No one in Sacramento seems to recognize Alex Honnold.
Honnold, who on June 3 became the first person to ascend Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan without ropes or gear, is widely considered one of the world’s greatest free soloists. According to his mother, though, Honnold has managed to remain relatively unknown in the place where he got his start, except for the people he climbs with at the local gyms.
“He’s better known in South America than he is in Sacramento,” said Dierdre Wolownick, Honnold’s mom. “Like they say, ‘You’re never a prophet in your own land.’ Well, he’s from Sacramento.”
On Friday, Honnold, 31, was back in Sacramento for a family dinner, stuck in traffic in the middle of the city like any other commuter. But a week ago, he was ascending the towering 3,000-foot wall of granite in less than four hours with nothing but climbing shoes and a bag of chalk.
“I kind of like being up high, I think it’s cool – I mean, it’s super scenic,” Honnold said. “When you look around, it’s really beautiful. If anything, I find the bigger route more inspiring, more exciting – I mean it’s just cool.”
For Honnold, the monumental feat was the culmination of about a decade of experience, and a solid year of training and focus for the route, the Freerider. Honnold estimates he has climbed El Capitan about 60 times. The last month alone he was on the route five days a week, “thinking about it nonstop.”
Despite a torn ligament in his hand last year and a severely sprained ankle last fall, Honnold said the setbacks never changed his mind as to whether he could free solo El Capitan.
“I was just kind of like, ‘Well, maybe next season, maybe next season,’ ” Honnold said. “And from the get-go, I always sort of looked at it as like, ‘Maybe I can, maybe I can’t, who knows? But at least I’ll put in the effort to find out.’ ”
The consequences of failure are obvious: Make a mistake and die. But to Honnold, there is really no difference between being 50 feet off the ground and being 2,000 feet off the ground – a fall means you die either way, he said, “so the exposure doesn’t really change a whole lot in terms of the consequence.”
Honnold is asked many questions about fear, death and intentional risk-taking, but he offers that they’re asking the wrong person those questions. For people leading a “totally average life in the city,” the biggest risks might be driving, or heart disease or cancer, he said.
“So every time you have a meal, you’re making choices that could be risking your life, but nobody ever thinks of it in those terms,” Honnold said.
“Then they see a picture of somebody climbing without a rope and they’re like, ‘That’s insane!’ ” he said. “And it’s like, ‘Well, it’s a clearly calculated chosen risk that enhances the quality of my life in certain ways.’ ”
Honnold was 5 years old the first time he rock climbed, Wolownick said, at the Rocknasium in Davis. It wasn’t until he was age 10 that he rock climbed outdoors, in the French Alps. A few years later, he began climbing through his childhood and teen years at Granite Arch Climbing Center in Rancho Cordova, said Honnold, who added that he now mostly frequents Sacramento Pipeworks, a slightly closer facility to his family home.
“When I started climbing between the ages of, let’s say, 11 and 18, rock climbing to me just meant going indoors and climbing up the walls,” Honnold said. “That was the entire climbing world.”
Later, he left Sacramento to attend UC Berkeley for an engineering degree, Wolownick said, but dropped out after his freshman year.
“My husband had just died, my father had just died, my father-in-law had just died,” Wolownick said. “Our perspective had totally changed.”
So when Honnold told his mom that he wanted to leave college and start climbing full time, Wolownick was 100 percent supportive.
“So he had my blessing and I gave him my van and I said, ‘Go find your heart,’ ” she said.
He doesn’t use his mom’s old van anymore, but he is still climbing, almost exclusively outdoors. Honnold made headlines as early as 2008, when he completed a ropeless ascent of the 2,000-foot tall face of Half Dome. Since then, free soloing El Cap, as it is commonly called, has been in his – and the greater climbing community’s – sight.
“It’s the final frontier,” said Daniel Duffy, an employee at Sacramento Pipeworks who sometimes climbs with Honnold. “Everybody knew that if someone was going to free solo it, it was going to be Alex Honnold.”
Duffy credits Honnold’s success as one of the world’s greatest climbers to not just his constant physical and technical training, but also his mental training to keep cool in high-pressure situations.
“He finishes El Cap and he get to the top and he says, ‘I just did four hours of exercise; I’m gonna hangboard today,’ ” Duffy said.
After visiting family, Honnold said he is headed Monday on an expedition to Alaska for a couple weeks. Though he still plans on spending three months a year at Yosemite, the Sacramento native has recently bought a home in Las Vegas, where he said, “You can drive 15 minutes from my house and be climbing on some world-class rocks.”
Will Alex stop free soloing anytime soon? That would be nice, Wolownick said with a chuckle, but she doubts that will happen. She knows that every time she says goodbye to him, she may never see him again. She didn’t even know that he planned on free soloing El Cap – and she prefers it that way, because knowing would be too hard to bear. But Wolownick said she could never tell him to stop pursuing his passion.
“People say I should (say), ‘I’m a mother, I want to keep him alive until he’ s 90.’ Well, yes, of course I do,” Wolownick said. “But he has lived many lifetimes in the last few years, and so many of us never get to do that.”