I loved to do, the one thing I was relatively good at. I was introverted and shy, and climbing has really helped me with these issues over the years. I am a very different person now than I was when I was fifteen. I’m sure most people are. But with me a lot of that was because of the climbing.


AHG — Anybody might think, If I was faster I could be a runner, if I had a better punch I could be a boxer. But I doubt whether many people think that they could have done what you do. I think Freud said the fear of heights is related to the urge to commit suicide. I don’t know if you’ve heard that one?


AH — Yes. But I believe that Freud has been largely discredited. I know what you’re referring to, but I don’t think that. A lot of people experience that sensation when they are on the edge of the void, wondering, What if I went over the edge? What if I just lean forwards? And that’s the end? But I think that’s a natural human curiosity. Everybody is curious about death, curious about its meaning. But that is not an actual urge to commit suicide. That’s a feeling that I’m on the edge of something I have never experienced and know nothing about. I’ve done a ton of photo shoots leaning over the edge of cliffs, standing on the top and posing and looking over the side and doing whatever, like portrait shoots, things like that, and I have definitely experienced that. But not the urge, I’m not trying to kill myself. But, oh Lord, it feels weird to look into the abyss like that.

Oh Lord, it feels weird to look into the abyss like that.
“Both art and the circus are about performing for other people. My climbing is more about performing for myself.”

AHG — Do you look down when you’re climbing? [I hadn’t thought to ask Philippe Petit this question and wondered if it was a tricky one, but Honnold took it nonchalantly.]


AH — You have to look down, because you have to look at your feet all the time. You spend almost as much time looking down as looking up. More, if anything.


AHG — A couple of times in the videos you describe things being scary and say you are starting to panic a little. The whole thing looks scary to me! Could you describe such a situation?


AH — Ideally I feel fear when I’m actually in danger. When there’s a real chance that I could fall off. You know, I’m very comfortable in training. There is basically no chance of me falling off. It feels the same as walking or climbing a ladder, I can deal with it, no problem, so that’s not scary at all. But, you know, if I suddenly start to second guess or think that I might be going the wrong way, or that it might be too hard for me or something like that, then I feel fear just like anybody else.


AHG — I watched the videos pretty closely, and when you’re climbing what looks like moss there must be a lot of unforeseen situations? Like damp moss, things crumbling.


AH — Yes, exactly. Those are the kinds of things that can make you afraid. If you think that you are climbing a classic route and then all of a sudden you get a big section of wet moss, and it feels very slippery, and it’s not what you expected. Those are definitely the times that you can get very afraid.


AHG — It happened that Karl Wallenda had fallen not long before I met with Philippe Petit. [Karl Wallenda, patriarch and founder of the high-wire act the Flying Wallendas, fell to his death in Puerto Rico in 1978, a short time before I spoke with Petit at the WTC.] I mentioned this to Petit, and he simply said, “He didn’t do his own rigging. ” You must do everything necessary yourself?

AH — Yeah, I certainly have to do all the preparation myself. I need to feel the rocks myself. And make the decisions myself. I think it’s a little bit different because I’m not relying on a team.


AHG — The Wallendas were a circus act, like all traditional wirewalkers. But Petit went to art school. He sees what he does as performance art. Do you look on the work the same way?


AH — No. I take an even different view. I come to climbing from an athletic background. Not that I was any good of an athlete before, but I think of climbing more as an athletic act. Which is probably closer to the circus side than the artist side. But being a circus act you are still very much a performer, it still has to do with the crowd. The athletic side has more to do with human potential and human ability, like what can you physically do, what is the body capable of. Both art and the circus are about performing for other people. My climbing is more about performing for myself.


AHG — Do you sometimes take your training into different directions?


AH — [another chuckle] By many standards I’m relatively lazy. I spend too much of my time going on expeditions, going on adventures and climbing outdoors. To be truly an elite athlete I would have to train in the gym quite a bit more, and that’s just not something I spend my time on. But I’m serious about training. I certainly do my best to be a good climber.


AHG — There’s reference on one of the videos to your having a fall.


AH — I’ve had many, many falls. Most are totally normal falls with a rope on. And I’ve had a couple of semi-serious falls. But for twenty years climbing that’s to be expected.


AHG — Might I ask what goes through your head when you’re actually falling?


AH — Falling with a rope, nothing is going through your head. Because that is totally normal. I fall with a rope every single day. That’s part of the normal process. And occasionally you take more serious falls.


AHG — When you were still only thinking about the climb of El Capitan you said, like you were questioning, “Maybe it’s for a future generation? Or, “Maybe it’s for somebody who’s got nothing to live for?”


AH — So your question is about future generations?


AHG — No. Just that it sounds like you live with the awareness that if things go wrong for you they are going to go badly wrong.


AH — Actually it was more, maybe I’ll never try it and maybe I’ll leave it for the future. It’s not like I’m going to die and someone else will have to do it. It’s more that if I don’t feel comfortable and never do this, then someone else will eventually.


AHG — Have you lost many friends doing this?


AH — Actually, the last couple of years have been surprisingly bad. But most people have died in accidents sort of peripherally related to climbing. Like avalanches. A couple of friends died base jumping. Jumping off cliffs with parachutes. And then I’ve seen a few horrible climbing accidents where people just fell, even with a rope on, and then they hit the ground. If you had asked me that question two years ago I would have said that climbing has been surprisingly safe and not too bad. But the last few years have been pretty crazy. And I think part of that is because as I have become more well-known as a climber or just more in the community, I know everybody now. So when anything happens to anyone it feels slightly more personal.


AHG — So you have now climbed El Capitan, which is the crown jewels. What next?


AH — Everybody asks that. Honestly, I’m not sure. I’ve spent eight years dreaming about El Capitan and building up to it, and I’m still very much thinking about El Capitan. You know, it’s hard to really focus on the next thing, I’ll just have to wait and kind of see what inspires me. Nothing will ever inspire me quite like El Capitan, and the fact that it really represented the next step for me. So I’m not sure what the next step will be beyond that. It will take some time to find that. El Capitan was a unique challenge and objective. It was just such a combination of factors, like how big, and beautiful—but also how difficult.


AHG — When I looked at it, the word “difficult” did not occur to me. The word “impossible” occurred to me.


AH — Well, I thought “impossible” too, ten years ago. And then over the years it went from “impossible” to like, “well…maybe!” And then eventually it became “inevitable.” And then I did it. — END

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