Centre of Attention: Alex Honnold, El Capitan, and the Media Machine

Alex Honnold talks about his historic rope-free ascent of Yosemite's El Capitan, working with film crews, and what comes next.

|
Jun 16 2017, 9:11am

It didn't take long for news of rock climber Alex Honnold's ascent of El Capitan to burn through the internet.

On June 3, the 31-year-old Sacramento native became the first person to free solo, or climb without ropes, Yosemite National Park's famous 3,000-foot-tall cliff face – a once-in-a-lifetime achievement in the same vein as Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbing the shit out of Everest.

Within hours of its completion, "Exclusive: Climber Completes the Most Dangerous Rope-Free Ascent Ever" was posted on the National Geographic website, written by veteran climber and fellow adventurer Mark Synnott. In the days that followed, Honnold achieved the kind of fame that only massive clickbait can muster, as news sites blared (and shared) headlines like "Vomit-inducing clip shows man climb sheer rock face with NO ropes – can you bear to watch?" (The Daily Star) and "Alex Honnold's free solo climb of El Capitan was dangerous, perhaps insane, and the athletic feat of the century" (FOX Sports).

Indeed, Honnold himself is amazed by his own good fortune. "I'm totally delighted," he told VICE Sports. "In some ways it hasn't really sunk in. It's kind of hard to believe it's done." When asked if there was ever even a sliver of doubt in the epic three hours and 57 minutes that he spent on the wall, he's honest and forthright: "It went perfectly; very much a best-case scenario."

By week's end, the climbing press (yes, there is such a thing) had taken notice of Honnold's mainstream media coverage. Alpinist Magazine, the leading authority on all things climbing, gushed, "The world gasps in the aftermath of Alex Honnold's free solo of El Capitan's Freerider." In an e-mail to VICE Sports, Alpinist editor Katie Ives writes, "I think even many experienced, longtime climbers see Alex Honnold's accomplishments as something that's almost beyond the edge of comprehension."

Honnold after completing his El Capitan ascent // Photo by Jimmy Chin, National Geographic

What lies beneath the surface of Honnold's achievement is a media machine that unites the spectacular scenery of Yosemite with an exceptional athlete who is willingly part of a narrative that is just getting started. Indeed, three days after Honnold's ascent, National Geographic sent out a press release announcing that it would be the subject of a big-budget documentary, tentatively called Solo, to be released in time for the Sundance Film Festival in January 2018. Tim Pastore, National Geographic spokesperson, said, "He is a true explorer in every sense of the word, one who fully embodies the pioneering spirit we have championed at National Geographic for more than 129 years."

In that time, the National Geographic Society has sponsored more than 12,500 expeditions and scientific projects around the world, funding renowned explorers such polar explorer Robert Peary, diver Jacques Cousteau, and dogsledder Will Steger. So it's easy to understand why National Geographic, with 18 million followers on Twitter and close to a hundred million Facebook friends worldwide, would be the perfect outlet to break this story. Under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch and 21st Century Fox, National Geographic Films has become a media giant in the past decade, underwriting not just award-winning nature documentaries but producing docudramas such as Genius, about the work of Albert Einstein.

"Genius" might be an apt descriptor for Honnold, whose progression as the world's most famous solo climber started in 2008 with an ascent of Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park. "There's a famous story of how when Honnold first did the free solo of Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park, Utah on April 1, 2008 that people thought the reports were an April Fool's joke," Ives says. "The idea of someone climbing a route that difficult without a rope was so hard to conceive."

Yosemite, with its golden California sunshine and laid-back, feel-good vibe, is where every rock climber worth his chalk bag wants to make his mark. Writing in Alpinist magazine, Alex Lowther described Honnold's paralysing fear during a bold solo ascent of Half Dome later that year. "He's trying to get Doubt back into its lair, to recompose himself. A bolt within reach is tempting, but he resists and commits. He commits and succeeds." In fact, Honnold's Half Dome climb had so many sketchy moments that for a time, he swore off free soloing. Lowther noted that Honnold had given it a "sad face" in his annotated climbing journal.

"I think in retrospect I should have given it another couple of days," Honnold told Lowther. A lesson had been learned: more preparation was needed for free soloing major climbs.

At the time, Honnold's shy, hermetic, off-the-stone persona (he lived in a bland 2002 Econoline van) contrasted greatly with that of Dean Potter, another solo Yosemite climber who thrived on risk and reward. Potter pushed defying gravity into the realm of performance art, partaking in both high-lining (tightrope walking between two massive cliffs above a yawning chasm) and wingsuit flying by jumping from cliffs, bridges, and off mountains. Alas, Potter died in a BASE-jumping accident in Yosemite in 2015.

"I didn't really know Dean and wouldn't want to speak for him," Honnold says, "but he saw all of these activities as a personal art form and being at one with nature." Though Honnold took parachuting lessons (Potter felt that a fall on a big wall could be mitigated by wearing a parachute), he had zero interest in activities that distracted him from rock climbing.

high-lining Yosemite
A high-liner above Yosemite Valley // Photo by Flickr user Jeff P/CC BY 2.0

Nevertheless, Honnold's free-soloing exploits were attracting media attention (including from VICE). Sender Films, makers of climbing action porn, got ahold of Honnold and re-created both the Moonlight Buttress and Half Dome climbs for Alone on the Wall, a 23-minute documentary that was later condensed into a four-minute clip that would be sold to National Geographic. While Honnold's climbing shines, Honnold the human is presented as almost some kind of idiot savant, a "bumbling, dorky, awkward kind of goofball," according to North Face professional climber Cedar Wright. In 2013, CBS Sixty Minutes introduced Honnold to millions of viewers who, if they didn't think mountain climbers were insane before, certainly did now.

"You hear some climbers voicing concerns about the overwhelming mediatisation of the event – the way the free solo was filmed almost as a spectacle produced for mass consumption – and how that content has been rolled out in what appears to be a very carefully planned and controlled way," Ives says. "The notion of publicity and corporate profit has long been a topic of debate in the climbing world: How does it affect the experience? Does it contribute to a heightened willingness to take risks? Does it turn a climb into a PR event? A climber into a product? And since climbers tend to associate free soloing with ideals of 'purity', that debate can become intensified in such cases."

Honnold begs to differ, noting that climbers like John Bachar and Peter Croft had received their share of media attention for ropeless ascents. "Those guys were soloing for the camera at the time. The scale is a bit different now in terms of filming, but it's a pretty natural step for what I'm doing."

El Capitan, Yosemite Valley
A view of Yosemite Valley. El Capitan is on the left // Photo by Flicker user tuliodaza/CC BY-ND 2.0

After free soloing the massive Half Dome, Honnold says: "El Capitan was always going to be the next logical step." The easiest route – perhaps "least outrageous" is a better term – is known as Freerider, which Honnold first climbed with a partner back in 2004.

"Jimmy Chin (a fellow North Face athlete) approached me about wanting to do a documentary, and I was like, 'OK, well, if we're going to do a documentary then it should be about El Cap'," Honnold says. Chin and his wife, Chai Vasarhelyi, had produced Meru, a feature-length documentary about climbing an extremely remote Himalayan peak in 2011. Meru won awards at numerous climbing festivals around the world and had successfully crossed over into mainstream festivals like Sundance in Park City, where it won an Audience Award for Best American Documentary.

In fact, Honnold and his National Geographic film crew sought to make sure the climb was not tipped off to members of the media or the public beforehand. Tens of thousands of visitors have flocked to Yosemite to witness rock climbers undertaking bold, daring climbs in the past and creating a media circus was the last thing anyone wanted; the timing of the climb and its messaging would be ruthlessly controlled by the National Geographic team. Post-climb, a photographer working with NG who had not read his non-disclosure agreement had to remove his photos from a popular climbing forum. No one connected with National Geographic would comment about Honnold's climb for VICE Sports.

Far from getting in Honnold's way, the film crew enhanced his chances for success. "They worked with my sponsors and others to keep public appearances and obligations to a minimum while I was training," a period that lasted six months. "The film crew are all top-notch climbers as well, so we were able to share information about how we could approach the climb and solve some of the problems that I might encounter on the route."

It's worth noting that Honnold had climbed the 3,000-vertical-foot Freerider from start to finish a dozen times previous to his 3 June attempt. Pre-climb preparations also included rappelling and rehearsing sections while securely roped up, a common practice for climbers attempting multi-pitch ascents. He even used climbing chalk to outline particularly tricky foot placements.

On game day, Honnold blasted up Freerider from the base to the summit in just under four hours without a second of wasted effort. The doubts that had momentarily plagued him years before on Half Dome would not show themselves on this day. Honnold says, "If anything, I came away thinking that maybe I'd over-prepared for the climb."

When Honnold's close friend and world-class climber Tommy Caldwell took to social media to call the climb a "moon landing," it was an accurate analogy. Like the early astronauts, Honnold was on a dangerous mission, flying the ship and in control of his destiny. A single mistake would send Honnold whistling through space, untethered, until he hit terra firma. The camerapersons filming en route watched in amazement as Honnold ticked off pitch after pitch, charging ever upward.

"I think I'm my 'best climber' right now," Honnold says. "Physiologically I'm a bit past my prime but I have been smarter about nutrition and training. I'm not sure if I'm climbing any harder but I certainly am feeling more solid. Five years ago, just the thought of soloing El Cap was scary, and then it all went super-smoothly so there's been some evolution, there."

So what's the next step? Honnold has hinted in the past that while he'll never quit climbing, he might take a pass on free soloing. He tells VICE that "right now, I don't know if I want to take any more steps after this one."

If and when Honnold does embark on his next adventure, he knows that there will never be another El Cap. "I guess you could say the next step might be to free solo a harder route on El Cap," he says, "or El Cap, Half Dome, and Mount Watkins in a day (a feat that Honnold achieved with a partner, Tommy Caldwell, in 2012).

"It's still just not as big of a jump as climbing El Cap itself."