#178: Will Anything Top El Cap? With Alex Honnold

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This is a podcast episode titled, #178: Will Anything Top El Cap? With Alex Honnold. The summary for this episode is: <p>What do you do after you accomplish your biggest professional goal at age 33? That’s the question DC asked professional climber Alex Honnold in this exclusive HYPERGROWTH episode of Seeking Wisdom.</p><p><br></p><p>Alex was the first, and remains the only, climber to free solo El Cap, a 3,000ft granite face in Yosemite National Park, in 2018. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t as easy as he made it look. In this episode, DC and Alex talk about what it was like to train for the climb with an entire film crew by his side, what life’s been like since the release of the Free Solo movie, and what’s next for Alex.</p><p><br></p><h3>Like this episode? Be sure to leave a ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ review and share the pod with your friends. You can connect with DC on Twitter @dcancel @DriftPodcasts or text him to share your feedback at +1-212-380-1036.</h3><p>&nbsp;</p><p>For more learnings from DC, check out his weekly newsletter, The One Thing. You can subscribe here:<a href="https://www.drift.com/insider/learn/newsletters/dc/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"> https://www.drift.com/insider/learn/newsletters/dc/</a></p>
Why Alex wanted to do the movie Free Solo
00:56 MIN
Always getting better at climbing
00:08 MIN
Vegas - The best four season climbing
01:34 MIN
The Honnold Foundation
00:31 MIN

Speaker 1: Oh, man, we have got an amazing, never before released episode of Seeking Wisdom here for you today, and it is with no other than the legend, the man, the myth, the amazing free climber known as Alex Honnold. Alex Honnold was the first climber to free solo El Cap, and that was featured in the movie, Free Solo. If you haven't seen that movie, it was directed by Jimmy Chin, and we spoke to him on an earlier episode. But this is amazing, so I cannot wait for you to watch this exclusive podcast that we did with Alex. When I watched that movie and even before the movie was out and I had heard of Alex and the stuff that he does... And free climbing means that he climbs the sides of cliffs on mountain sides with no ropes. It is crazy, right? And so when I first heard of Alex, I knew that I had to figure out a way to interview him, and I got to do that in 2019 at a Hypergrowth Boston. So we talk about, everything about Free Solo and how you train, how the film was made, why he lives in Las Vegas, of all places, and his foundation that he set up called the Honnold Foundation, which a lot of the work that he does goes to, the proceeds go to the Honnold Foundations. And so many things that he does, including his own personal social media habits. All right. Let me know what you thought of this episode, Alex Honnold, mindblowing episode, so fortunate as to spend time with him. Don't forget, six star only rating, shout it out to Alex Honnold. Peace. We're in Boston at the Wang Theater, feels like a nightclub, it's gothic. There's music blasting, if you don't hear that, and we're getting ready... it's 8: 00 AM.

Alex Honnold: Yeah. That's the thing that makes it surreal. I've barely had breakfast and there's like club music and tons of people with glow sticks who are very high energy.

Speaker 1: Do you have breakfast in the morning?

Alex Honnold: Yeah. I always do.

Speaker 1: You do?

Alex Honnold: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

Speaker 1: Really?

Alex Honnold: Yeah.

Speaker 1: You subscribe to that?

Alex Honnold: Actually, yeah, it totally depends on where I am, what I'm doing, but I had breakfast today. But I've been up since 4: 30, because I'm all jet lag because I flew from China. So I'm sort of on an unusual program.

Speaker 1: It's crazy. So you're coming back from a tour of promoting your movie, Free Solo, right, in China.

Alex Honnold: Yeah.

Speaker 1: Where were you? What were you doing?

Alex Honnold: Oh, I was just in Beijing doing press for two days. Yeah. It was just the film premiere and tons of... Well, I don't really know, honestly. That's kind of the beauty and the interest of traveling in Asia is that you just never have any idea what's happening. It's just people telling me what to do and with no real sense of why I'm doing it or who's asking or what's happening. You're just like, " Cool" or just smiling-

Speaker 1: And we're continuing that here.

Alex Honnold: Yeah, exactly, exactly. But this is definitely a more surreal scene than anything in Beijing.

Speaker 1: That is funny. It's crazy.

Alex Honnold: Yeah.

Speaker 1: You're going to be speaking today at Hypergrowth.

Alex Honnold: Yep.

Speaker 1: What are you going to be speaking about today?

Alex Honnold: I'm going to be talking a bit about my whole journey free soloing El Cap. I mean, I think it's probably fair to assume that a lot of people here have seen the film, but I'm going to go a little bit deeper into some of the backstory and just the process, the things that the film doesn't cover well.

Speaker 1: Yeah. And when you watch the film, what's the feeling that you have? Do you freak out like the rest of us?

Alex Honnold: No, definitely not.

Speaker 1: Definitely.

Alex Honnold: I mean, when I watch the film, it's like flipping through a scrapbook. It helps me to remember all the actual things that happened. Obviously, I mean, the film is incredible, but mostly for me, it just reminds me of all the things, because the film is 90 minutes long and it was shot over two years. So, I mean, there's a lot that, a lot of life happened in that time.

Speaker 1: Do you all the errors in the film?

Alex Honnold: Well, there aren't really errors in the film? I mean, it's all true. I mean, the stuff crosstalk. It's all verite. So there's nothing wrong with it, but it's more just omissions, but not like... no, it's just edited. I mean it's just 90 minutes instead of... So I mean the final climb in the film is 20 minutes long and it's incredible. It's beautifully shot. I love watching it, but the actual climb is four hours and I remember the whole thing.

Speaker 1: What led you to want to do the movie? It seems like such a solo...

Alex Honnold: Part of the reason I did the movie was just because it made it easier for me to work on a project, sort of counter- intuitively.

Speaker 1: Sure.

Alex Honnold: But the thing is there's a lot of work involved in working on a route like that. A lot of just toil, like carrying ropes up and down, coiling ropes, managing. And so, by doing a film, it meant that my friends were basically getting paid to help me on my project.

Speaker 1: So it was an excuse for...

Alex Honnold: And it's kind of a cover also, in a way, because if I was just up there rapelling down the same section of El Cap over and over, working on it, anybody who saw me be like, " Oh, he's obviously preparing to solo it." But because we were filming, it was actually more like, " Oh, we're working on this Nat Geo project," and people are like, " Oh, cool." They're like, " Oh, maybe they're shooting a history of the Salathe Wall, which is the section of the wall I was on. Or it's like, or maybe they're just shooting, because occasionally we'd say, " Oh, we're shooting a thing for the national parks. We're shooting a thing for Nat Geo," sort of vague, true but not strictly true.

Speaker 1: Not strictly true. Yeah.

Alex Honnold: Yeah. So it gave a lot of flexibility and, I don't know, it just kind of made sense.

Speaker 1: We're the people, like the people on the cast, actually filming, we're they actually friends of yours that would climb with?

Alex Honnold: Yeah. Everyone on the crew were close friends of mine that I've climbed with over the years, that I've been friends with for many years. I mean like Jimmy Chin, the co- director, we've traveled together for 12 years or something.

Speaker 1: 12 years?

Alex Honnold: Yeah, I think so. I think I've known him since 2007.

Speaker 1: How you'd meet him? Climbing?

Alex Honnold: We're both on the North Face Athlete Team.

Speaker 1: Okay.

Alex Honnold: So we've been on expeditions all over, like we've gone to Antarctica together for a month. So we've spent a lot of time in tents together.

Speaker 1: Yeah. How many years have you been professionally climbing?

Alex Honnold: Since 2007.

Speaker 1: Okay. That's when you started?

Alex Honnold: Yeah.

Speaker 1: That's crazy.

Alex Honnold: Yeah. Yeah, it's quite a journey.

Speaker 1: And so all of them are real climbers?

Alex Honnold: Yeah. Well, a couple of the crew members were sort of verite filmmakers. Jimmy's wife, Chai Vasarhelyi, who's also the director of the film, co- director, so she brought more of the verite background to it with a... She's not a climber, but she's a gifted filmmaker. And then she brought some of her team members, people that she'd worked with in the past who were a little bit more focused on the verite side. And the thing is, after two years of all filming together, you wind up being pretty good friends with everybody. It's-

Speaker 1: Friends or enemies and crosstalk.

Alex Honnold: No, no. Friends, friends. Well, I mean, two years is a long crosstalk time to work with somebody, I think. Yeah.

Speaker 1: Yeah. It's like being married. And you got married during crosstalk-

Alex Honnold: No, no. No, no, not married, not married.

Speaker 1: Oh, okay.

Alex Honnold: Just seeing girlfriend.

Speaker 1: Moved in, moved in, moved in.

Alex Honnold: Yeah. Well, we moved in after the first week or something because I lived in a car. So it's you just move into her place. You're like" I'm coming to stay."

Speaker 1: And that actually happened during the filming too?

Alex Honnold: Yeah. I met my girlfriend after we'd already started filming Free Solo.

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Alex Honnold: So our entire relationship plays out on the street.

Speaker 1: In the movie.

Alex Honnold: Yeah.

Speaker 1: It's crazy.

Alex Honnold: Yes.

Speaker 1: Yeah. So would what started all of this, like this pursuit, the climbing?

Alex Honnold: The climbing?

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Alex Honnold: I mean, I've just always loved climbing. You know what I mean? I've climbed since I was 10 years old, so it's like my entire life is just invested into this one pursuit.

Speaker 1: One pursuit. Yeah.

Alex Honnold: Yeah. And then if you're going to do it, you want to do it well. You want to be as good as you can, and so, I've put a lot of effort in over the years.

Speaker 1: How do you think about it like your next thing now that you've done this?

Alex Honnold: I don't know. I mean, honestly, that's the hardest thing. Every single Q& A I do with audiences or any event I do, everyone's like, " What's next?" I don't know, it's hard. I don't know.

Speaker 1: Do you think way? Do you think, like from the outside looking at what you've done seems like there's always a pursuit of what's next? What's next? How to get better? How to refine? How to get better?

Alex Honnold: Well, the thing is, so how to get better? So I am always how to get better, like what is the next thing that I want to work on? The thing is that audiences, when they ask, what's next? They're like, " When are you working on Free Solo 2?" And the reality is that there's never going to be a Free Solo 2. There are no other objectives like that in the world. It's a unique, and it was a beautiful confluence of the perfect objective with the right crew, the right motivation. I mean, like it all came together to make this incredible experience, and that's never going to happen again. And so you hate to sort of disappoint people with" Well, this is a unique experience crosstalk, like this one- off."

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Alex Honnold: Yeah.

Speaker 1: Watch it over and over again.

Alex Honnold: But the thing is I'm still trying to get better at climbing. I'm still working on things. I have tons of personal projects, but they're just not ever going to be Academy Award winning films. They're not interesting in that way.

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Alex Honnold: I don't know. It's just hard to be like, " Well, the rest of my life will just be back to the quiet toil," just working away.

Speaker 1: Quiet toil that lead to this.

Alex Honnold: Yeah. Exactly, exactly.

Speaker 1: Do you have times that you consider like that was a perfect climb?

Alex Honnold: I mean, crosstalk free soloing El Cap was pretty close to as good as it gets for me. Yeah.

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Alex Honnold: Yeah. I mean, it was two years of work for a big climb and it went as well as it could.

Speaker 1: And how hard was it? Seemed like almost impossible. Even the people were actually filming it, that seemed like, during when you were doing that climb, that seemed pretty difficult.

Alex Honnold: You mean having people on the wall?

Speaker 1: Yeah. Having people on the wall with you.

Alex Honnold: Well, I don't know. Well, you've spoken to Jimmy as well, right?

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Alex Honnold: I'm sure he said the same thing, that they spent... All the time that I spent working on the climb, they spent, well, they spent documenting my practice. But that also meant that they were up on the wall practicing as well. And so, by the time I actually did the climb, they knew exactly what they were doing in the same way that I did. And so, by the end, it wasn't really a challenge at all to have all of us up there. We all knew exactly what to do and how to do it.

Speaker 1: Yeah. Where did you grow up?

Alex Honnold: Sacramento, California. Good ol' Sac.

Speaker 1: Is there any climbing in Sac?

Alex Honnold: Not, not really, though it's close to the Sierra Nevada. It's close to Lake Tahoe, close to Yosemite, so I grew up camping and all that. I basically just had the good fortune of a climbing gym opening near my house when I was a kid. So I was able to just start climbing at the climbing gym, and really that's as good a place as any to learn.

Speaker 1: I was surprised when I was watching the movie that you moved to Vegas, like not knowing anything about Vegas, except for-

Alex Honnold: Yeah. Everybody assumes that Vegas is just gambling crosstalk and the Strip, but Vegas is actually the best four season climbing in the country. There's rock all around it. There's a lifetime supply of hard climbing around Vegas.

Speaker 1: In Vegas? Really?

Alex Honnold: I think, yeah, Vegas is really the best in the country, and there's climbing at all different elevations. So you climb in the winter. You can climb in the summer. You can climb in the spring and fall. Every other city in the country has seasons where you can't climb. crosstalk

Speaker 1: Yeah. I would have assumed Colorado or like... just knowing nothing about climbing crosstalk.

Alex Honnold: Yeah, exactly. Everybody thinks that. It's just not really the case, and then even some of the places that are considered mountain towns, like Boulder, Colorado, is the heart of climbing.

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Alex Honnold: But the reality is that when you're in Boulder, to drive to the climbing is at least 20, 25 minutes to drive up into the canyons. And from my house in Vegas, you can be climbing in the same amount of time, but it's better.

Speaker 1: It's crazy. Has it always been like a climbing area in Vegas or is it becoming one?

Alex Honnold: Since the nineties. Yeah.

Speaker 1: Since the nineties?

Alex Honnold: Yeah. Actually, I would say it's becoming more and more of one.

Speaker 1: Yeah, yeah.

Alex Honnold: Actually, I bought a house there three years ago, I guess. And then another professional climber bought a house there a couple of years ago. The climbing community is definitely blossoming a little bit. I don't think it was ever quite on the map for high- end hard climbing and I think it's becoming more so now. But we'll see.

Speaker 1: Do you think there's a free solo bump?

Alex Honnold: No. I mean, well, I haven't seen it? We'll see. We'll see. crosstalk I think the real bump is seeing people at the climbing gym climbing in the same shoes that I've free solo El Cap in.

Speaker 1: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Alex Honnold: That's the bump, where you're like, " Oh, cool. You took up climbing. You went to the gym and you bought the crosstalk same model shoes," even though they're not designed for them. They're totally different shoes. It's not what you should climb in the gym with. But that's kind of what I noticed.

Speaker 1: Do you do any gear yourself?

Alex Honnold: Oh, yeah.

Speaker 1: No, like make your own gear?

Alex Honnold: Oh, no. One of my sponsors, Black Diamond, made a signature series harness and chalk bag that benefits my foundation. And then actually my rope sponsor, Maxim, they also make a signature series rope that benefits my foundation. Basically, all my sponsors have kind gotten on board to support the Honnold Foundation through branded product. But I don't make anything myself because I'm not... I mean, unsurprisingly, I'm not a big gear guy.

Speaker 1: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Alex Honnold: I'm not like way into it personally. I don't have strong opinions. I can use whatever.

Speaker 1: Exactly. What led to the Honnold Foundation, like starting it?

Alex Honnold: The Honnold Foundation supports solar projects around the world, for those who don't know. I started it in 2012, I guess, because I was just looking for something useful to do. I was starting to earn more than I needed to live in my van, and I just felt like I should be contributing in some way. Actually, that's been the one great thing about free solo taking off in such a crazy way is because the film, the foundation has really thrived the last year.

Speaker 1: That's awesome.

Alex Honnold: Yeah, which is great because-

Speaker 1: Is that what motivates you to keep doing this, like what you're that?

Alex Honnold: I mean, to some extent, yeah, because it's not like the quality of my life improves at all by being more famous. Actually, the last four flights, I step off the plane, I'm in like a shell. I've got noise- canceling headphones, you're all kind of haggard, you're all sleepy, and the very first person you see is like, " Are you the Free Solo guy?" And you're like, " Oh man." You're like, " Come on."

Speaker 1: Yeah. Yeah.

Alex Honnold: Or you're in the men's room and the guy next to you in the urinal crosstalk is just staring at you. You're like, " Come on. We're in the men's room." crosstalk Honestly, that might be my biggest pet peeve is people stopping you in the men's room. It's like when you're working out in a gym or something and you're like, uh, you're not supposed to do that stuff in the weight room, like let people finish their sets. You have a timer going, you've got a bunch of weight hanging off you, and you're doing stuff. And you're sort of like, " Is this the time? Please don't chat with me right now."

Speaker 1: Are you like old hat in Vegas now, or do people still stop you in that community?

Alex Honnold: Anywhere that I spend time routinely is way more chill. My old gym in Sacramento, my gym in Vegas, things like that are definitely a lot more relaxed. But it's funny because people will start climbing in Vegas, like someone new to the gym, and there'll be in there, like, " Oh, my God. What are you doing here? This is incredible." I'm like, " This is my home gym. I come here four days a week." You're like " I train here all the time." And they're like, " Well, it's my first time and I'm psyched." And that's cool, I mean, I'm totally into that. And I like the enthusiasm in new climbers. It's good for the sport. It's all great, but you get ground down a little bit. It doesn't make life any better.

Speaker 1: No, no, no.

Alex Honnold: But then when the foundation is thriving and I'm able to actually... Like a couple of weeks ago I was at a project that we're supporting in Detroit and I was helping with the solar installation on the home there. And when you meet the homeowners, when you see the projects, when you see all the good being done with that, I mean, it is pretty satisfying. You're sort of like, " Oh, it's worth having all the weirdos in the men's room staring at you."

Speaker 1: Staring at you.

Alex Honnold: You're like, oh, it's-

Speaker 1: Trying to get an autograph?

Alex Honnold: Yeah.

Speaker 1: One of my favorite things in the movie and just watching you in other videos is how much focus you put on training, because for most people, it seems like they would just see the end result and it just seems like magic, like you're just a natural born, like whatever, you can just, like Spider- Man, climb things. But you put in consistent training.

Alex Honnold: People will watch a YouTube video and they think you just walk up to a cliff and climb it with no... like" How do you know where to go?" And you're like, " Well, because I've climbed it a hundred times before. I've practiced it for two years and I've memorized the moves and I'm trained and yeah." No, I know. I know, it's funny because climbing is... Well, you know, you climb. But climbing is hard.

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Alex Honnold: It's not easy to be a good climber. And there are no real shortcuts. It's just hard. And so, yeah. I mean, I've fricken put a lot of work into it.

Speaker 1: It's crazy. How can people keep up with you online?

Alex Honnold: I'm on all the social media platforms, crosstalk so just add Alex Honnold.

Speaker 1: Okay.

Alex Honnold: But it's funny because I've been erasing all the apps off my phone. So not I install Instagram like once a week. I maybe post something and then I erase the app again, because it's all just a bit too much time. I don't know. I think I've just been a little too public the last year, and I'm a little like... I think one of the things with social is you have to want to share some of yourself.

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Alex Honnold: I think when you're doing too much sharing to begin with, you're like, " Ah, I don't need to post more. I'm trying to be a little more private."

Speaker 1: Oh, yeah, I struggle with that. I go from every once in a while just doing the same, deleting all those apps and then trying to see how long I can go with them, whether it's Twitter, Instagram, whatever.

Alex Honnold: Totally.

Speaker 1: Then I add them back, then I remove them, then I add them back, remove them and stuff like that. And I feel like for what we do, obviously, we do a lot on social media and I do a lot on social media, but I feel like if it wasn't for this, like I would just be gone off that-

Alex Honnold: That's the thing with me is, because I'm trying to promote the film, I'm trying to be good for my sponsors or I'm trying to promote the foundation or just share the things that I care about, sharing environmental issues, public land issues, things that matter to me. I appreciate having the platform and having a way to share ideas, but at the same time, you're like sometimes you just want to sit by yourself in a closet and not share.

Speaker 1: That is awesome. Well, thank you for doing this, Alex.


What do you do after you accomplish your biggest professional goal at age 33? That’s the question DC asked professional climber Alex Honnold in this exclusive HYPERGROWTH episode of Seeking Wisdom.

Alex was the first, and remains the only, climber to free solo El Cap, a 3,000ft granite face in Yosemite National Park, in 2018. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t as easy as he made it look. In this episode, DC and Alex talk about what it was like to train for the climb with an entire film crew by his side, what life’s been like since the release of the Free Solo movie, and what’s next for Alex.

For more learnings from DC, check out his weekly newsletter, The One Thing. You can subscribe here: https://www.drift.com/insider/learn/newsletters/dc/