Free Solo's Alex Honnold on climbing at the Olympics, his 'terrifying' TED Talk, and his next movie project

The Olympic Channel Podcast sat down with the Oscar winner ahead of the 2019 IFSC Climbing World Championships
By Edward Knowles

Watching the Academy Award-winning documentary Free Solo is a thrilling experience.

Part of the film’s appeal is the enigmatic star: climber Alex Honnold.

He climbed up the 3,000ft (900m) vertical cliff-face,‘El Capitan’, with no ropes. One mistake would have led to certain death.

His focus, ambition, and fearlessness are captivating. The set-piece climb of the documentary is breath-taking.

But the film's long-term appeal probably rests on its unflinching attitude to showing the characters in their rawest form.

"Everybody has their opinion about my relationship with my girlfriend and what that means," he said to the Olympic Channel Podcast.

"I say plenty of insensitive things in the film and I come off as not the best boyfriend at times. People watch that, and they're like, 'Oh, that guy is a bad boyfriend.'

"But you can't watch a 90-minute film and really understand someone’s life."

For the first time in the history of the Olympics, there will be a climbing event at Tokyo 2020.

The Olympic Channel Podcast spoke to Alex about the Olympics, relationships, and his next big movie project.

"I love climbing and I love seeing people perform at the highest levels. I think that the Olympics will obviously bring that out." - Alex Honnold on climbing's Olympic debut

The Olympics and climbing at Tokyo 2020

Olympic Channel Podcast: What do you make of sport climbing at the Olympic Games?

Alex Honnold: I'm excited to see climbing in the Olympics. I think it's going to continue to grow the sport. Obviously, whoever wins the Olympics is going to be a big deal in climbing and a big deal globally. It will probably bring in more sponsorship money. But, mostly, I just want to watch it. I love climbing and I love seeing people perform at the highest levels. I think that the Olympics will obviously bring that out.

OCP: Would you like to go to Tokyo 2020?

AH: I definitely want to go to Tokyo 2020. I wish I could compete at that level but basically I am too old and too weak so I will settle for watching and enjoying.

Why speed climbing

OCP: Climbing at the Olympics will combine three different disciplines: bouldering, lead, and speed. Speed climbing is pretty easy for a random member of the public to understand, right?

AH: It's interesting because there's been a lot of push-back within the climbing community against speed. Mainly because most people specialise in bouldering and lead climbing - then speed climbing is, sort of, its own discipline. I think a lot of the high end climbers are annoyed that they have to learn a new sport basically. But I can definitely see the appeal.

It’s way more spectator friendly. It’s more obvious in some ways. It makes sense that people are competing on the same track. When you think of swimming, they are all measured in the same set way. It makes sense that climbing would have something along the same lines. Not saying that the current speed wall is the best possible speed wall or anything. But it makes sense that people are competing on a standardised course. Plus, it’s pretty hard.

OCP: Climbing at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires was really popular and fun to watch.

AH: I think in general people enjoy like watching excellence. Watching somebody boulder like that is a bit of a novel experience. People are usually like, ‘I didn't know a human body could stick to a wall like that. I can't believe how well-trained they are'. It's just incredible to see what humans are capable of.

Climbing El Capitan without any ropes

OCP: Could you free solo [the legendary sheer face of] El Capitan right now if you had to?

AH: If I had a gun to my head, I probably would be fine. I'd probably make it. I'd give myself a 95 percent chance, maybe. I'm probably just as fit as I was there – or close anyway. I think with a couple of months of training I can get right back in the same spot. The first time it took me two years of effort to feel comfortable and ready. I could probably get back to that same spot in a month or two.

OCP: You say, ‘Climbing El Cap isn't risky. It's high consequence.’ Could you explain a little bit about what you mean there?

AH: The risk is the likelihood of something bad happening. The consequences are what will actually happen. The (worst) consequence is always going to be death. If you fall off the wall you're going to die. But the likelihood of falling off the wall can't really be determined just by looking at it. It depends on how easy the climbing is, it depends on how skilled the climber is... There are a lot of factors that go into how likely you are to fall off. When people see a photo of El Cap, they're like, ‘That's risky’. That's not the right way to look at it. It's extremely high consequence. But the risk depends on the preparation and the training and everything that goes into it.

"It should be scary but isn't because of all your work you’ve done to get there." - Honnold to Olympic Channel on climbing without ropes.

OCP: How do you manage to eliminate risk from your head so that you don’t have any doubt? So that you can just concentrate on the process itself of getting up?

AH: That's kind of the joy of free soloing. To take something that is high consequence, seems really scary, and seems really risky, and basically mitigate the risk.

Free soloing is really all about risk mitigation. A really a big part of the pleasure is being up on the wall in a position that should be totally insane. It should be scary but isn't because of all your work you’ve done to get there. You can be in this position and feel totally comfortable. It seems slightly cliché but it’s like making the impossible possible.

Alex Honnold (middle) celebrates winning Academy Award

Becoming a celebrity after the Oscar win

OCP: You were pretty famous in the climbing world before the film but winning an Academy Award (Oscar) takes your status to the next level. Have you noticed people writing their own storylines to your life in a way that never happened before?

AH: Everybody comes out of ‘Free Solo’ with their own interpretation and their own ideas about motivations. Everybody has their opinion about my relationship with my girlfriend. I say plenty of insensitive things in the film and I come off as not the best boyfriend at times. Some people watch that and they're like, ‘Oh that guy's a bad boyfriend’. But we’ve been together for three-and-a-half years. And it’s a great relationship. You can't watch a 90-minute film and really understand someone’s life.

OCP: Is there anything that makes you or has made you super nervous?

AH: My TED Talk was actually the most nervous I've ever been while giving a talk. I was completely horrified. It's really, really stressful to perform. As you know, it’s basically a 10-minute speech where you're performing in front of a live audience of about 3,000 people. But you're not really talking to the audience, you're talking to the camera because it's all being recorded to go online. So, you can't really joke with the audience the way you normally would. You can't just you can't say. ‘I'm nervous’ and have a laugh. You just have to perform for the camera. I find it so stressful. I've never memorised something that long.

Alex Honnold (right) with girlfriend Sanni McCandless (left)

What next for Alex Honnold after the movie Free Solo?

OCP: There’s a temptation to ask you about your future plans but, if I was to make a prediction, you are probably just going to do the same things as before.

AH: That is exactly true. It's funny because a lot of people have asked me that but you just nailed it. In the year of post-production before the film came out, I just carried on doing what I normally do which is go on expeditions

Last summer actually, a friend and I were trying to break the two hour mark on climbing the nose on El Cap. So, two hours is the speed record on El Cap. And people had sort of equated it to the two-hour marathon though, as it turns out, it's much, much easier than the two-hour marathon because we were able to do it in one hour and 58. And there's tonnes more room for improvement.

OCP: That's your new film that's going to come out with Tommy Caldwell?

AH: Actually, I'm going to see the first cut of it tomorrow. I'm kind of excited because I honestly don't even totally remember which days they were filming or what exactly we did. I have no idea it's in the film and so I'm kind of looking forward to seeing it.

Alex Honnold is the guest on this week's Olympic Channel Podcast.

Each week we find the inspirational people to talk about the Olympics.

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The interview and questions have been edited and condensed for ease of reading.