From awe-inspiring ropeless ascents to fatherhood, the ultimate risk taker is aiming for new heights. And not about to hold back.
Let’s begin with the obvious plaudits. Alex Honnold is the greatest free solo climber in the world. He was the first and only person to ever climb the face of El Capitan in Yosemite without ropes. And if you watched Honnold make that climb in the 2018 documentary Free Solo (highly recommended), you know that you witnessed one of the greatest feats in human history. When you lay eyes on Alex Honnold in person, it’s difficult not to immediately profess how dumbstruck his existence makes you. OMG, you’re the Free Solo guy! Weren’t you scared up there? I KNOW I WOULD BE! But you don’t have to be around Alex Honnold for very long to intuit that he’s heard this spiel many, many times, and that it bores him to death.
Luckily for me, Honnold, age 36, is a brand-new dad, and fatherhood makes for a terrific equalizer. It transforms otherwise superhuman men into everyday citizens, leaving them to paw around in the dark for fresh diapers, for nearby pacifiers, and for answers that can take years to arrive, if ever. There is no escaping the indignities of fatherhood, which puts me on more level ground with Honnold. Much more horizontal. This is one trail I have blazed that he has not. The question is… does he know what’s coming? Is he ready for fatherhood to kick his ass, the way it kicks everyone’s ass? My job is to find out.
Free Solo was a chronicle of Honnold’s ascent up El Cap but also a compellingly awkward love story between him and then-girlfriend Sanni McCandless, filmed right at the beginning of their relationship. The Honnold you see in 2018 is, fittingly, a solitary man. He lives in a van. He never appears interested in socializing with other people. He tells the camera, point blank, that he would “always” choose climbing over a woman. El Capitan is the only thing he truly cares about, and it has to be because the price of being distracted while preparing for El Cap, and of course while being on El Cap, is death. Free Solo is the story of man with supernatural powers of concentration and of the people who vicariously feel the terror that he, ever focused, cannot allow himself to acknowledge.
One of those terrified onlookers was McCandless, who falls for Honnold over the course of Free Solo. And you’re never entirely certain if Honnold is willing to return that love in full. After my first viewing, I was like, “Well, there’s no way those two stayed together.”
Reader, they did. Sanni and Alex were married in 2020. They live in a house in Las Vegas now. The van is still parked outside of it, ready for whenever nature beckons. I’m interviewing him as he sits in one of the house’s predictably spartan rooms. Honnold’s still got the poker face and the Jim Halpert hairdo going on, but the post-Free Solo version of the man gives off less intense vibes. Either Honnold has gotten a bit more chill over the past few years, or he’s gotten much better at presenting himself as such.
Were you reluctant to get married?
“I always planned to get married, eventually. Even at my most aggressive ‘young 20s guy striving to do something,’ I still realized that you're just not going to have a great family scene if you're too single-mindedly focused on specific goals and too aggro about it all. I've always wanted to be well-adjusted at some point.”
Did you feel like you were not well-adjusted at some point?
“Yes. I don't know, actually. I've always felt like I was fine, but everybody else had a problem.”
You could’ve been wrong, though.
Do you think you're a good husband?
“I think I'm doing my best. I'm trying.”
Did you think you were a good boyfriend?
“I had a lot of positives, [being] adventurous and whatever, but I wasn't a great boyfriend. I think now, as a husband and a father, I think I'm contributing more to the team.”
Would Sanni agree with that?
“I'm pretty sure Sanni would agree with that. I think that I'm getting better in the relationship as I go, which I think is really all you can aspire to: continual improvement.”
Do you feel more emotionally accessible than you were previously?
“Maybe a little, but that's a very slow process.”
I also interviewed Sanni for this story, and she disputes the idea that he was a bad boyfriend (“I thought Alex [was] a great boyfriend”), but does indeed agree that he has improved as a partner since the first days of their relationship. “I think the more time we spend with each other, the better we get at supporting each other,” she says. “We experience emotion really differently. But when June was born, we were on the same page. We were in the exact same place.”
The beauty of soloing El Cap for the first time — apart from the accomplishment itself — was that it freed Honnold from his obsession with it. He’s been able to put down roots in Vegas now, despite being the least Vegas person who has ever existed. He lives there for easy access to climbs and a convenient airport. He only goes to the Strip once in a year, if that, to see a show. His idea of luxury is taking a lot of showers. He never gambles, because what thrill is this man gonna feel at a blackjack table?
But if you’ve ever had a child, you know that even this comparatively dull existence is pockmarked with moments of abject terror, starting with the birth of the child itself. This was especially true in the case of little June Honnold, who was born in February under what would become — true to the Honnold family tradition — extremely dangerous circumstances. The Honnolds planned for a natural childbirth, but after nearly 20 hours of labor, June got stuck in utero, her vitals plunged, and doctors had to perform an emergency C-section. Once out, June wasn’t breathing and had to be remanded to the NICU immediately to get her vitals up. According to Sanni, her daughter’s Apgar scores read like binary code. Alex and Sanni never got to see their child at the moment of delivery. There wasn’t time.
I was definitely surprised by how intense it all was. To think that every one of us was born. That everyone has gone through this.
“I don't know if it compares to bad situations in the mountains where you're like, ‘Oh, my God, I'm about to die,’” says Honnold, “but in a way it's worse, because it's the deep dread. Seeing her cut open and bleeding all over, in pain. ‘Oh, my God, my wife's dying, my baby's dying.’ Thinking that your whole life is going to be turned upside down in an instant. I was definitely surprised by how intense it all was. To think that every one of us was born. That everyone has gone through this.”
June and mother ended up healthy and happy, and soon, the Honnold family got to go home and be a family. That’s where the work began in earnest. Because the notion that fatherhood changes a man instantly has always been a lie. They don’t hand you a new identity in the maternity ward to go with your free sample pack of Enfamil. They hand you a job. You’re still you, only you now have a sh*tload of work to do. As with any other major life event, it can take years to process the idea, and the consequences, of becoming a father. You haven’t learned to become a dad yet, and they haven’t grown into a fully formed person yet. So there is work. Much of it. You and your kid get to know one another, you grow, and that process repeats itself until death.
I know this because my own kids are all older than 10. I’m a veteran dad, and, in talking to the Honnolds, I get a sense that they’ve acclimated to parenthood with relative speed. Honnold is not a reluctant dad, and that’s no small thing. Given that he was already extremely comfortable with putting his hands in scary places, he changes diapers without hesitation. “Unlike breastfeeding, it's one of the only useful things I can do to help.” He often goes to bed earlier than Sanni so that he can work the morning shift with June while his wife sleeps in. By his estimate, he now does half the housework, up from a mere 30% of it. He could certainly do more than half, but progress is progress. “I think [Sanni] normally cared a little bit more about [housework] than me. Now we're both just trying to get by.”
And it’s fun to visualize Honnold, a world class athlete, just trying to get by as an everyday father: changing exploded diapers with one hand while scrubbing cookie sheets with the other. This is where parents learn their trade, and it’s how they form bonds with each other and with their offspring. It’s the tedium that makes the whole thing special. So, with that in mind, I ask Honnold the most basic question of all: How is fatherhood?
“I feel the same. I feel like myself. I don't even know if the full weight of responsibilities has sunk in yet. I feel like it's just slowly adding. Being a father is becoming more and more real as our daughter grows up, as she seems more real. It's been good. Better as it goes.”
That’s a solid answer. A veteran answer.
After what Sanni and June went through, were you able to, in retrospect, empathize with the emotional toll that it took on others on your loved ones when you were putting yourself in harm's way going up El Cap?
“I didn't really think about it in that respect, but it did feel like a microcosm of what I expected parenting would be like, where you're always worried for your child in different ways. Where everything is OK right up until it isn't.”
And this is where I feel freer to pivot back to corny awe, for Honnold betrays an outlook on parenthood that many other dads need years to acquire. Frankly, it’s kind of annoying. I don’t want this man to be good at everything. I’d prefer he save some excellence for the rest of us. But clearly, Honnold gets it. He knows he has a lot to learn, he knows the worry never ends, and, most important, he knows that the effort that goes into it is more vital than the outcome.
Alex and Sanni are taking June hiking and climbing already (including to El Cap next month), so that living outdoors becomes a natural part of her existence. He doesn’t entertain the idea — inviolable to so many new parents, myself included — that little things he and Sanni do now will shape June’s psyche and future forevermore.
“I assume that nothing is going to matter in the long term. That's been my attitude with all the major stuff so far, where it's like breastfeeding versus formula; I'm like, breastfeeding would be better, might be healthier, we should strive for it. Realistically, when our daughter has graduated college, it's not going to freaking matter.”
What will matter is that moment when June gives Honnold and his wife lip for the first time, because that does happen, and I know I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready for my kids to be rude, and they can get very rude very fast. That’s something other veteran parents warned me about when I was a rookie; they were practically excited to tell me how sh*tty it would feel. But, as with birth itself, you can’t know how any of this will affect you until you’re in it. So I decide to play the Annoying Neighbor Dad and subject Honnold to a few hypotheticals.
Do you have any long-term fears about June? Are you ever like, "Oh, my God, what if she grows up and she dates a bassist or something like that?"
“Not that I like bass very much, but, no. I do not care. As long as she's happy and healthy. I really just want her to find something that she's passionate about, something that she's excited about, that she works hard for.”
If it were something you despised, would that be all right?
“I don't love poetry, but if she's passionate about it and she loves it and she's going super hard as a poet, I'm sure I could learn to love poetry.”
Why don't you like poetry?
“I just think it's stupid. I don't really get it.”
Are you more chill than you used to be?
“I'm pretty chill, mostly because I just don't care about any of this stuff that I don't think matters. Like it doesn't affect performance and life, let it go. I heard some other people the other day complaining about how their kid doesn't comb his hair. He's 17 and he looks so stupid and whatever. I was like, ‘I haven't combed my hair in 20 years.’ Who cares? Like, whatever. If they're happy, you're happy.”
Honnold even likes talking to other dads about being a dad, which is a bridge I have still yet to cross. He still doesn’t consider himself “normal” in terms of emotional accessibility, but he’s wise enough to make sure June is surrounded by other loved ones who are more so. “I think that can help smooth over some of my deficits.”
What do you consider to be your deficits, in your own words?
“Lack of affection, lack of caring? I don't know, because I think I'm getting better at those things as I get older, as I've been with Sanni long enough. It's slightly getting more normal.”
That said, there’s only so much normalcy to be had when you’re this man, which is why Honnold is already back to climbing, including, yes, free soloing. He has not gone up El Cap for a second time sans ropes (he has gone up with ropes, though).. He’s opting for smaller climbs instead. “Easy” climbs, in his words.
“Yes, I'm going climbing ropeless, but the difficulty level is low enough that it's just like going for a jog. It's more like a fun cardio outing.”
Totally. That’s exactly how I feel about climbing massive boulders untethered. I ask Sanni how she feels about Alex getting back out on raw cliff faces when the price of death is even steeper now for him, for her, and for their baby. For Sanni, Alex getting back to work without ropes was an inevitability, and one she accepted long ago.
“It's still clear that that's what he needs. Alex is the happiest and best version of himself when he gets to spend a lot of time outside and when he is climbing. He's so cranky when he doesn't get to climb.”
Honnold is going to Greenland, sans family, for a climbing expedition later this year. And before June was born, he went to Guyana for National Geographic to complete a first ascent of a tepui in a South American rainforest. You can watch him make that climb right now on Disney+. Although Honnold (mostly) used ropes this go-round, Mount Weiassipu, a crumbling 1,000-foot shelf in one of the most remote places in the world, is sufficiently deadly. He cannot practice the route beforehand. He cannot choreograph every last step he takes. He has to climb straight out of the dense rainforest up to the “roof” of the tepui — an overhang that forces him to climb it as if traversing a ceiling — to reach its summit. His fellow climbers pull off hunks of rock from the cliff face big enough to flatten Wile E. Coyote.
Alex is the happiest and best version of himself when he gets to spend a lot of time outside and when he is climbing. He's so cranky when he doesn't get to climb.
And not only does Honnold succeed in making this climb twice with ropes and once without, but he does it all fast. And easy. Again, kind of annoying. This is still a man deeply familiar with uncertainty, and when he tells me that that quality has served him well so far as a parent, it’s hard not to believe him. No one is ever really prepared for this sh*t, but Honnold still did as good a job as he could to anticipate everything that can go wrong. Having parented as long as I have, I can tell you that’s a good start. A very good one. I am past dumbstruck now. I am, instead, empathetic. Alex Honnold is human after all. Turns out he always was.
I felt like you did not really fear death at all in prior years.
“No, I would actually disagree. I'd say that death is probably the only thing that I really do fear.”
Go on, then. How are you able to do what you've done while fearing death?
“You just make sure you're not going to die.”
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