This article has was updated in March 2019 to reflect recent news about this topic.
Alex Honnold, arguably the world’s greatest free climber and center of a climbing controversy, has been featured in a series of television specials profiling his epic achievements. In the February 2017 issue of Rock and Ice magazine, he’s featured in an interview spread covering his feelings about death. Death seems to have become the hanging topic over Honnold’s head – “Does he know he will most likely die doing what he’s doing?” In 2018, he was the star of Free Solo, a documentary that captured his historic climb of El Capitan.
In the February 2017 issue of Rock & Ice Magazine, Alex’s climbing prowess is featured along with commentary on what his critics are saying about his “reckless” climbing habits. Honnold regularly solos on dangerous free climbs, does it in record time and “for dollars,” as described on the cover of that issue.
Alex has been the center of criticism for a long time from both the climbing and non-climbing communities. It’s never seemed to have made a difference in how he views his climbing. After all, a man who drops out of UC Berkeley to pursue climbing full-time isn’t someone who can easily be influenced by public opinion. But are his critics wrong in chastising him constantly for the way he plays his sport, and more so, for doing it “for dollars?”
The Ascent of Alex Honnold – 60 Minutes
In a program produced by CBS’s 60 Minutes, Honnold was featured in the episode “The Ascent of Alex Honnold” where viewers got to see the incredible and breathtaking climbs Honnold regularly undertakes. Ten minutes and 50 seconds into the video, we see Honnold up close via a camera attached to the rock side, one in a series of cameras that documented his climb up Sentinel Rock in Yosemite National Park.
His expression was open, calm and his entire being looked as if the air at this height was all his body craved, all he needed to live and survive. He took a deep breath and released an exhale of sheer satisfaction. Alex Honnold genuinely appears to be an athlete that lives to exist in a world where he can climb at any time of day, any day of the week. He currently lives out of his van, which he’s modified to accommodate his lifestyle of climbing. I don’t think there’s a person on this planet that can neither convince him to join society or see his climbs through the general lenses of society. Society says his climbs are dangerous, reckless and insane. Would we really want him to?
Alex Honnold’s View on Death
As he progresses through his climbing career, Honnold’s climbs become more sensational, reaching speed climbing records unheard of and tackling sections of rock most steer clear from. He does it all at a moment’s notice, whenever the whim to climb arises.
One such climb was documented and featured in Climbing Magazine where Alex Honnold tributes Dan Osman by soloing Lover’s Leap and beating Osman’s record of 4:25, Alex climbed it in 4:15. In a 2012 New York Times article, Honnold’s achievement at tackling The Tripple was featured in the Sports section. This climb saw Honnold do the unthinkable, climb the three biggest rock faces in Yosemite National Park – in 24 hours.
This is what his critics call reckless climbing, and most make a note of telling him whenever they see him that “he’s going to die.” Honnold is not immune to the idea of death or to the realization that his path has a greater chance of getting him killed than keeping him alive, as he explained in the “60 Minutes” episode and in the Rock and Ice interview where he tackles this very issue.
In the magazine article, he’s asked various questions regarding the idea of death. To all, he seems to give the same answer. Basically, if it happens it happens, but it’s not a possibility he’s unaware of. Also gathering media attention is the concept of Honnold climbing “for dollars,” which many of his critics really seem to take to heart.
Climbing for Dollars
Let’s take a step back here and understand one thing. There are tons of athletes out there that play their sport “for dollars.” Sponsorships, payments from television appearances, promotion of products and services – all of these are considered “for dollars.” If you’re doing an action in exchange for money, it is for dollars no matter the sport. Alex is no different.
A critic can have a point if they were to say Alex is only climbing for attention and money, that he doesn’t enjoy the sport. But if you’ve ever seen Alex in action, you’d know that’s just not the case here.
Free Solo Oscar for Best Documentary
Currently, Honnold is sponsored by The North Face, an exceptional mountaineering and outdoor brand. In his most recent achievement, he was featured in the documentary Free Solo. The film documents his historic feat of climbing El Capital without ropes or safety gear.
It was a sensational time for Alex. Prior to this film, he was known as the reckless climber who lived in his van. After, he was known as the God of free soloing. He received praise from all corners of the Earth, Jared Leto, gave him a shout out during one of his concerts. It was a pivotal moment where Alex transformed from being controversial to being recognized for his talent.
The film, Free Solo, went on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary in March 2019. From then on out, everything else was history.
Should We Criticize Honnold?
With all the information in one basket, it appears that Honnold’s critics just feel that his climbs are very dangerous, suicidal and reckless. They are. His undertakings are very dangerous. But that’s his decision to make. Most people think that climbing Mount Everest is suicidal – that’s obviously a matter of opinion since it’s on most mountaineer’s bucket list.
Just as the general public can’t tell mountaineers how to play their sport, fellow climbers really shouldn’t attempt to tell Honnold how to play his.
He’s well informed and aware of his risks, sometimes that’s enough. We all need to allow others to dream big, the biggest they can. No one wants to go to the grave with a regret for something they didn’t do. While he’s got air in his lungs, it seems Alex is going to dream the biggest dreams any free climber ever has.
Heller, Seth. “A View From the Top.” Rock and Ice Magazine Feb. 2017: 32-37. Print.
Staff, Climbing. “Alex Honnold Solos Lover’s Leap in Dan Osman Tribute – Climbing Magazine | Rock Climbing, Mountaineering, Bouldering, Ice Climbing.” Climbing. Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc, 08 Dec. 2016. Web. 06 Mar. 2017. <http://www.climbing.com/videos/alex-honnold-solos-lovers-leap-in-dan-osman-tribute/>.
Neville, Tim. “Solo Climber Reaches New Heights.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 June 2012. Web. 06 Mar. 2017. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/16/sports/rock-climber-alex-honnold-tackles-yosemites-biggest-rock-faces.html>.