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Alex Honnold Climbs 3,000-Foot El Capitan Without Ropes

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Our next guest climbed a bare rock that is taller than the tallest building in the world - 3,000 feet - without ropes, just some shoes and tiny backpack. That kind of climb without any gear is called free soloing. And on Saturday, Alex Honnold became the first person to ever free solo El Capitan, the towering vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park. It is something that people have talked about and dreamed about doing for years. That includes Alex. And we have reached him, actually, on top of El Capitan.

So you went back up?

ALEX HONNOLD: Yeah.

MCEVERS: Wow, how's the view?

HONNOLD: It's outrageous. The high country is really snowy this year because it was such a big winter in California.

MCEVERS: OK, so I just want to be totally clear here. What you did on Saturday - I'm just going to say it again so people can understand the magnitude of it. You climbed a bare rock that is 3,000 feet tall with no ropes. How long have you been planning on doing this?

HONNOLD: I've been climbing for over 20 years, I guess. This route on El Cap I've been sort of dreaming about on and off for maybe the last eight or nine years. I mean it's always been kind of a vague dream, but then it just seems too daunting. And I mean it's pretty intimidating. Every time you drive into Yosemite and you see El Cap, you're like, whoa.

MCEVERS: Yeah (laughter).

HONNOLD: That's a big wall.

MCEVERS: OK, so how did you work on it? Like, how does a person prepare for something like this?

HONNOLD: So I mean specifically for the route that I soloed at, I prepared by climbing the route many times to make sure that I could physically do it. And then I also spent a lot of time with ropes by myself, rappelling down from the summit so I could work on individual sections or memorize certain moves or, like, mark certain holds with chalk so I could remember things. The bigger thing, though, was probably the psychological side of it, like, somehow feeling like you're ready to climb a wall like that. And that was sort of a longer process I suppose.

MCEVERS: Yeah. How does that work? Like, what do you do? Are you somebody who, like, meditates? Do you sleep a lot? Like, what's the plan?

HONNOLD: (Laughter) I do probably sleep a lot, but that's just because I'm tired all the time.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

HONNOLD: You know, I've sort of built my tolerance up over time until it seems possible to do something this big.

MCEVERS: So mental tolerance.

HONNOLD: Yeah, yeah, exactly. It's like, you know, you have your little bubble, like your comfort zone, and you slowly expand it until it can accommodate something really huge.

MCEVERS: The route you're talking about - it's called the Freerider route up the mountain. I understand there's a part along the route where you have to do a karate kick.

HONNOLD: (Laughter) Yeah, that's pretty much the crux of the route. It's probably the most difficult section on the entire 3,000-foot wall. And it's maybe 10 moves total that are quite difficult, and they culminate in sort of a karate kick to get your foot over to this other corner.

MCEVERS: I just - that is something that I just can't really find myself understanding. (Laughter) I'm sorry.

HONNOLD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It takes a little building up to.

MCEVERS: But there has to be, on some level, at some point, some fear. Like, how would you describe what your relationship with fear is like?

HONNOLD: I mean, yeah, there is a little bit. And certainly it was fear that has kept me from doing it for so long. I mean I've dreamt about this since 2009, and this is the first year I've actually felt ready. And that's because I'd always look at the wall and, you know, be full of dread.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Right, like the rest of us, OK.

HONNOLD: Yeah, exactly, exactly. I'd always look at it and be like, oh, no. But then over the last few years, that perspective started to shift a little bit. And then this last year, I thought that I could do it. And then - and once you believe that it's possible and you start working towards it, then it sort of becomes inevitable.

MCEVERS: The question that has to be asked - like, how did it feel when you got up there on Saturday?

HONNOLD: I was - I don't even know how to say it. I was so elated. Actually, even just thinking about it, I just got the biggest smile again. I'm sure I was babbling for, like, quite a while...

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

HONNOLD: ....Because I'm just so excited. I felt so good, too, physically, like, I - it's because I'd gone quite quickly. And so, you know, I was like, oh, I could do this again. I feel great.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

HONNOLD: You know, I was like, let's do it - so psyched. But then by the time I got down, I was like, no, actually, I'm kind of tired.

MCEVERS: And we should be clear, too, like, a thing that took you four hours usually takes other people days.

HONNOLD: Yeah. I think the average party probably spends about three days on the wall.

MCEVERS: Wow. You've set a new standard now, right? You've, like, set the bar higher. Do you think about the fact that now more people are going to try to do it?

HONNOLD: I don't know. People always ask if doing big free solos is going to encourage people to go soloing. And the reality is that it just doesn't. I mean the thing about soloing is you have to be very passionate about it. And you have to be, you know, self-driven. And it's just - it's quite scary if you're not doing it for the right reasons.

So I mean if you decide that you want to go soloing because you think it's cool and you just want to be cool and you want to be the man, you know, basically once you get a little ways off the ground, self-preservation kicks in. You're like, I don't really want to go much higher.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

HONNOLD: But the thing with soloing is that you're making thousands of intentional movements 'cause, you know, you're choosing to move higher over and over and over for hours. And so I mean you have to be pretty motivated. You can't just, like, rush into that.

MCEVERS: Alex Honnold is a mountain climber and the first person to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. He talked to us from the top of El Cap. Thank you so much.

HONNOLD: Oh, my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE LIMINANAS SONG, "I'M DEAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.