Pro climber Alex Honnold is best known these days for his free-solo climbing (alone, without ropes or any other anchored safety gear). You may have seen him on the cover of National Geographic, or in a segment of 60 Minutes, or in one of the various films made about him. Some think he's just an adrenaline junkie, while others (who know him better) might say he's far more intelligent and calculating than anyone realizes.
I caught up with Alex while he was visiting Austin as part of the Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series tour, put on by The North Face and other sponsors, in which he and other adventure-sports pros speak about the "relativity of risk." Following are some excerpts from our conversation:
As a pro climber known for free-solo climbing, who doesn’t use the usual safety mechanisms, many people see you as putting yourself at insane risk, and yet you seem fearless. In general, how do you manage risk and fear?
You could write a book about this kind of stuff, but I find the best place to start is to clarify the terms. “Risk” is the actual likelihood of falling. “Consequences” means the severity of what would happen to you if you did fall. “Fear” is just a general thing that arises, whether there is real risk or consequences at all. You can be really afraid even if there’s no risk and no consequence. Fear is in its own separate category.
So, looking at risk, you have to evaluate for yourself: What is the actual likelihood that I will fall off? And what are the real consequences if I do fall off? You just have to evaluate that for yourself, objectively.
Overcoming fear is a different thing. I often talk about it as real danger versus perceived danger. With perceived danger, your mind is just playing tricks on you and telling you that you are in some dangerous situation, but really, if you look at it objectively, you’re not going to hit that ledge; it just looks like there is a ledge directly below you. …You just have to look at things objectively.
Is facing fear something that’s innate or is it a learned skill?
I definitely think it’s a learned skill, but it might be partially innate. I might be a little better at that kind of thing by nature. By nature, I’m a really rational person and that certainly helps with that process. Because it allows me to look at something more objectively, from the outside, and think, “Even though I feel really afraid, there’s no real reason for that fear.” But, it’s definitely a learned skill, because when I was a beginner climber, I was much more afraid of things. So, obviously over time, I’ve learned to deal with that better.
So how did you learn to face fear more effectively? And if it’s a learned skill, how can people learn to do that?
It’s a constant process. There are still plenty of times when I’m climbing and I feel very afraid, even though I know that I should be fine. But in the back of my mind I can’t help but wonder, “What if that piece rips, or what if something else happens…” I mean, it’s not like I have a mind of steel. It’s a constant practice to make sure you are performing at your best and keeping things under rational control.
To do that, preparation is a big factor. Psychologically, if you are really well-prepared, you have already visualized every aspect of what you will be doing. So then there’s a lot less to be afraid of, there’s a lot less room for uncertainty, and there’s less room in your mind for thoughts like, “Oh, I don’t know, what if, what if, what if....” So, preparation is a big part of doing solos and things like that. You really have to think it through beforehand to make sure you are fully psyched, so you don’t get halfway up there and be like, “Oh, what if such and such, oh, I don’t know if I’m quite ready…” Because, rationally speaking, you are ready.
When you’ve found yourself in a potentially deadly situation, where something has gone wrong, and a sense of dread comes over you when you realize the severity of the situation… Does that sense of dread stay with you? Does it carry over and affect your next adventure?
I have found the opposite. I find that the sense of dread maybe builds over the course of a day – Like if you are on a climb and you get really scared and then you get scared on the rest of that one pitch, or on the next pitch, you can still be a little shaken – But if anything, I find that if I’m having those scary experiences, on the next climb, I feel better if anything. I’ve had a handful of scary experiences. Like the first time I ripped gear while aid climbing. I thought I was on good gear and I just had a blow out without expecting it. That’s not uncommon when you are aid climbing, with lots of gear, but the first time it happened to me, it shook my faith in relying on gear in general. So then the next time I was climbing a route and placing gear for protection I couldn’t help but think, “Oh, what if this gear isn’t any good, what if it fails, what if....” But I’ve had those experiences – a lot – where gear that I thought was okay ripped, but gear that I thought was terrible held. Now I’m just much more aware of that whole spectrum of possibility, and I’ve gotten used to it, so it’s not as big a deal, and I just learn and move on.
Any practical tips for people who carry dread into a climb or other adventure? Or maybe even on overcoming any big fear?
In a general sense, the only way to overcome fear is to slowly broaden your comfort zone. Take one tiny step outside of it. The thing is, if you step too far outside your comfort zone, you may have one of those traumatic experiences that leaves you kind of scarred. But then you never grow and learn without at least pushing it a little bit. So, you have to do something that is a little bit scary – but something that you are willing to do – and then pretty soon you get desensitized to that and then you can do something that is a little bit scarier, and a bit scarier, and so on.
That’s sort of the learning process with everything : you take little steps, and pretty soon you are way past where you started and you never would have thought that you could step from the beginning all the way to the end, but by taking all these little steps, your like, “Oh wow, cool! Look what I did!”
The hard time is to leave the fear behind on that specific climb. If you have some scary experience and then you get scared and then you still have to finish the route, that’s the part that I think is challenging. In those times, it’s often a matter of just taking some deep breaths and thinking rationally. Re-set your thinking. For me, I’ve got this objective, external “overlord” perspective that I have to get to. So I might be in a position where I’m panicking and part of my brain thinks, “I’m having a physiological response to fear; things are going wrong in my body that shouldn’t be…” And there’s a part outside of that that just says, “Your body is playing tricks on you because you’re afraid. You just need to like take a deep breath.”
Not that it always works that way. When you’re really afraid, your vision narrows; your pulse quickens; everything goes bad. Your technique turns bad, your style of climbing changes. But there is definitely a part of me that can stay outside all of that and see more rationally how all these things are happening, and it says, “You are coming apart. Things are going bad, you need to lock it up, figure your shit out, take a deep breath, relax.” And I think by recognizing that, it helps me overcome in moments like that.
I find that deep breathing is always the best way to at least start my way out of fear. Deep breath. Pause. Re-set. I’m sure it’s different for everybody, and it’s not like it works for me all the time either. Sometimes you’re just scared and it sucks.
I have had a bunch of scary experiences where I got super bummed and wished I wasn’t there. Everything was going bad – and actually most of them were with a rope on, but with no good protection – So I was way out, looking at some epic fall, where I was like, “Oh god, this is horrible.” But I just have to breathe deeply, pause, re-set, and try to stay rational.
Are you an adrenaline junkie?
I definitely don’t consider myself an adrenaline junkie. I mean I try to never get an adrenaline rush. I don’t even like that feeling of an adrenaline rush, it’s scary and not that cool. I learned how to skydive, but I’m not really into it. I’m not a skydiver – it’s a bit of a rush – but I’m not into that really.
I just like the adventure, just to be out somewhere cool and savor the excitement in a slower and more drawn-out way. I feel like the adrenaline rush is all about that fast, “This is CRAZY!” sort of thing. Then you have a fast come-down. Whereas I want a whole day to be immersed in this beautiful place, and just doing something new and challenging.
Is that why you choose to free-solo?
I only free solo a tiny fraction of the time. I actually climb with ropes and partners almost all the time. It’s just that the soloing is all in the media because it looks cool. But I’ll spend a whole month sport climbing with my girlfriend or something just totally casual – like, real, normal climbing. And then, a couple times a year I’ll do something big that gets filmed or whatever.
But yes, it is sort of finding the adventure, because I can do only so much normal climbing, like it’s all fun and casual, but every once in a while I want a little bit more. I want that adventure, so I go without a rope.
...And that dramatically increases your risk...
Well, it dramatically increases your consequences. If there’s no chance of you falling off then there’s not that much risk. Like if it was a ladder all the way up 3,000 feet, there’s no risk at all, it’s just going up a ladder. I mean it’s all about balance. Like, is this risky? How solid do I feel? Asking those rational questions.
What advice do you have for climbers – or anyone – seeking more adventure? Both practically and generally. How can people expand their horizons, even in the face of fear?
First, technically speaking for beginner climbers: work on your technique. I always say that beginners should work on their footwork technique and build a solid foundation for their climbing. It’s easy to be a beginner in the gym and just get strong and climb up hard. But I just like to emphasize that it’s not about being strong. It’s about being able to move your body well, being able to use your feet well, and just being a technically proficient climber. Because you can get strong later. But it’s important to start with a good grasp of the basics. It’s all about being good on your feet and being comfortable on the rock.
For expanding your life as adventure, it’s just a matter of following what inspires you. To me, adventure just means going into the unknown. Doing something where the outcome is uncertain. Anything that pushes my comfort zone. And for me, it’s always been those big walls and that adventure – going somewhere unknown, finding something really big.
But it’s also fair to say that some climbers just aren’t into that. I’ve always been more motivated by the adventure, but other climbers are motivated by hard moves, or the actual physical act of climbing. So some people just want to see what’s the smallest hold they can pull off, or the hardest sequence. One of my friends, Daniel Woods, is one of the strongest boulderers in the country. For him, climbing is all about solving puzzles, doing the hardest sequences imaginable, and he’s freakishly strong because of it. But, to me, I don’t really care that much about doing a really hard move. I care more about the grand, epic, sweeping view that maybe no one else has seen yet.
And for someone looking for adventure, I would just tell them to go do it. Choose the thing that inspires you and go out and try. If anything, the bigger and more grand it seems, the better. If you’re like, “Oh, I could never do that, that’s too much...” It probably means that that’s the thing for you, that you’re on the right track.