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Alex Honnold Makes the Second Ascent of Synthetic Happiness (5.13c, 9 pitches) in Red Rock

He said the sustained route is a candidate for one of the hardest in the country.

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On December 1, Alex Honnold made the second ascent of Synthetic Happiness (5.13c, nine pitches) on Red Rock’s Rainbow Wall, leading the entire route while Priti Wright jumared. The route is incredibly stacked, with six pitches of 5.13 and two of hard 5.12, and parallels the Original Route’s infamous dihedral for eight pitches. It traces a technical sandstone slab before crossing over the Original Route, gunning for a steep single pitch variation, and then finishes on the Original Route’s difficult corners of 5.12-. 

“It’s surprising that it even goes. It looks impossible,” Honnold said of the route, which tackles a blank swath of thin cracks, faces, and corners. Given its sustained nature, with many pitches featuring several consecutive boulder problems, Honnold said he believes it’s one of the harder multi pitches in the country. 

(Photo: James Lucas)

The crux third pitch held a series of devious boulder problems, with edges as small as six millimeters, like those found in tendon-popping indoor problems. “It’s funny because I’ve always thought that those six millimeter edges in the gym are kind of a joke, like who uses those? When will you ever hold an edge that small outdoors?” said Honnold. “Then trying this boulder I was like, sure enough here are those six millimeter edges! This is what you train for.”

While the small edges comprised Synthetic Happiness’ hardest moves, the full redpoint involved much more than crimp strength. “The crux pitch is the hardest climbing on the route but the 13b pitch below it is just as difficult to do because it’s so slippery and technical,” Honnold said. “And there’s a 13b up higher that’s hard to redpoint because it’s a long endurance pitch with some tricky gear. It’s a very complicated pitch. Even though the crux is the hardest pitch, it’s not the hardest part of doing the route.” 

Honnold sent the route after four days of minitractioning the climb, dialing in the technical sequences, and sorting out the thin traditional gear placements. On his send day, he fell twice on the second pitch, a 40-foot right-leaning offset seam, before pulling the rope and firing the rest of the route with no falls. 

(Photo: James Lucas)

A few weeks prior Honnold and Tommy Caldwell team freed What Dreams May Come (5.13+) on the left side of the Rainbow Wall. Though technically more difficult than Synthetic Happiness, WDMC is far less sustained. “WDMC comes down to an extended boulder problem and then one other 5.13 corner up higher. There’s so many more opportunities to fail on Synthetic Happiness,” said Honnold. The largest difference, he said, was the vastly different style of ascents. 

“Climbing with Tommy, we were trying to team free so there’s always a bit of pressure for you both to send,”Honnold said. If one person sends and the other continues to fail, the team dynamic changes. Do you carry on to let your partner succeed while you pivot to support mode? Or do you both come back another day? “Thankfully we were both able to send it at roughly the same time so we were able to climb the route together.”

“Climbing Synthetic Happiness with Priti was simpler because she just supported [me] so I could focus on trying my hardest. I didn’t have to tag the bag. I didn’t have to do any belaying. I didn’t have to do any extra work. She just did everything for me,” he said.

(Photo: James Lucas)

Despite the labor intensive role, Wright said she enjoyed the experience. “I’m super honored to have belayed and jugged the hard pitches and simul’d some of the easier pitches (with a micro, and some frenching),” she wrote on Instagram. “I learned so much, and had way too much fun.”

Honnold said there are clear pros and cons to both styles of big wall ascents, “I think some people value leading every pitch and placing all the gear and sending the route ground up by yourself with no falls,” he said, “but to do that sort of requires support. I think team free is a cooler style because it’s more like normal rock climbing. You and your friend walk up to the base of the wall [and] you climb the route together. You swing leads on every pitch. You haul the bag when you have to. You have to carry everything. It’s definitely more laborious [for the climbers] to team free.” 

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