Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold poses in front of Mount Fitz Roy in Patagonia. He and fellow climber Tommy Caldwell were the first to complete a link up Fitz Roy, considered the most technical climb in the world. That and other exploits are revealed in Honnold’s memoir, Alone on the Wall./Photo courtesy Jimmy Chin

The life of a rock star

Alone on the Wall offers intro to climbing great Alex Honnold

by Luke Mehall


Every sport has a Michael Jordan, the athlete whose fame stretches well beyond the playing field, and for climbing, that person is Alex Honnold. The 30-year-old climber from Sacramento has gained worldwide notoriety for his free solo climbs around the world, from Yosemite to Africa. His recently published memoir, Alone on the Wall, offers a glimpse into the life and psyche of a guy who is rich beyond imagination (at least for a dirtbag climber) yet still chooses to live in a van.

Upon reading the first few pages of Alone on the Wall, I forced myself to consider this memoir from two perspectives: the climber and the non-climber. As a climber, I’m aware of Honnold’s achievements, such as his ropeless climb of the northwest face of Half Dome and 2014’s first-ever linkup of the entire Fitz Roy massif in Patagonia with Tommy Caldwell. These are heroic accomplishments, ones that have forever placed Honnold as one of the greatest climbers to ever live. I’m also aware of Honnold’s placement in mainstream society. Non-climbers, even people who aren’t outdoorsy, are aware of him, mainly from the commercials he’s appeared in, his National Geographic cover story about soloing Half Dome, and most of all, from the “60 Minutes” feature that put him into the public spotlight in 2011.

Did Honnold, who co-wrote the book with David Roberts, succeed in appealing to climbers and non-climbers alike? It all depends on how closely you’ve been following him for the last eight years.

Alone on the Wall is an ironic title because Honnold has spent more time climbing with a film crew than any other free solo climber. (As Honnold would be quick to point out, his climbs build upon the foundation set by those before him, including John Bachar, Peter Croft and Dean Potter.) That said, many of these free solo climbs were re-enactments, performed for the camera after he’d successfully solo-ed the route.

Looking at the book as if I’d never heard or read any of these stories, they are stunning accomplishments, but the writing does not convey the magic or suspense that film can.  Honnold, who has earned the nickname “No Big Deal,” does not try to wax poetic about his climbing. His language is simple when describing the climbs, and to him, they are no big deal.

I think mainstream audiences will be entertained by Alone on the Wall; it’s a quick read, one that could be consumed in a day, and I would recommend it to non-climbers who know Honnold from the media. He is a great man, and despite all his fame and riches, when he’s out living the climbing life, he does it as if he was living hand to mouth as many dirtbag climbers do. He doesn’t indulge in drugs or alcohol and has funneled much of his sponsorship money into his nonprofit Honnold Foundation, aimed at improving people’s lives through sustainability.

I also think mainstream audiences might be a little more forgiving of the book, which stretches to find anything dramatic about Honnold’s life. There are awkward passages about his love life and his dynamic with mentors, like Mark Synnott, that seem forced, like the editors were demanding something interesting. Even though from the outside his life seems cutting edge, to him it’s just what he does. No big deal.

As a climber, this book was similar to listening to a good friend tell an epic story you’ve heard before. Nearly every single story in this book has already been documented in film and print. I found myself skipping many sections because I already knew exactly what was going to happen. I think most climbers who have been following Honnold will feel the same way. His career has been so meticulously documented that it seemed there was little else to tell. That said, if I was a climber who didn’t know about all of his exploits, it would be a lot more interesting.

What I did find charming and fascinating about Alone on the Wall is how Honnold is seemingly unaffected by the pressures to which most people succumb. After celebrity and fame, he didn’t indulge in any of it. He doesn’t even own a house or apartment. He’s painfully aware of the state of the world, and funnels much of his fortune into environmental and social projects. In the process of becoming the most famous climber in the world, he’s remained entirely himself, a guy who just wants to live in a van and climb rocks. In the climbing community, he is highly respected and regarded as one of the greats, both as a person and a climber.

I wanted to ask Honnold about the book and his interest in social and environmental activism. His publicists promised me an interview, but when I requested some phone time with him, I was informed I’d missed the time window. I did get to meet him briefly this past summer at a tradeshow, and got an autograph for a teenage co-worker of mine. He was present and kind, and we engaged in a brief conversation about literature.

After thinking about this book from the two different perspectives: that of the climber well familiar with his accomplishments, and the non-climber vaguely familiar with his story, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a book for the latter. If you’ve seen the films where he climbs ropeless thousands of feet above the ground, they tell the story better than this book. But, if you’re new to the super human known as Alex Honnold, Alone on the Wall is a good primer for the ongoing tale of the most famous climber the world has ever seen.

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