Alex Honnold - What a Day!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Three in a Day and What a Day it Was!

By Alex Honnold

On March 14th I free soloed three classic routes in Zion in a 12 hour day. It was the hardest free soloing effort I’ve put in.

I could write several different essays about the day; it’s given me a ton to think about. One would be how funny it is that climbing media didn’t even touch the story and that no one seems to care about it. Soloing Astroman and the Rostrum in 2007 generated all kinds of news and video bits. This Zion link up, which is infinitely harder and more cutting edge, doesn’t get mentioned. That’s what I get for soloing too much.  Another possible essay could explore the various reasons why I didn’t find it as fulfilling as I hoped. People might expect these kinds of climbing achievements to generate euphoria, but in fact I seem to experience the opposite. Surely there’s a story in there somewhere, but it doesn’t seem very uplifting.  Instead I think I’m just going to present the facts of the day. No analysis, no angle, no deep insights. Here is what I did, ascribe meaning to it as you see fit:

I awoke before sunrise in order to eat breakfast, drive into the park, and hike to the base of Moonlight Buttress before it was light. I knew that the wall came into full sun by 9:30 and I hoped to be finished before then.  

I crossed the Virgin River, a chilly proposition at 7 in the morning, and hiked briskly to the base in an effort to stay warm. As I got closer I noticed that there was a portaledge set up on the bivy ledge midway up the route. Part of me was disappointed to be sharing the route with strangers; part of me was psyched to get to pass a portaledge. Nothing highlights the differences in climbing styles like having a free soloist climb past haul bags and a portaledge.  

At the 3rd pitch, an 11c face traverse, I had to retreat back to a ledge to take my shoes off and warm my toes. I couldn’t feel my feet well enough to trust them on small edges, the peril of making a river crossing before the sun rises. After warming my fingers and toes for a minute I cruised across the traverse, continuing up into the crux dihedral.

I had freed Moonlight with Tommy Caldwell three days previously as part of a fun 4-wall link up, but other than that hadn’t climbed it in 5 years. I had a pretty good idea of beta, but couldn’t remember every specific move. I felt like I was rediscovering some sequences. The long corner forces a soloist to link a sandbagged 11+, a supposed 12+, and a 12b corner with no great stances between them. Though there are good footholds here and there and a few good stems there aren’t any no hands rests so the pump slowly builds the whole way. I made a conscious effort to climb slowly and milk the stances, counting to 5 slow breaths at each one in en effort to keep my heart rate down. The natural inclination is to hurry through the hardest parts in an effort to get them over with. I tried to suppress that urge and climb slowly and well.

While climbing the 12+ lieback I noticed that I was keeping my feet higher than I would have with a rope on, more tiring but also more secure feeling. It all went smoothly and soon enough I popped out on the bivy ledge where two guys from Colorado were camping out. I took my shoes off for a minute and drank a sip of water. We shot the shit a little though to be honest I wasn’t paying a ton of attention. I tightened my shoes back down and continued up past 3 more 12- pitches and an easy 5.10 to the summit. The solo took me 1:19, 4 minutes faster than my previous solo in 2008. I was satisfied. I started jogging down the trail in an effort to make it to the next route, Monkey Finger, before it came into the sun.

At the Angel’s Landing trailhead I found some climbers who allowed me to take a photo of the topo for the next two routes. I’d soloed them each the year before, both basically onsight, so I didn’t really remember the breakdown of the pitches. Armed with a topo I started hiking the road trying to make my way back to my van.

One of the frustrating cruxes of the day was hiking the road in between descents. The start and finish of each route is different, which meant quite a distance of road hiking. I tried to hitch but despite being passed by dozens of tourists no one would stop for me. I was getting really annoyed to have to add miles of flat nothingness to my day. Finally some frat boys from the midwest gave me a ride. They were very psyched to meet the dude from 60 Minutes. I was very psyched to save 20 minutes of road hiking.

Monkey Finger, a 9ish pitch 12b, was more of an adventure. I’d climbed it once with Tommy the previous year and then soloed it that afternoon, so I remembered some of the climbing but nothing super specific. On the second pitch, what should have been an easy 11-, I managed to get off route, fumble around, then downclimb a long ways to go around a thin section. Off to an inauspicious start I worried a little about the 12- thin corner above. Sure enough when I got into the corner I stalled out, not remembering a good sequence for my hands or feet. I tried a variety of combinations before finally finding something that allowed me to do the moves static and controlled, but I got pretty pumped in the process. Also, in retrospect I think I pulled my triceps on this crux because the next day I had crazy pain in my left arm and this was the only section where I was really pushing down with that arm. It’s funny the things that you don’t notice when you’re sending.

The rest of the route went well. I planned on going around the upper 12b finger crack because there’s a wide 5.10 next to it, but when I got there I couldn’t bring myself to wimp out like that so I carried on up the glorious 5.12 finger crack. I topped out the route after something like 1:07, which may be the speed record.

The descent was pretty exciting, since normally you rappel the route. Since I had no rope I hiked up some snow covered 4th class ledges and a supposed 5.5 chimney system and gained another 1500?? ft or so of elevation until I rejoined the Observation Point trail up on the rim. It took me about an hour of scrambling to make it up to the rim, then I mostly jogged back down to the Weeping Rock trailhead. My legs were starting to hurt from running downhill; I don’t run much.

I had the same problem hiking the road back to my van. This time a Japanese tourist eventually picked me up, which was funny because a Japanese tourist had picked me up when I soloed the route last year. I don’t know why Americans are so afraid of hitchhikers, especially in a National Park during midday.

I ate a very quick snack and hurried over to Shune’s Buttress. I wanted to keep going so I didn’t lose momentum, at that point in the afternoon I could easily have taken a nap and just called it a day. I could see two parties on Shune’s, one of them had been starting as I jogged down off Moonlight that morning. It’s funny to climb and descend two classic Zion walls in the time it takes a party to climb 4 long pitches. It really puts the time spent using gear and ropes into perspective.

I started up the route, once again vaguely remembering it from my onsight solo the winter before. The cruxes felt much easier this time; I was obviously well warmed up. I passed both parties in about the same place and they were both very gracious about letting me go through. The whole route took something like 57 minutes and felt pretty darn fun. But I knew the heinous part was going to be the descent. Last winter I’d done it in a full on blizzard with poor visibility and a ton of snow covering the 4th and 5th class slabs that guard the rim 1.5k feet above. This year it was a beautiful blue day and there was a lot less snow, I figured it would be much easier.

Words can’t really describe the whole experience, but here are a few highlights to whet the appetite:

  • I stopped on a ledge about the size of my laptop to change from approach shoes back into my climbing shoes; the terrain was just too hardcore for approach shoes so I had to switch.
  • I post holed across a big hanging snowfield wearing shorts and TC Pros.
  • I pitched off a small bulge after breaking some inopportune holds and managed to self-arrest on a small tree smashing my knee and impaling one arm. It was very scary to say the least.

When I finally made it to the rim I felt completely depleted. Alone, scared, exhausted, fragile. I had no more food or water. It took another solid 3 hours of hiking through snow to make it back down the Weeping Rock trail. When I finally made it to the car my shoes and socks were so packed full of mud and snow I felt like I should just throw them away.

To sum it up in numbers I did something like 30 pitches of climbing up to 12+ with 7 pitches of 5.12 and 8 pitches of 5.11. But the real crusher was that I hiked around 20 miles, much of it jogging downhill.

 I got to climb arguably the three most classic free lines in Zion. I probably got to set 3 new speed records. And I got to hike three of the most scenic trails in Zion. All that before the sunset. What a day


Chad, Thursday, April 25, 2013

Post holing in the TC pros and shorts sounds like the highlight of the day honestly.

Steven, Friday, April 26, 2013

That's absolutely insane. Wish I could knock of pitches like that...but with a rope.

Instead of ultra-running this is ultra-climbing.

Gavin Taylor, Friday, April 26, 2013

You be careful ... Soloing is wild and wonderful, but you need to stop at some point.

Arkadius, Friday, April 26, 2013

Although the challenge and the whole story are totally impressive, although the style of writing is nice, I just feel at some moments that Alex (or Mr. Honnold already?) becomes more and more celebrity than only the amazing climber.... if you get what I mean. Signum temporis?

Dougald MacDonald, Friday, April 26, 2013

It is strange that no one did a very big story, but it's not true that no media touched it:

Great to read the full story straight from the horse's mouth!

Marcos Costa, Friday, April 26, 2013

Awesome!!! Can't wait to get outside and get my fix too!!
Alex I know you did it for fun, but great job on the 3x3x3 combo!

Patty Cakes, Friday, April 26, 2013

Sounds like you could use a base rig

Stan Laurel, Saturday, April 27, 2013

You write well, Alex. A refreshing lack of dull, poorly driven accents and flourishes.

Ronin, Tuesday, April 30, 2013

While it is an impressive feat of athletic skill and endurance, it seems sad that the first impression I got was disappointment that the media hadn't been as impressed as you hoped, and that the climbing community wasn't standing in the aisles, cheering.

Remember that every day, people labor "behind the scenes" of climbing, keeping crags open, hardware safe and trails functional, without the support of any national organization, a word of press coverage, or the accolades of the climbing community, more than a few of them inspired by the spirit which moves you and the stories you share.

Even 50-yr-old coots like me.

Recognition does not equal importance.

Congratulations on another milestone, and thank you, once again.

Ted, Friday, May 3, 2013

Awesome awesome awesome feat.

Honnold you didn't find it as fulfilling as expected, was that for want of media attention, because it just didn't grab you like you'd expect, or no reason in particular... Like every one else in the climbing world I'm totally impressed by your calm amid exposure and casual step from the security of gear to standing unguarded above the abyss, and don't want to see anything ever go horribly wrong. If a lack of media attention or it not being big and scary enough to grab you is what makes it come up short on fulfillment, beware the natural upping the ante. Pre-media hype we were just as impressed.

Climb on

Wallrat, Thursday, May 9, 2013

That which cannot be sustained, will not be. Dude, you're burning too brightly.

climbingmom, Thursday, May 9, 2013

Truly amazing. Your feats are beyond the comprehension, not even thinking of replication, of nearly everyone on earth, including 99.99% of climbers. They speak to a place of awareness, self-control, and physical ability that no one on earth has *ever* demonstrated before. Maybe there will be another someday, maybe. For now it's just Alex. Only a fantasy or daydream for the rest of us. I stare in awe and wonder and wish you the very best in your unimaginable and astonishing travels.

Dave Bingham, Thursday, May 9, 2013

Funny how the biggest days are really so personal that no one can relate. Odd too, feeling so mundane about things that most folks best not even consider. But why not do the 3 best Zion routes in a day? Awesome link-up!

anonymous, Friday, May 10, 2013

Did anyone else find this obnoxious or condescending or whiny? "lack of media attention"..."though to be honest I wasn’t paying a ton of attention"... "I was getting really annoyed to have to add miles of flat nothingness to my day"..."It’s funny the things that you don’t notice when you’re sending"...

Obviously what Alex does is not repeatable by perhaps anyone in the world right now, and the actual athletic feats are impressive, but those comments don't make me want to cheer for Alex.
I really liked what Ronin wrote - cheers to you Ronin!

total spud, Wednesday, May 22, 2013

alex, you are absolutely awe inspiring.
you obviously love what you are doing, since you are willing to risk injury and death for it, as do many athletes who performs on the edge, i.e. etreme skiers, bikers, base jumpers, etc.
some day you will do your last free solo and hopefully when that day comes you will be satisfied with all you've accomplished. you will have proved yourself at that point and there will be no need for further proof of what you are capable of. don't be encouraged by outside persuasion. always look within.
when the day comes, be centered in your being enough to realize it was your last free solo.
you will be alive.
and in the years ahead your grandkids will have their hero to take them out and show them the ropes...

Fedor, Monday, July 15, 2013

Hey man,

Congratulations on another awesome achievement. As a barely middling sports-climber I am in complete awe of what you do.

Honestly, though, I don't really get why you have to make life so hard for yourself - not just 3 super-climbs in one day but also a long-ass hike. I don't really get it.

...and that bit about not finding the whole thing that satisfying - I'd give some serious thought as to the meaning of that.

Again... huge respect and God bless!

Kurt Winkler, Sunday, July 21, 2013

Amazing. Your honest writing style reminds me of Hermann Buhl, especially his story "Alone on the North East Face of the Badile". It's in the book "Hermann Buhl - Climbing Without Compromise" by Reinhold Messner and Horst Hofler. The personal meaning of what you've accomplished may take some time to fill out and emerge. Congratulations!

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