Alex honnold is always asked the same two questions:
Aren’t you afraid you’re going to die?
Why do you do this?
This refers to climbing thousands of feet in the air, alone, with no harness, rope, or other safety equipment. Few professional climbers have risked “free soloing,” as it is known in the climbing community. Many of them have died trying. But Honnold climbs longer and more difficult routes than anyone previously thought possible—extraterrestrially named routes like Cosmic Debris, Astroman, and Heaven. He also climbs them in record time.
“I get really tired of answering those questions over and over again,” Honnold says. But you can’t blame those who ask the questions: fans, friends, me, any rational, thinking, nonsuicidal human being. These are the obvious questions and also the ultimate ones. Why is it not enough to be one of the best climbers in the world? Why remove the protection? It’s as if Tom Brady declined to use pads and a helmet, or Serena Williams played a Grand Slam tournament in which the penalty for losing a set was beheading.
At its most elite levels, climbing is already staggeringly dangerous. Falling boulders, frayed belay ropes, avalanches, broken carabiners and bolts—Rock and Ice magazine keeps a running tally of accidents. Recent entries include: “Bolt Breaks, Climber Falls to Death”; “Impaled by a Quickdraw”; “Earthquake, Avalanche, 21 Dead on Everest.” Honnold’s free soloing has brought him wealth and international recognition, but neither of these prizes seems to be his central motivation. He is grateful for his sponsorships—The North Face, La Sportiva, and Goal Zero (Clif Bar dropped him last year out of fear that he was “taking the element of risk to a place where we as a company are no longer willing to go”)—but mainly because they allow him to climb even more terrifying walls, in places like Chad and Patagonia. Honnold lives frugally: A Ford Econoline van has been his home since 2007. And while he seems to appreciate the fame, despite some protests to the contrary, he had, until recently, conducted many of his most daring ascents in secrecy. It was only when friends, told belatedly of his accomplishments, leaked the news to climbing Web sites that his exploits came to be known.