FREE SOLOS EL CAP WITHOUT A ROPE!
“Years ago, when I first mentally mapped out what it would mean to free solo Freerider, there were half a dozen of pitches where I was like, ‘Oh that’s a scary move and that’s a really scary sequence, and that little slab, and that traverse. There were so many little sections where I thought ‘Ughh—cringe.’ But in the years since, I’ve pushed my comfort zone and made it bigger and bigger until these objectives that seemed totally crazy eventually fell within the realm of the possible.”
'"With Free Soloing, obviously I know that I'm in danger, but feeling fearful while I'm up there is not helping me in any way."
In my opinion, Alex Honnold's free solo ascent of El Capitan is the greatest climbing achievement of all time. He has raised the bar so extraordinarily high, it's unlikely we'll ever see his feat repeated - at least in our lifetime. Not only did Alex obliterate the speed record, previously held by Pete Whittaker (see profile), who roped soloed Free Rider 'All Free' in 20 hours and six minutes, Alex shattered his own record, set days before on Memorial Day weekend with Tommy Caldwell (5 1/2 hours), in an earth shattering time of 3 hours 58 minutes. If this was a realitively easy climb with minimal risk, it wouldn't have made much news. But that isn't the case. Not by a long shot. Free Rider is a 32 pitch route that's rated 5.12d. The thought of climbing that many pitches, all free, without a rope, with nothing but a chalk bag and a pair of climbing shoes, is absolutely mind boggling. Alex's level of physical and mental fitness is that of an Olympic Gold Medalist.
Last year I had a chance to catch up with Alex Honnold at a fundraising event at Planet Granite in San Francisco. As a former free soloist with spidey-senses, I couldn't help but wonder if Alex had any intention of free soloing El Cap. It seemed like a natural law of progression after free soloing Half Dome without a rope. See video below.
"Have you considered free soloing The Nose on El Cap?" I asked.
Alex shook his head "I woudn't say it's not possible, but it's basically not possible, because the two cruxes are wildly insercure. I really don't think it will ever be done. I'm sure somebody will solo El Cap, for sure. It maybe me. It maybe someone else. It's basically one of the hardest routes on El Cap."
"Which route do you think will be free soloed first?"
Alex looked either way, then said..."Obviously, I've thought about it quite a bit. Free Rider is the most obvious."
"Is there anyone you think is capable of doing it?"
Alex gave this some thought, "There's this kid from Squamish."
Now before we talk about the kid from Squamish, let's talk about Free Rider, El Cap's easiest free-route. No doubt, this route is far from easy. First established by Alex and Thomas Huber in 1998, this has quickly become a 'Must Do' route for every bigwall climber on the planet. What's keeping people from free soloing this 32 pitch route, other the obvious? PITCH 24.
PITCH 24 has two variations, either the dreaded 5.12d Teflon Corner, which is nearly impossible to do in the sun, or the 5.13a Huber variation. Just listening to Alex talk about this pitch made my palms sweat. I kept wanting to reach for my chalkbag, but all I could do was listen.
"It has a 5.12d crux," Alex continued. "That's more like a 5.13a. It's like a V7 boulder problem. The style is so insecure, it's just hard to imagine soloing it."
I couldn't agree more with Alex. It's hard to imagine free soloing this route. But yet, we all know it's just a matter of time before someone is going to lay it all on the line. The million dollar question was: Who would it be? When I exchanged emails with Will Stanhope, who famously soloed Zombie Roof, 5.13a, (see video). The 28 year old from Squamish, BC, had this to say...
"I think Alex might be talking about another kid from Squamish named Marc-Andre Leclerc."
I asked Will if he had any intention of free soloing Free Rider. "No. They are way too many insecure cruxes on that climb for me."
I coudn't resist asking, "Considering there are only a handful of free soloist in the world, who is capable of free soloing a route on El Cap?"
Stanhope replied..."I honestly don't feel that free soloing El Cap is a good idea for anyone. I've climbed with stacks of heavy-hitting, solid climbers and all of them could botch some fussy, footsy climbing on the Freerider. Tons of people are capable, but I think it would take a certain disregard for your own life to lace up to that objective cordless." Listen to Podcast Interview.
And this coming from someone that has free soloed a slew of routes like Separate Reality (5.12a) in Yosemite Valley. So Stanhope's words of warning can't be ignored. But yet, this wasn't preventing Alex from devising his own plans. I felt the hair crawl on the back of my neck as Alex revealed his inner most thoughts...
"I can imagine myself doing it," Alex admittted. "If I was ready for it, all psyched up, and I knew it was the one time I would do the Free Blast. But fuck, just the whole sum of it is a lot. I was thinking about it this evening, about how I would have to do it, thinking about the logistics of what you would have to do. And the thing is, no matter what you did, it would take about 5 hours, or at least 4 1/2. It would take a long time. So the logistics of it would start to get weird. If you want good conditions on the crux of Free Rider, than you have to start at dawn to get there before the sun. But yet, you don't want to be free soloing in the dark."
No sh#@! Free soloing the lower section in the dark could be considered by many as act of attempted suicide. When I asked Stanhope about his experiences on Free Rider, which pitches would have him most concerned, he said...
"There's quite a few that I wouldn't sign up for in a million years, but here's a few that stand out: those snot-slick Freeblast slabs. Very delicate on the toes. The Boulder Problem pitch involves a very insecure foot-kick move. And those upper Enduro corners pinch down to tiny locks and then pure laybacking on slopers."
When I asked him about Alex Honnold, Stanhope had this to say...
"Alex Honnold is hugely talented, obviously, and incredibly bold. There's stacks of routes that I thought he wouldn't solo that he eventually did solo. So who knows? He's in his own league by miles and miles."
I asked a slew of other climbers, including Pete Whittaker, who was the first person to onsight every pitch, and just last year, became the first person to rope solo 'all free' Free Rider in just 20 hours, if he would ever consider doing it without a rope. He quickly replied 'No way!"
The same was true with the legendary free soloist Steph Davis, the first woman to free climb Free Rider in a day. No way Jose'!
And now that Alex has captured the world's most coveted prize, I can't help but wonder what will be next? Will Alex retire and start a family? Or will he set his sights on the ultimate linkup: free soloing El Cap and Half Dome in a single day? Who knows. Your guess is as good as mine. But I'm willing to bet (listening to my spidey senses again), this thought has crossed his mind.
The World's Greatest Free Soloist
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"I don’t think about much while actually climbing. But I do think about that beforehand normally. I think it’s important to fully think things through—to really understand the consequences of my choices." Alex Honnold
El Sendero Luminoso 5.12d
"I don’t think this is close to the hardest thing ever. Several people (Alain Robert, Alex Huber, many more) have soloed harder single pitches.
As have I. And Hansjorg Auer had soloed a wall in the Dolomites that’s a similar difficulty and even taller. It’s not like soloing is a competition, it’s more about aesthetics and inspiration. But for me personally it was a new challenge just because it’s a different style of climbing. Maybe not my hardest ever, but very satisfying either way." Alex Honnold
Northwest Face of Half Dome
“If I have a particular gift, it’s a mental one. The ability to keep it together where others might freak out.”