Alex Honnold: All You Need to Know About the Free Solo Rock Star
Published on: 04/14/2022
Alex Honnold is an American-born climber famous for his quick ascents, extended routes, and big wall free soloing. Honnold has shattered speed records for the fastest ascents on some of the most amazing routes in the world.
It’s no secret that he is a sensation. Honnold has outclimbed some of the best in strength, speed, and skill. Let’s take a look at some of the important events in Alex Honnold’s life and the great feats that have made him the incredible climber he is today.
Born in Sacramento, California, in August of 1985, Alexander Hannold is the son of Charles Honnold and Dierdre Wolownick. Honnold started climbing in climbing gyms at just five years old. By the age of 10, he was climbing weekly. Honnold states that he was never a great climber as a small child, but his skills are due to consistent and extensive practice.
Alex Honnold began competing in youth climbing competitions nationally and internationally throughout his teen years. He graduated from Mira Loma High School in 2003 and attended the University of California, Berkeley. There he studied civil engineering. In 2003, his grandfather passed away during his first year of college, and his parents divorced. Honnold spent most of his time outdoors, bouldering, rather than attending classes to cope with the hardship.
At 19, Honnold dropped out of college to pursue climbing. He lived out of his mother’s old minivan during this time and traveled to various climbing destinations around California. When the van became unusable, Honnold used his bicycle for transportation and a tent for shelter. In 2007, Alex purchased a Ford Ecoline E150 van and began climbing full-time.
Climbing Style & Specialty
The climbing world knows Alex Honnold for his big wall free soloing. In 2006, he was an unknown climber, but by 2007, Honnold became widely recognized after he free-soloed Astroman and the Rostrum in Yosemite National Park in a single day. Honnold was suddenly being noticed, although other climbers had already free-climbed these routes before.
Honnold specializes in free soloing and speed climbing. He’s set many a speed record on big walls, especially within Yosemite National Park.
For training, Alex practices sport climbing. He also spends considerable time planning out his future free solo routes. While climbing, Honnold pushes himself by using his fear, or lack thereof, to keep himself moving and extremely focused on each move he makes. Alex trains between climbs with hiking and running.
Free soloing is a form of rock climbing where the climber ascends without a rope, safety gear, or equipment. Climbers who free solo are called free soloists and rely purely on their strength and skill. Like free climbing, free soloing is a continuous climb, meaning that rather than relying on a rope to help your progression or rest, you have to rely on small edges or flat surfaces along the rock wall. However, unlike free climbing, free soloing means having no rope as a backup in case of a fall.
Alex Honnold is a free solo enthusiast and has been free climbing incredible walls worldwide. Honnold started free soloing while climbing alone. He didn’t have the confidence to ask others to belay or climb with him. His shyness pushed him to step into the free solo world.
Climbing with Speed
Once Honnold established his career as a free soloist, his next feat was to break speed records on big walls. He has since completed several first free solo ascents and broken records that other world-class climbers haven’t been able to come close to. Many of these records include ascents within Yosemite National Park.
Honnold’s Notable Feats
Honnold has climbed several notable big walls in his lifetime. He made a name for himself by being the first to free solo Moonlight Buttress, a 1,200 foot 5.12c in Zion. Shortly after, he completed the first free solo ascent on the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Amidst these notable climbs, Alex has broken speed records and climbed notable big walls in record time. Let’s look at a few of his notable feats.
Alex Honnold is credited for the first free solo ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. His journey is captured in the National Geographic Documentary, Free Solo, produced by Jimmy Chin, the professional climber, photographer, and filmmaker. This climb is considered the most impressive ropeless ascent.
In the summer of 2012, Honnold climbed the West Face of El Cap in record time. He completed the 5.11c route in only one hour and twenty-two minutes.
Yosemite Triple Crown
Mount Watkins, The Nose, and the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome make up the Yosemite Triple Crown. In July of 2012, Honnold completed his ascent of the Triple Crown and holds the record for the fastest free ascent. He was the first climber to free solo these big walls, all within a single day. Honnold’s record-breaking time of 18 hours and 50 minutes was broken by Jordan Cannon and Scott Bennett in June of 2021.
He climbed The Nose on El Capitan in June 2018 with Tommy Caldwell. This duo holds the speed record for 1 hour, 58 minutes, and 7 seconds. They are the first climbers to have completed this 3,000-foot route in under 2 hours. This climb was filmed and can be seen in season 6, episode 4 of Reel Rock, a series that follows the world’s best climbers.
In 2007, Honnold free climbed Salathe, a 3,500 foot 5.13b granite wall in Yosemite National Park. Here, Honnold set a new speed record, completing it in just 8.5 hours. This speed solo ascent slashed the previous Tommy Caldwell record of sixteen hours in half!
Honnold is credited with the first free ascent of the “U Wall,” located in Squamish, British Columbia. This 7-8 pitch route is popular among local Squamish climbers and was first ascended in 1965. Alex desired to free solo the U Wall for many years but could not do so due to wet conditions. In February of 2014, Honnold successfully free-climbed U Wall in 2 blocks.
The Fitz Roy Traverse, located in southern Patagonia, contains more than 5 meters of the ridgeline. Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell made the first ascent of the Fitz Traverse in only four days. This was Honnold’s first climb ever in Patagonia. For this trip, both men carried their gear and all their supplies throughout the journey. The walls proved to be in rough conditions during the trip and were heavily covered in both snow and ice.
Along with Colin Haley, Honnold made the second ascent from north to south of the Torre Traverse in Patagonia. In January 2016, this group completed the four Torre Group Peaks in 20 hours and 4o minutes. These peaks include Aguja Standhardt, Punta Herron, Torre Egger, and Cerro Torre. This route is perilous, with rime-covered stone, snow-covered summits, potential rockfall, and regular storms, making this route a very technical climb.
Once deemed impossible to Alex, he also successfully conquered the route Arrested Development on Mount Charleston in 2019. This proved to be his most difficult sport climbing route so far. Arrested Development is located near Honnold’s home in Las Vegas, is graded as a 5.14d, and was established in the late 90s. Ethan Pringle first climbed it in 2012.
Queen Maud Land
Alex Honnold took on the remote and rarely explored frozen peaks of Antarctica with Cedar Wright, Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, and Anna Pfaff. Documented in an Amazon Prime documentary, this team climbed 15 peaks in 17 days. Located only 1,000 miles from the south pole, Honnold and his right-hand man, Cedar Wright, speed climbed 13 different rock spires within the region.
During this trip, the world’s greatest climbers pursued the frozen tundra and visited the unexplored walls of Antarctica.
A Few Things You May Not Know About Alex Honnold
He’s been a vegetarian for a few years and sometimes eats a vegan diet. He is meticulously conscious of what he puts into his body and how it impacts the world. Honnold is not against eating meat if it were at risk of going to waste. Climbing connects Alex to the outdoor environment, making it important for him to be aware of what he’s eating. On his climbing trips, he has to carry in what he eats. Honnold focuses mainly on fruits, vegetables, and smoothies to nourish himself. His favorite snack at the crag is a bell pepper and an apple.
Alex also stays away from alcohol and use of any tobacco or drugs.
In the summer of 2016, Honnold was climbing with Sanni, his girlfriend at the time, and her family. The couple decided to use Sanni’s parent’s rope, which was 60 meters long, instead of Alex’s rope, which measures 70 meters. As Alex was being lowered, the short rope ran through Sanni’s belay device, and Alex suffered a 10-meter fall, landing on his side. From the fall, he suffered a compression fracture of two vertebrae. This instance was the most serious injury of his career.
Alex Honnold’s Wife: Sanni Mccandless
Honnold met Sanni Mccandless at a book signing in 2015. Shortly after, they became a couple. Dating since his early rock climbing days, Sanni journeyed with Alex through his El Cap ventures and many of his most notable feats.
The couple announced their engagement on December 25, 2019. In September 2020, Alex married his longtime girlfriend, Sanni Mccandless. They live together with their newborn daughter, June, in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Free Solo Documentary
The 2018 documentary, Free Solo, follows Alex Honnold as he attempts to successfully solo climb El Capitan in Yosemite in 2017. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin produced this National Geographic documentary. The film starring Honnold and his girlfriend, Sanni Mccandless, takes you on his journey to free solo climb El Cap.
Alex spent years practicing and preparing for this climb in Morrocco and on parts of El Capitan with equipment. He trained alongside his good friend and climber, Tommy Caldwell. Before the filming, Honnold had not free soloed El Capitan, and he needed to make sure he was well prepared. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, and Honnold discuss the best camera placements for minimal distractions and the probability and risk of death for this attempt. This meant that there was the possibility of catching Alex’s death on camera, but the producers and crew decided to continue regardless. On June 3, 2017, Alex successfully climbed the 2,900-foot Freerider route on El Capitan in record time. He celebrates with Jimmy Chin in person and virtually with Sanni at the top.
Free Solo premiered in August of 2018 at the Telluride Film Festival and has won several awards, including Best Documentary Feature and multiple Prime Time Emmys. Free Solo can be streamed on Disney+ and Hulu or purchased on YouTube, iTunes, and Amazon Prime.
To go further, you can also check out the interview Alex gave on CBS’s 60 Minutes (YouTube).
The Honnold Foundation
The Honnold Foundation is a nonprofit organization founded in 2012 by Alex Honnold. The foundation supports solar energy and solar projects in developing communities globally.
Using solar energy, this organization believes that everyone should have an equal opportunity to live out of poverty. Alex donates a third of his annual salary to his nonprofit. In 2021, the Honnold Foundation supported forty-four communities in seventeen different countries.
Climbing Gold Podcast
In March of 2021, he started a podcast called Climbing Gold. Alex, and his co-host, Fitz Cahall, share climbing stories, discuss the future of rock climbing, and talk about the people who have influenced climbing in its history.
Alex Honnold is sponsored by North Face, Black Diamond, La Sportiva, Ando, and Stride Health. He is also a board member for the El Cap Climbing Gyms.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Alex Honnold married his girlfriend and life coach, Sanni Mccandless, in September of 2020 on Lake Tahoe. The small wedding was pulled together in just three weeks. The pandemic forced them to have an intimate wedding, so they recently renewed their vows with all of their family and friends in November 2021.
In September 2021, Alex and Sanni announced they were expecting their first child. They welcomed their daughter, June, in February of 2022. Now that Alex has a child, he’s considering transitioning to sport climbing, which will change his training significantly. If this happens, Honnold will likely focus on short bursts of intense training and contribute more to sport climbing and bouldering. Supposedly, when she’s older, daughter June will be allowed to rock climb, but only with hand jammies or crack climbing gloves.
Alex Honnold has a net worth of $2 million, making a yearly income of about $200,000. Top professional climbers can make as much as $300,000 yearly. It’s also not uncommon for climbers to make less than $10,000 a year (check out our article on the topic for more information). Alex lives modestly and can save most of his income due to traveling and living out of his van most of the year. He also donates a third of this salary to his own foundation yearly.
Yes, Alex Honnold is the first and only person so far to free solo El Capitan. Other climbers like Tommy Caldwell and the late Brad Gobright have summited El Capitan using the same route as Alex Honnold, but they free-climbed it (meaning they used ropes). Notably, Emily Harrington became the fourth woman to free-climb El Capitan in 2020.
Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan in only 3 hours and 56 minutes. This is a record-setting time and is known as “one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever.”
He’s 5 ft 11 in (180 cm) with a 6 ft 2 in (188 cm) wingspan. It means that Honnold’s ape index is 1.04 or +3.1″ (8 cm).
Alex Honnold is one of the most incredible, self-made climbers of his time. Spending tons of time training and at the crag, his hard work and efforts have clearly paid off. He’s quite possibly the world’s most accomplished and fearless climber as a free soloist.
Editor’s note: there was a mistake in the FAQ indicating that Alex Honnold was not the only climber to free solo El Capitan while, in fact, he is. Thank you to Danny for flagging this in the comments!
Under the FAQ section, there’s the question “Is Alex Honnold the only person to Free solo El Capitan?” The answer is yes. The author states here incorrectly that Alex Honnold was the first but others have come after. Emily Harrington was listed as an example but she free-climbed El Cap, NOT free solo, meaning she used ropes and harnesses for safety.
aid-climbing means using a rope to pull yourself up.
free-climbing means using hands and feet to climb, but with protective gear.
free-soloing means using hands and feet with no protective gear.
Thank you, Danny! We corrected the article.
also note it says “Alex is a life long vegetarian” – in Free-Solo Alex says he has only been a vegetarian for approximately 4 years, and ate meat before that. Great article though thanks very much.
Thanks, Matt! We edited the article.