Free Solo’s Alex Honnold on iconic male loners: “Nobody really operates in isolation”

The rockstar rock-climber discusses relationships, sex and Donald Trump.

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Alex Honnold, 33, isn’t scared of much, except perhaps death and climate change. He is certainly not scared of scaling treacherous cliff-faces without ropes or protection. Last summer, the climbing rockstar logged the first rope-free ascent of Yosemite National Park’s 3,000ft El Capitan wall, in a spectacle the New York Times called “one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind, ever.”

Nor is he afraid of Donald Trump. When I met the world’s most famous climber in a London hotel in December, he discussed the US president with the same methodical curiosity he might approach a bouldering challenge: “People have very real concerns, and although maybe Trump isn’t the best way to address them, at least you’re trying something,” he said of his fellow Americans. “You have to make plenty of mistakes until you get it right.”

Sitting tall on the hotel sofa in a maroon top, Honnold’s thoughtful, quirky manner is a world away from the president’s bullish machismo. Yet the Berkeley University drop-out is fast becoming an alternative icon of what it means to be strong and male in 2019.

A new biopic about Honnold’s El Capitan ascent, Free Solo, is now 2018’s fourth-highest-grossing documentary film. Outdoor enthusiasts can’t get enough of him, with magazines detailing everything from his van to his diet choices. There is even a new verb, “to honnold”, meaning to stand in a high-up precarious place and face your fear.

Much of this allure taps into Romanticised notions of maverick individuals facing down the establishment (think Henry David Thoreau for the millennial age). But whereas politicians like Trump have directed this legacy inwards, towards ever-greater self-aggrandisement, Honnold’s new film travels in the opposite direction – exploring the role of loved ones in achieving success, and asking whether anyone can really achieve the incredible alone?

When Free Solo’s co-directors, husband and wife team E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin began filming the climber two years ago, he was living full-time in his Dodge Ram ProMaster van. He filled his time obsessively planning his ascent of El Cap and learning how to cook vegetables. Girlfriends, he told the film-makers, were not a priority.

It all smelled slightly of delayed adolescence. But things changed when 23-year-old Sanni McCandless appeared at one of his book signings. Buoyant and golden-haired, we watch as she moves into the van, where she “livens the place up a bit”, then persuades Honnold to transition to a solid home in Nevada, complete with sofa and fridge.

Honnold now credits McCandless with improving his life in almost every way, leaving him more stable and less likely to indulge in self-destructive behaviour. “When I’m totally single in the van it is easy to do a rest day where I only eat cookies and watch an entire season of some shit,” he tells me, “Whereas living with Sanni, we go to bed at a normal time, eat meals together, and spend time with our respective families. It’s all just a healthier way to live.”

Shining a light on the intimate side of extreme sport in thsi way feels fresh and thrilling. And is perhaps particularly timely in an era where masculinity appears in flux. 

Not that Honnold is bothered about his reception by online male-only communities who reject women altogether, such as incels (“That’s all just weird, tweaky online stuff,” he says). But he does believe that McCandless has helped him let go of the archetype of the angstful, heroic loner, which films and books encourage, from The Hobbit to Willow: “I had few social skills, so I naturally gravitated towards that role – then I think meeting Sanni just sort of showed me that I didn’t really need it.”

His transition to coupledom in the film is thus helpfully messy. The day before his final El Cap ascent, McCandless moves out of the van so the climber can face his life-risking challenge without distraction. Driving home in tears of anxiety, she admits on camera that she doesn’t understand why risks his life for such a “crazy goal”.

Even today, sitting together with Vasarhelyi and Chin, the question of how far Honnold’s relationship is compatible with free-soloing still feels like an ongoing experiment. “I think it’s a fairly accepted idea that close relationships do make it more challenging to take on big risks,” he says at one point. Yet later he explains why he thinks that idea might also be misleading: “It is all a balance, because if your partner makes your life better, then that has also got you to the point where you can achieve what you are training to do,” he says. “Nobody really operates in isolation.”

Vacillating between viewpoints like this may not seem like the trait of a climber who can’t afford to make a mistake. But then what comes across most powerfully in the conversation is just how much Honnold enjoys discussion and debate. He says that he loves talking about politics for instance (he has been reading about the global rise of populism), and is frustrated that journalists never ask.

Similarly, when I raise the issue of whether sexual intercourse impacts negatively on sporting performance, he leaps at the chance to draw Jimmy Chin into a dispute: “Do you know anybody that actually tries not to have sex to perform better?” he asks Chin. And when Chin insinuates that he might know someone, Honnold doubles down and denies the practice exists; “It is grossly untrue that anybody does that!” he says, laughing and enjoying the tussle.

Ultimately, this sense of curiosity is perhaps as central to Honnold’s achievements as his desensitised amygdala (the part of the brain which responds to threat). It reflects a mode of being that is open to the thinking of others and to changing an original plan – qualities that are as essential to mastering a climbing route, as they are to a long-term relationship, or even governing a nation.

Thus while Free Solo documents a mind-boggling sporting achievement, it also succeeds in problematising our culture-wide veneration of the heroic male loner. It doesn’t have all the answers (McCandless, for instance, is left frustratingly under-developed as a character in her own right). But the suggestion that “nobody really operates in isolation” is a powerful one in an era where Trumpian ego reigns supreme.

Free Solo has been nominated for a BAFTA and will go out on National Geographic in March.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.