The Carnegie Institute for Science headquarters in Northwest Washington was about to close its doors, but professional rock climber Alex Honnold still had several autographs to sign. After posing for photos for over an hour Monday night and writing messages like “Climb on!” on copies of his recent memoir, Honnold began to crave some sweets.
“All right, let’s go to Whole Foods,” he said as he stepped outside the center. “I need to get some cookies.”
Honnold was in the District for the first stop of his five-city speaking tour about his expedition to Angola. The trip last fall to the southwest African country was part-climbing adventure and part-humanitarian trip for the Honnold Foundation, which was founded in 2012.
Famous for free-soloing — that is, climbing without a rope or gear — some of the biggest rock faces in the country, the 30-year-old is at a point in his career where his trips expand beyond the record-breaking, heart-stopping climbs that have captured attention worldwide.
In Angola, Honnold and a team that included adventurer Stacy Bare, helped install 100 solar energy systems to replace the kerosene lamps the local villagers typically use. Honnold estimates that the solar panels will help provide safe energy for up to five years.
“My criteria has sort of been supporting environmental projects that improve standard of living or, like, help lift people out of poverty and that has just kind of turned into supporting solar projects,” he said of his foundation. “You’re reducing kerosene use, but you’re also just lifting people out of poverty in a very clear [way]. They can help themselves. It’s very straight forward. That’s kind of the direction we’ve gone, but I’m kind of open to any direction that does the most good.”
Before he became the most accomplished free-solo climber in the world, Honnold was climbing at his local indoor gym in Sacramento. He could often be found climbing everything he could — trees, furniture, anything — but began taking the sport more seriously around age 10.
Honnold looked up to climbers like John Bachar and Peter Croft — both known for their free-soloing — and contemporaries like Chris Sharma and Tommy Caldwell, child prodigies of climbing who inspired Honnold.
It was something Honnold wanted to do, without realizing that he could make a career out of it.
“When I started climbing … the whole climbing market and everything just wasn’t that big,” he said between bites of a chocolate chip cookie. “There weren’t really professional climbers in the same capacity. I just always wanted to be a good climber. I was just like, I want to do these certain things. I wanted to be the man. It sort of has turned into being a professional. The whole sport has evolved so much in the time that I’ve been climbing that it’s just a different world now then it was.”
Since 2013, the growth rate for indoor climbing has hovered in the low double digits each year, according to the Climbing Business Journal data from 2015. More and more gyms pop up and sport climbing is one of the eight sports shortlisted for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Honnold, who mostly climbs outdoors but still occasionally visits climbing gyms, is indifferent about the growth of climbing gyms.
“I don’t really have strong opinions on it,” he said. “Because climbing outdoors and the whole gym scene is such a different world. … If that’s just how it goes, then great. Same with climbing in the Olympics, I don’t really have an opinion on it. It doesn’t really affect what I’m doing. It’s interesting to see and I’m glad people are enjoying it. It’s just a different world.”
Climbing remains a niche sport, as evidenced by the questions Honnold gets asked by people who he says doesn’t quite understand the sport. Free soloing may be a suicide mission for many, but to Honnold, it’s something he has practiced since he was a child.
“I think the people often don’t see it in the full context,” he said. “People look at what I’m doing and they’re like, ‘That seems crazy.’ And they don’t look at it in the context of ‘I’ve been climbing for 20 years.’ I’m like deeply in this entire culture. Everything I do revolves around this. … There’s all this knowledge around it. And there’s this enormous base of comfort around it. I have so much experience of climbing on different types of rocks. It’s not like I just walk up to cliff and just go, like, ‘Let’s see what happens. I hope I survive.’ It’s more like I’m living deeply in this world, and occasionally pushing myself in certain ways.”
As Honnold reached for the last of his four chocolate chip cookies, a fan timidly approached him and asked for a photo. It was nearly an hour after his official autograph session had finished, but Honnold gladly accepted the fan’s request.
He knows that with the fame and recognition, he has the platform to take climbing to another level that can impact communities beyond his own. Honnold says he will travel to China this month for an event with a team from The North Face, one of his sponsors, before going to Ethiopia with his foundation later this year.
“There are many more climbing feats I want to accomplish, like specifics routes and certain places,” he said. “There are a lot of travel things, like climbing destinations that I’d like to visit. I’d love for the [Honnold Foundation] to keep growing and doing something useful for it, have some sort of impact on the world. We’ll kind of see. Climbing has a lot more longevity than most sports. … Hopefully that will give me an opportunity to do a lot of these things.”