There’s a constant tension in climbing, and really all exploration, between pushing yourself into the unknown but trying not to push too far. The best any of us can do is to tread that line carefully.
No matter the risks we take, we always consider the end to be too soon, even though in life, more than anything else, quality should be more important than quantity.
I’ve done routes where I’ve climbed 200 feet off the ground and just been, like, ‘What am I doing?’ I then just climbed back down and went home. Discretion is the better part of valor. Some days are just not your day. That’s the big thing with free soloing: when to call it.
So many people condemn me for risk taking, but I find it sort of hypocritical because everybody takes risks. Even the absence of activity could be viewed as a risk. If you sit on the sofa for your entire life, you’re running a higher risk of getting heart disease and cancer.
Seven years ago, when I started free soloing long, hard routes in Yosemite – climbing without a rope, gear or a partner – I did it because it seemed like the purest, most elegant way to scale big walls. Climbing, especially soloing, felt like a grand adventure, but I never dreamed it could be a profession.
In climbing, sponsors typically support an athlete but provide very little direction, giving the climber free rein to follow his or her passion toward whatever is inspiring. It’s a wonderful freedom, in many ways similar to that of an artist who simply lives his life and creates whatever moves him.
I know that when I’m standing alone below a thousand-foot wall, looking up and considering a climb, my sponsors are the furthest thing from my mind. If I’m going to take risks, they are going to be for myself – not for any company.
Free soloing is almost as old as climbing itself, with roots in the 19th century. Climbers are continuing to push the boundaries. There are certainly better technical climbers than me. But if I have a particular gift, it’s a mental one – the ability to keep it together where others might freak out.
I’m not nostalgic for my glory days in college. It was lame for me. Probably because I had no friends.
Anything called the Teflon Corner is not sweet for free-soloing.
‘Dirtbag’ is just the term we use, like a ‘gnarly dude’ in surfing. Within the climbing culture, it means being a committed lifer: someone who has embraced a minimalist ethic in order to rock climb. It basically means you’re a homeless person by choice.
I have a journal of everything I’ve ever climbed since 2005. For the entry about free soloing Half Dome, I put a frowny face and added some little notes about what I should have done better, and then underlined it. Turns out that is one of my biggest climbing achievements.
We are apes – we should be climbing.
My comfort zone is like a little bubble around me, and I’ve pushed it in different directions and made it bigger and bigger until these objectives that seemed totally crazy eventually fall within the realm of the possible.
I feel that a lot of human spirituality stems from the belief that we are unique and special in the universe, but maybe we are just what happens when there is proper temperature and proper distance from the right type of star.
My sister does all this community-service type stuff in Portland that makes the world a much better place. And I make as much in a two-day commercial shoot as she does in five years, which is ridiculous.
When I was a teenager, I did a lot of pull-ups and push-ups. Every night before bed, I’d do 150 – in sets of 30 or so. Looking back on it now, I’m not totally sure that’s the best way to improve as a climber. But it did make me a lot better at doing pull-ups and push-ups.
Music can be useful during training to help get you psyched, and I still listen to music on easy climbs or in the gym. But during cutting-edge solos or really hard climbs, I unplug. There shouldn’t be a need for extra motivation on big days, be it music or anything else. It should come from within.
I love my climbing shoes. Virtually all of my big solos have been in the TC Pros. They are the most important thing when I’m soloing.
Big climbs energize me. It’s all the other aspects of being a pro-climber that wear me down. The travel and expeditions and training can become pretty tiring. But the actual big climbs – that’s what I live for.
I was 19 when my father died from a heart attack. He was a 55-year-old college professor and had led what was by all appearances a risk-free life. But he was overweight, and heart disease runs in our family.
The diet for climbing all the time isn’t really different from the diet for living. It’s not like cardio sports where you’re burning a bajillion calories every day.
Climbing is definitely very much strength-to-weight ratio. At the same time, I’ve never dieted or restricted calories. You’re just sort of mindful about not getting plump.
My fantasy breakfast is just a really good egg scramble. Maybe I’ll add a little feta, so, uh, obviously not totally dairy-free. Definitely some vegetables, maybe some really nice tortillas; something to make it like a Mexican-style breakfast. I just really love breakfast.
If you’re climbing big routes that’ll take you 16 hours, or, like, El Capitan, you have to take something like a big, robust sandwich. Climbing isn’t like running or triathlons, where you have to constantly be eating blocks, gels, and pure sugar. Climbing is relatively slow, so you can pretty much eat anything and digest it as you climb.
I love red bell peppers. Bell peppers in general, really. I like to eat them like apples. They’re so crunchy and delicious.
I make a fair amount of my food choices for environmental-type reasons than nutrition or taste. I’m trying to minimize impact, which is something most people don’t necessarily think about when they’re shopping.
I crushed high school. I was a huge dork.
I like the simplicity of soloing. You’ve got no gear, no partner. You never climb better than when you free-solo.
There’s only a handful of chicks in the world who can climb big walls on my level.
I took a test once; they said I was a genius.
How I’m portrayed in films has more to do with the filmmaking and what they need in the story than anything else. I’m the same person I’ve always been, I just get used in different ways according to the filmmakers’ needs – which is fine with me; it makes for great films.
Filming typically takes a bit away from the climbing experience, since you have to stop all the time and shoot.
I think it’s great that so many people are enjoying climbing. I’ve always loved climbing; I don’t see why other people wouldn’t enjoy it just as much. As long as everyone does their best to respect the areas in which they’re climbing, I don’t see how the growth of the sport could be a bad thing.
I’ve never really understood the criticism that climbing is inherently selfish, since it could equally be argued about virtually any other hobby or sport. Is gardening selfish?
I often joke that I’ve just become a professional schmoozer. Like, nobody cares how well I can rock climb anymore. It just has to do with how well I can schmooze.
I suppose being a bit of an antisocial weirdo definitely honed my skills as a soloist. It gave me a lot more opportunities to solo lots of easy routes, which in turn broadened my comfort zone quite a bit and has allowed me to climb the harder things without a rope that I’ve done now.
At the crux of Half Dome, at the very top of the wall, imagine, like, a smooth wall of rock – a nearly vertical granite slap with tiny ripples for your hands and feet. And so you’re really trusting the rubber on your shoes to stick to these ripples.
Anytime you finish a climb, there’s always the next thing you can try.
To be clear, I normally climb with a rope and partner. Free-soloing makes up only a small percentage of my total climbing. But when I do solo, I manage the risk through careful preparation. I don’t solo anything unless I’m sure I can do it.
I generally don’t climb something if it makes me feel fear. The beauty of soloing is that there’s no pressure – no one’s telling me to do it. So if something seems scary, I don’t have any obligation to do it. I can prepare further or just walk away entirely.
Yosemite has the most impressive and accessible granite big walls in the world. The rock is amazing. And because of that, it’s been the mecca for climbing in the U.S. – and the world to a large degree – for all of climbing history. It’s the place to test yourself against the historic routes of the past.
In a general sense, I think it’s bad to bring too much money into climbing, since it takes away a little from the beauty of the mountains. But at the same time, I can’t blame the Nepali government – or the Indian, Pakistani or Chinese, depending on where you’re climbing – from wanting to capitalize on foreign climbers.
The thing with physical preparation is I have tons of friends who train at a really high level and who can give me advice. But with mental training, I don’t really know anybody who has a much better mind for climbing, I guess, so I don’t really know where I would go. It’s not really a limiting factor for me.
People think I just walk up to a sheer cliff and climb it with no knowledge of anything, when in reality, there’s tons and tons of information out there, and I’m already well tapped into it.
You might get run over; you might get hit by lightning. I mean, who knows? Each day, there is a chance you might die. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Every living being on Earth is facing that same existential rift.
I’ve gotten over my shyness from many years of doing public events.
Pretty much every gym I go into, I feel very comfortable. I dump my stuff, take my shoes off, do my thing.
My friends like to remind me that I have relatively weak fingers. Aerobic strength and general endurance have come easy, but finger strength has always been my biggest weakness.
A hangboard is a little piece of wood with edges, holes, and slopes. There’s different strategies for different things – hanging, varying grips, adding weight. If I do a hard finger workout, I’m definitely sore.
I’m not thinking about anything when I’m climbing, which is part of the appeal. I’m focused on executing what’s in front of me.
For sure, Potrero Chico is a super nice winter vacation climbing area. It’s really convenient to fly into Monterrey, one of the nicer cities in Mex, and get a taxi to Potero. Then you can just live in the camping area and walk everywhere. It’s muy tranquilo, as they say there.
I’ve walked away from more climbs than I can count, just because I sensed that things were not quite right.
I love the feeling of touching the rock, the feeling of my body going up the rock.
The simple facts of Chadian life – what it takes to survive in that kind of climate with nothing but a hut and some animals – stunned me. And this made me realize, perhaps for the first time, how easy my life was compared to those of people in less privileged societies.
I’ve tried to approach environmentalism the same way I do my climbing: by setting small, concrete goals that build on each other.
I’m sponsored by the solar company Goal Zero, and they were gracious enough to install panels on my van and a nice battery system for the inside. I have lights and a fridge inside the van. And of course I had panels installed on my mom’s house.
I think part of what made the original ‘Sufferfest’ charming was the extremely low production value. It was all shaky handheld footage from Cedar.
I am a vegetarian, and I sort of aspire to vegan-hood. So far I’ve noticed no difference at all in my climbing, but I feel a bit healthier overall. Though that’s only because I’m eating more fruits and vegetables. I think the whole protein thing is overhyped. Most Americans eat far more than we need.
I live out of my van, which gives me a first-hand appreciation for power and lighting. A few years ago, I rebuilt the interior of my van to include solar panels and a battery that powers LEDs for lighting and allows me to charge my phone and laptop.
In the years after the expedition to Chad, I started the Honnold Foundation, a small nonprofit that was my attempt to do something positive in the world. I sought out projects that both helped the environment and improved peoples’ standards of living. The more I researched, the more I gravitated toward solar.
Much as Africa has leapfrogged straight to mobile phones, it has the opportunity to skip the dirty, grid-tied power plants that currently operate across the developed world and go straight to clean, distributed power.