Honnold Makes a High-Stakes Solo in Zion

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Zion's proud Moonlight Buttress, follows splitter cracks and corners up the prominent buttress. CLICK HERE FOR BETAPhoto courtesy of Mountain Project by Tyson S. Arp

Honnold Makes a High-Stakes Solo in Zion

Some thought it was an April Fools joke. Who would, or could, free solo Zion’s Moonlight Buttress (V 5.12d; 1,200 feet)? No joke, it turns out, and the climber was Alex Honnold, 22, of Sacramento, California, who recently turned heads with a spate of free solos in Yosemite Valley, as well as a cutting-edge onsight of Noah Bigwood’s trad testpiece Bushido (5.13c), in King Creek, Utah. He didn’t make the solo on April 1 on purpose, Honnold said: “It’s not like I plan my climbing around the date. It’s not like I even know the date most of the time,” he jokes. Honnold currently lives out of his van and meters time by days on rock and days of rest.

Honnold is a self-proclaimed finger-crack addict, and Zion fit the bill perfectly. “For me, the entire [Moonlight] is pure fingers… awesome, glorious fingers,” he said. Honnold also repeatedly described the entire climb as “locker.” “In a lot of ways it was less heady than stuff in the Valley,” Honnold said, “’cause it’s straight finger crack — it’s more secure. There is some face climbing, but it feels crisp — it feels secure.” (The “stuff” he climbed in the Valley included free soloing the V 5.11c climbs Astroman and the Rostrum in a day.) Such a long, difficult solo, especially on soft desert sandstone, is for most out of the realm of possibility or reason, but Alex, say those who’ve climbed with him, is a rare breed of climber: modest but supremely confident.

The view into Oak Creek Canyon and Zion's vast backcountry.Photo by James Q. Martin

Honnold Makes a High-Stakes Solo in Zion

“He’s so low key. Nothing is a big deal for him,” says Chris Weidner, Honnold’s partner on a recent back-to-back one-day link-up of Moonlight and Spaceshot (V 5.13a)all free. “I’ve climbed with good people and good climbers, and with Alex, he’s just simply better. He’s the next Tommy [Caldwell], for sure. You can’t apply the same principles of safety to Alex.”

“It’s out there for sure,” said Justen Sjong of Honnold’s solo. Sjong made the third free ascent of Moonlight in 1998 and calls the route “pretty secure for a long, solid 5.12,” adding, “That hold off of the rocking block does flex. And if [Alex] did do it two days after a storm, that rock does get gritty — that’s what I would think is really hairball.” Honnold did do it after a storm, which is in fact the only reason he took as much rest after working the route as he did. He climbed Moonlight four times over the course of two days in order to work out any tricky segments, using a static line and a Mini Traxion. On the third day it rained, and he gave the route another day to dry before setting out for the solo. Honnold had flashed Moonlight on a previous trip to Zion, in Spring 2006, climbing with Bill Ramsey. According to Honnold, with the flash and the four pre-solo test runs, he never once weighted the rope while climbing Moonlight Buttress.

Alex Honnold, Rookie of the Year, picks up his Golden Piton from Matt Samet. Climbing Magazine and Marmot co-sponsored the event at the Outdoor Industry Trade Show on January 24, at the Marmot Boot in the Salt Palace, Salt Lake City. Photo by Andy Mann.

Honnold Makes a High-Stakes Solo in Zion

Though Honnold admits that the so-called “Rocker Blocker” move — which entails a long reach off a large, mobile block to sidepulls, followed by a dynamic move to a good hold and then a mantel — was the “gnarliest part of the climb,” he maintains it was easier for him than for many because of his height (nearly 6 feet, with a plus ape index). And did he have any moments of doubt on the 1,200 feet of desert sandstone finger crack and face climbing? “No. No way,” Honnold said. “When I’m actually soloing, I’m completely shut down.”

Also on his trip to Zion, Honnold, along with Weidner, 33, of Boulder, fired Moonlight and Spaceshot back-to-back, nabbing both in a combined time of 12.5 hours. Both climbers freed all the pitches, though Honnold led the harder half on Spaceshot and all the pitches of Moonlight, since he knew the climb so intimately. Of Honnold’s performance on the climbs, Weidner said, “It was pretty easy for him — but I didn’t see most of it, ‘cause for the first half we were simul-climbing and for the second half it was dark.” But though he didn’t see Honnold motoring, Weidner could feel the speed. “Honestly, it was challenging to feed rope fast enough for him,” says Weidner. “He was only placing six or eight pieces per pitch.” Shortly after their back-to-back ascents, Honnold hit the road for Sacramento, but the pair plan to return to Zion in the fall to attempt a free ascent of the quad: Moonlight, Spaceshot, Touchstone (V 5.13b), and Monkeyfinger (IV 5.12a/b), all in a day.

Dates of Ascent: April 1 (Moonlight Buttress)

Sources: Alex Honnold, Justen Sjong, Chris Weidner

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