In 2017, Alex Honnold’s life changed when he became the first person to free solo climb (no ropes, and alone) the 3,000ft El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. This superhuman feat was captured in the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, which pushed Honnold further into the global spotlight.
He was then left to ask himself a question, ‘What do I do next?’ In his new National Geographic series Arctic Ascent with Alex Honnold, he finds the answer in Greenland, where he, and world-class climbers Hazel Findlay and Mikey Schaefer, attempt to summit Ingmikortilaq, an unclimbed Arctic seacliff rising out of the frozen wilderness that is nearly 1,000 feet higher than El Capitan.
I've always loved climbing. My parents introduced me to it at a gym when I was little and from then I was climbing indoors all the time, which eventually transitioned to climbing outdoors. After I dropped out of university I was living in my car and travelling and free soloing full time.
There are many types of climbing, like bouldering, ice climbing, and big wall climbing, and free soloing has always been one of those styles.
I've been climbing five days a week since I was ten years old, so that’s 28 years now. I mean, you vary the intensity, you vary the style, you vary the objectives – you're climbing different things all the time. Like yesterday, I trained in the gym, and the day before that I hiked for an hour up into the mountains to climb this overhanging wall. So it’s different things on different days.
What’s going through my mind on a climb depends on its intensity. If it's relatively easy terrain, then my mind can roam. I just think about my week and about what I'm eating for lunch that day. It's pretty similar to running or a lot of other sports. If you're sprinting as fast as you can go, you can't really think about anything other than just breathing and keeping your feet in front of each other. But if you're casually jogging, you can plan out your whole week and think about whatever. Free soloing is similar – if you're doing hard free soloing, then you have to be 100% focused.
The most common injuries as a climber are actually overuse injuries, like bicep tendonitis and finger tendonitis, things like that. Your fingers and arms are relatively small muscles, compared to your legs and you're putting so much weight on them all the time that it's easy to overstress your joints and your connective tissue. So most climbing injuries are actually from overuse where you just need to rest a little bit more.
It is frustrating to injure yourself. If climbing is something that you're doing five days a week, then you realise that you have to do it less, you're suddenly like, “Well, what do I do with myself?” Then you face this existential question of, “What am I doing with my life and why? If I can't do the thing that I love doing, who am I and what do I do?!”
My biggest achievement was free soloing El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park [the climb was chronicled in the Oscar-winning 2018 film Free Solo]. I’d been thinking about free soloing El Cap for years but it just felt much too daunting. So I’d slowly and gradually done things that were similar and built up to it. Finally, after six or seven years, I realised that I was just going to have to focus on it intentionally, so I spent two years directly training for it. It was the end of a very long road.
I'm sure I've thought about my own mortality far more than the average person. Climbers are faced with that more often, because you're so frequently making choices that affect life or death. I do think it makes you more relaxed in the rest of your life. I think about this all the time in airports, when people are stressed about whether or not they're going to make their flight or miss their connection, and you're just like, who cares, it doesn't matter. People get so stressed about things that, like a month from now, you won't even remember.
My new series Arctic Ascent with Alex Honnold came about when the production company Plimsoll reached out to me about working on a project. It all came together where it's the right climate objective and Ingmikortilaq in Greenland is such an inspiring wall. Doing climate science in eastern Greenland to climb a wall that nobody's climbed that also looks amazing and going with the right team, it's kind of the ideal climbing expedition. It’s a 4,000 foot wall and is the biggest first ascent that I've done and one of the biggest rock walls I've ever climbed. It was an incredible experience.
When people ask me about wanting to try free soloing I tell them to go and do it. Nowadays there are walls available in every city and every town in the UK, and they're good facilities, which are fun and safe – it's an easy way to try it indoors. So I'd say to anybody who’s even remotely interested in climbing should just go and try it, and then if you're into it, and really interested, then obviously you can go outdoors and learn the skills and become a real climber.
I’ll be climbing at some level my entire life, I think. I’m not sure if I'll be doing any cutting edge expeditions to Greenland or anything when I'm 70 or 80 – honestly I hope I'm not, I hope I'm just chilling with grandkids and things. But I’m sure I'll still be climbing all the time, that I'll still be going outside and having adventures in nature, I just don't know if I'll need to be doing extreme things.
Arctic Ascent with Alex Honnold premieres on National Geographic on Sunday, 4 February, 2024 at 9pm and 10pm and concludes on Sunday, 11 February, at 9pm.
‘Our full potential is on the other side of fear’: a vertigo-inducing look at ‘rooftopping’ (Guardian, 5 min read)
Best Mountaineering Documentaries: Free Solo, The Man Who Skied Everest & More (ComingSoon, 4 min read)
What is El Capitan? And why does it have such legendary status? (Advnture, 6 min read)