How I Climbed a 3,000-Foot Vertical Cliff – Without Ropes: Alex Honnold (Transcript)

Alex Honnold

Alex Honnold – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

Hello. I’d like to show you guys 30 seconds of the best day of my life.

So that was El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park, and in case you couldn’t tell, I was climbing by myself without a rope, a style of a climbing known as free soloing.

That was the culmination of a nearly decade-long dream, and in the video I’m over 2,500 feet off the ground. Seems scary? Yeah, it is, which is why I spent so many years dreaming about soloing El Cap and not actually doing it.

But on the day that that video was taken, it didn’t feel scary at all. It felt as comfortable and natural as a walk in the park, which is what most folks were doing in Yosemite that day.

Today I’d like to talk about how I was able to feel so comfortable and how I overcame my fear. I’ll start with a very brief version of how I became a climber, and then tell the story of my two most significant free solos. They were both successful, which is why I’m here.

But the first felt largely unsatisfying, whereas the second, El Cap, was by far the most fulfilling day of my life. Through these two climbs, you’ll see my process for managing fear.

So I started climbing in a gym when I was around 10 years old, which means that my life has been centered on climbing for more than 20 years. After nearly a decade of climbing mostly indoors, I made the transition to the outdoors and gradually started free soloing.

I built up my comfort over time and slowly took on bigger and more challenging walls. And there have been many free soloists before me, so I had plenty of inspiration to draw from.

But by 2008, I’d repeated most of their previous solos in Yosemite and was starting to imagine breaking into new terrain.

The obvious first choice was Half Dome, an iconic 2,000-foot wall that lords over the east end of the valley. The problem, though also the allure, was that it was too big. I didn’t really know how to prepare for a potential free solo.

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So I decided to skip the preparations and just go up there and have an adventure. I figured I would rise to the occasion, which, unsurprisingly, was not the best strategy.

I did at least climb the route roped up with a friend two days before just to make sure that I knew roughly where to go and that I could physically do it. But when I came back by myself two days later, I decided that I didn’t want to go that way.

I knew that there was a 300-foot variation that circled around one of the hardest parts of the climb. I suddenly decided to skip the hard part and take the variation, even though I’d never climbed it before, but I immediately began to doubt myself.

Imagine being by yourself in the dead center of a 2,000-foot face, wondering if you’re lost. Thankfully, it was pretty much the right way and I circled back to the route. I was slightly rattled, I was pretty rattled, but I tried not to let it bother me too much because I knew that all the hardest climbing was up at the top. I needed to stay composed.

It was a beautiful September morning, and as I climbed higher, I could hear the sounds of tourists chatting and laughing on the summit. They’d all hiked up the normal trail on the back, which I was planning on using for my descent.

But between me and the summit lay a blank slab of granite. There were no cracks or edges to hold on to, just small ripples of texture up a slightly less than vertical wall. I had to trust my life to the friction between my climbing shoes and the smooth granite.

I carefully balanced my way upward, shifting my weight back and forth between the small smears. But then I reached a foothold that I didn’t quite trust.

Two days ago, I’d have just stepped right up on it, but that would have been with a rope on. Now it felt too small and too slippery. I doubted that my foot would stay on if I weighted it. I considered a foot further to the side, which seemed worse. I switched my feet and tried a foot further out.

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It seemed even worse. I started to panic. I could hear people laughing on the summit just above me. I wanted to be anywhere but on that slab. My mind was racing in every direction.

I knew what I had to do, but I was too afraid to do it. I just had to stand up on my right foot. And so after what felt like an eternity, I accepted what I had to do and I stood up on the right foot, and it didn’t slip, and so I didn’t die, and that move marked the end of the hardest climbing.

And so I charged from there towards the summit. And so normally when you summit Half Dome, you have a rope and a bunch of climbing gear on you, and tourists gasp and they flock around you for photos.

This time I popped over the edge shirtless, panting, jacked. I was amped, but nobody batted an eye. I looked like a lost hiker that was too close to the edge. I was surrounded by people talking on cell phones and having picnics. I felt like I was in a mall.

I took off my tight climbing shoes and started hiking back down, and that’s when people stopped me. “You’re hiking barefoot? That’s so hard-core.”

I didn’t bother to explain, but that night in my climbing journal, I duly noted my free solo of Half Dome, but I included a frowny face and a comment, “Do better?” I’d succeeded in the solo and it was celebrated as a big first in climbing. Some friends later made a film about it. But I was unsatisfied.

I was disappointed in my performance, because I knew that I had gotten away with something. I didn’t want to be a lucky climber. I wanted to be a great climber. I actually took the next year or so off from free soloing, because I knew that I shouldn’t make a habit of relying on luck. But even though I wasn’t soloing very much, I’d already started to think about El Cap.

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It was always in the back of my mind as the obvious crown jewel of solos. It’s the most striking wall in the world. Each year, for the next seven years, I’d think, “This is the year that I’m going to solo El Cap.” And then I would drive into Yosemite, look up at the wall, and think, “No frickin’ way.” It’s too big and too scary.

But eventually I came to accept that I wanted to test myself against El Cap. It represented true mastery, but I needed it to feel different. I didn’t want to get away with anything or barely squeak by. This time I wanted to do it right.

The thing that makes El Cap so intimidating is the sheer scale of the wall. Most climbers take three to five days to ascend the 3,000 feet of vertical granite. The idea of setting out up a wall of that size with nothing but shoes and a chalk bag seemed impossible.

3,000 feet of climbing represents thousands of distinct hand and foot movements, which is a lot to remember. Many of the moves I knew through sheer repetition I’d climbed El Cap maybe 50 times over the previous decade with a rope.

But this photo shows my preferred method of rehearsing the moves. I’m on the summit, about to rappel down the face with over a thousand feet of rope to spend the day practicing. Once I found sequences that felt secure and repeatable, I had to memorize them.

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