Born in Sacramento, California, in 1985, Alex Honnold is one of the greatest rock climbers of all time. In June 2017 he became the first person to climb the famous El Capitan, a sheer 3,000ft rockface in Yosemite national park, without ropes or protective equipment of any kind, a style of climbing known as free soloing. This feat, which took him just three hours and 56 minutes, is the subject of the 2018 documentary Free Solo, which has been nominated for best documentary at both the Oscars and Baftas.
In the film, you describe free soloing as a low-risk, high-consequence pursuit – you’re confident you won’t make a mistake, but if you do you die. Why do you do it?
There are a lot of things about soloing that are fun. It’s faster and more free. You don’t have all the weight hanging off you – a rope weighs at least 10 pounds. Apart from that it just feels incredible, and that goes hand in hand with the challenge of it. And for me there’s certainly a component of doing things that have never been done before and feeling like I’m making my mark on climbing.
What’s important about El Capitan?
It’s the most inspiring wall in every possible way. It was bigger and more difficult than anything I’ve ever done. But was free soloing it possible? There are just so many places where, if you weight your foot incorrectly, you’ll slip and fall to your death. But when I thought about it rationally and broke it down into pieces, I thought it should be possible.
Did you have any qualms about letting yourself be filmed?
I don’t know about serious doubts. In the film, [fellow climber] Peter Croft talks about making sure you’re climbing for the right reasons, not being pressured by anything external. But the whole thing was really in secret. My close personal friends knew what was going on, and obviously my girlfriend, Sanni, did, but otherwise nobody really knew.
I found the film incredibly nerve-racking to watch, even though I knew you survived. The crew didn’t have that certainty while they were filming.
Yeah, watching free soloing is always harder than actually doing the climbing. I knew exactly how I felt on the day, but for the camera crew, all they could do was suppress their personal emotions and see how it unfolded. They did remarkably well in staying emotionally neutral. Because my mental state, when I’m getting ready for a climb, is such a fragile thing, you don’t want the camera crew bursting into tears every time they see you. At the same time you don’t want them to be encouraging you to do something you’re not ready to do. It’s a really delicate line.
Do you ever wish you could find another pursuit that’s equally fulfilling but more forgiving of error?
Not so far. I think that’ll probably naturally happen. Already there are certain types of dangerous climbing that I’m less interested in than I was 10 years ago. And I imagine if I had a family, things might change.
What was your reaction when you first saw the film?
Well in some ways I’d known what the film was going to be, because I’d been shooting it for two years and I knew what they’d filmed. On the other hand, I had no idea because I’d seen none of the footage, none of the photos. When I saw it I was like: “Oh yeah, it’s a really good film”, but I didn’t know how much it would affect people until I actually saw it with a full audience. It’s awesome. I love seeing people covering their eyes and shying away.
Has Hollywood ever produced a decent climbing movie?
If by decent you mean realistic, then not really. But I really like [the 1993 Sylvester Stallone film] Cliffhanger, even though it’s really over the top. And the sequence in Mission: Impossible 2 that opens with Tom Cruise soloing – I’ve watched that scene like 100 times, it’s totally unrealistic, but I was so into it. The only realistic climbing movie I’ve seen is The Eiger Sanction with Clint Eastwood.
Are you going to the Oscars?
Yeah. Somebody told me that if Free Solo won, I wouldn’t be allowed on stage because I’m not one of the film-makers. But another friend said: “Who cares, you just go up.” We’ll have to wait and see.
• Free Solo went on to win best documentary at the 2019 Bafta and Oscar ceremonies.