5Point Film in Aspen: Climber rises above the ordinary
Ryan Summerlin January 19, 2013
ASPEN – He grasps the granite cliffs of Yosemite National Park with mere fingertips and maneuvers his 5-foot-11, thin frame up the seemingly smooth faces of some of the world’s most daunting climbs.
Watching Alex Honnold scale a massive rock is like watching an artist in front of his canvas. With smooth motions, and what appears to be little effort, he makes the daunting look trite.
There’s just one thing missing from this picture – rope.
He is one of the world’s top rock-climbing talents and recently was on the cover of National Geographic and on CBS’ “60 Minutes” for his escapades. At 7 p.m. Saturday, the Sacramento, Calif., native will speak about his climbing at the Wheeler Opera House for the debut of the 5Point Film program in Aspen. A banquet kicking off the event starts at 6 p.m. The program seeks to share people’s experiences of the outdoors through film and inspire others to embark on similar journeys.
What might make Honnold’s talk gripping is not his documenting of what he’s done but how he’s developed to make it happen.
To understand how the 27-year-old performs his death-defying feats, look at his childhood. Honnold described himself as a kid who “wanted to be on top of everything.”
“I loved playing outside on the playground and climbing trees,” he said. “This gym opened up near my house, and I just started climbing consistently, but most kids like that kind of stuff. It’s not out of the ordinary.”
But it was out of the ordinary to drop out of the University of California at Berkeley after one year to devote his time to rock climbing.
His decision stemmed from more than just a desire to climb. Honnold’s father died of a heart attack in the summer after his freshman year. He said his dad, along with his mother, pushed him to stay in school.
In his first year, Honnold, then an engineering student, didn’t put much stake into his classes. Rather, for hours every day, he spent time at a nearby rock-climbing wall and traversed the face for as long as he pleased.
“I just thought there’s no point of me going to school and going to class and doing something I’m not passionate about,” Honnold said. “I didn’t really know you could climb full time.”
When his sophomore year was about to start, he was invited to a youth world climbing competition in Scotland. Honnold thought it would be a nice break from school, went and took second place.
After that, he saw no point in returning to Berkeley. He realized what he was good at and didn’t want to do anything else.
Honnold’s exit from school didn’t mean immediate fame in the rock-climbing community. In reality, he said, it was quite the opposite.
“I didn’t know anybody,” he said. “I didn’t know how the climbing lifestyle worked. I was just hanging out at home a lot. I didn’t really set out on the open road for long road tips. I didn’t know you could.”
Over time, Honnold said he kept going farther from home, and meeting other climbers. His favorite climbing spot was – and still is – just under three hours southeast of Sacramento, Yosemite.
“I started traveling more and more in California and Nevada,” he said. “You get in this community and know people in different areas. Doing a 30-hour drive to a place is no big deal.”
In his early 20s, Honnold said he was still learning techniques of climbing and looking back at who he was then, he couldn’t imagine doing the things he does today.
That includes setting speed records for climbing three of the most difficult rock faces in North American and completing solo climbs that very few would dare to attempt.
Last June, Honnold soloed the Yosemite “Triple Crown” – climbing Mt. Watkins, El Capitan and Half Dome in 18 hours, 50 minutes. He didn’t use rope for about 90 percent of the climb.
“The time isn’t as impressive as is the fact that I did it at all,” Honnold said. “The time is the by-product of the style. You’re climbing thousands of feet of granite. A normal climber would spend three days climbing El Capitan, and would need a couple of days in between them. For the average person trying to solo it, it would take forever. It’s generally slower.”
It’s more rewarding for Honnold to have accomplished that than he would ever let on. Known as one of the most humble climbers around, he said completing the Triple Crown was just “personal progression.”
“It’s one of the hardest I’ve done,” Honnold added. “It’s not as scary as some of the solo things I’ve done. There were some guys filming and that takes away some of the commitment.”
Honnold accomplished the feat because, as he said, he already climbed all three faces multiple times, and knew the routes well.
While the heights – and lack of rope – are enough to send shivers down spines, Honnold said he rarely thinks about it.
“I think climbs through before I do anything,” he said. “It’s just a different level of commitment (to free solo). I would never free solo something 18 hours in when I’m completely exhausted.”
He plans what he climbs with a great amount of forethought. Honnold’s climbing attempts depend much upon the seasons, saying he would ideally spend his entire life in the spring and fall.
“It all falls into finding areas I want to go and new places I’m interested in,” Honnold said. “Some things are really physically hard, and you have to be in good cardio shape.”
Next up for Honnold this year is more mountaineering in the Cascades, and maybe a bike tour around the Pacific Northwest. When asked how he comes up with ideas to do something next, his answer is half predictable: “It’s so rad, and because I can. Why wouldn’t I?”
Along with Honnold, two Aspen climbers, Hayden and Michael Kennedy, will appear at Saturday’s 5Point.