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Alex Honnold’s Huge Red Rock Solo Link-Up: “Way Harder Day Than El Cap”

"In terms of mental effort and physical effort, this is a way harder day than El Cap. That’s harder climbing, but I think overall with this link-up, it’s more vertical feet of climbing, probably more sustained climbing, and way more mileage."

Toward the end of episode one of his new podcast “Climbing Gold,” Alex Honnold says, “People ask me all the time, ‘What’s next?’ talking about free soloing El Cap. People ask me that question expecting that there’s some other El Cap out there, ya know, that I have some other big dream lined up. … And I personally just can’t really see past that that much.” But just because there may not be a way to top his solo of the Freerider on El Capitan, doesn’t mean Honnold isn’t always dreaming up new and fantastic challenges to push himself and his free soloing, to refine his craft ever more. 

Earlier this week he completed a historic free-solo link-up of three long routes in Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas. Asked how it compared to soloing El Cap, Honnold said, “That’s the interesting thing about it. It’s pretty hard. Nothing I ever do is going to compare to the Freerider and there’s never going to be a movie and no one will care that much. But in terms of mental effort and physical effort, this is a way harder day than El Cap. That’s harder climbing, but I think overall with this link-up, it’s more vertical feet of climbing, probably more sustained climbing, and way more mileage. There are like 10 to 12 pitches of 5.11 or 5.12 or something like that.”

The Red Rocks trifecta Honnold soloed took him on a tour of three of the area’s proudest walls. He started on Cloud Tower, a 6-pitch 5.12- on a wall of the same name, then ticked the Original Route, a 14-pitch 5.12- on the Rainbow Wall, and then scrambled up Levitation 29, a 9-pitch 5.11+ on Eagle Wall. He finished his 11-hour day with an attempt on Dogma, a 15-pitch 5.11+, but bailed halfway up when he wasn’t feeling it. Each of the routes is a slice of Red Rock history, Levitation in particular: Lynn Hill once called it her favorite 5.11 (she, John Long, and Joanne Urioste did the first free ascent in May 1981, not long after the first ascent by Joanne and Jorge Urioste).

“They’re three of the most classic long routes in Red Rock. The most historic and popular,” Honnold said. “I’ve done all the routes, and I’ve been sort of thinking about this on and off all season. I’ve been working on a bigger solo traverse, but on easier terrain, traversing the whole range via easier routes. That’s more of an obstacle course. I’ve been chipping away at it. And I was just working on this harder version at the same time.”

Honnold didn’t devise this link-up himself. For years the classic hardman link-up had been Cloud Tower and the Original Route, but no one had added on Levitation until Dave Allfrey and Luke Hollow in March 2012. They climbed the three routes in 12.5 hours from the base of the first route to the summit of the last—with a rope, of course. Honnold himself did it a couple of years ago with the late Brad Gobright (again, roped together). “It was the first time I had been on a long route after I did the ‘Free Solo’ film tour,” Honnold said. “I got completely spanked. Like, so pumped.”

Before he linked the three routes with Gobright though, Honnold had history with them. The Original Route, on Rainbow Wall, had particular resonance. “There’s a move on one of the upper pitches that, when I soloed it for the first time in 2010, was a fairly traumatic experience,” Honnold said. But he felt dialed in and confident heading into this week’s link-up attempt.

When he left his car right around sunrise at 6:00 am on the morning of Monday, April 12, there was no one around. When he got to Cloud Tower, he was still all alone—just as he had hoped for. He started up the wall carrying only a couple of liters of water and snacks. Though easier on paper than some of the other pitches he would climb later in the day on the Rainbow Wall, Honnold said Cloud Tower was no gimme.

“I think the hardest pitch [of the whole link up] is the crux of Cloud Tower,” he said. “It’s funny because it’s rated 11d, but I think it’s harder than the Original Route cruxes.” On this first route he wore a harness with two slings and a daisy chain. Though most people who climb Cloud Tower rappel from the top of the 5.11+ sixth pitch, there is a 5.12d extension that takes one to the top of the formation. “I daisy soloed it because it’s pretty sketchy,” Honnold explained. 

(Interestingly, Honnold said of the 5.12d extension: “I heard those bolts are really close together exactly so you can French Free it, and that the whole reason and intention behind putting them in was so you could traverse over to Rainbow Wall instead of having to rappel [Cloud Tower]. It’s pretty natural to do it that way.”)

Next up was the Original Route. After stashing his harness at the base (“I still need to go back and get it, actually,” he said), Honnold once again started up the rust-colored walls. When he came to the move that had shaken him in 2010, he sailed through it. “This time I had much better beta, and had done it many times on a rope,” he said. 

I wondered during our interview: Would Honnold be able to downclimb a section such as that, or any of the harder pitches of the link-up, if he found himself in a pickle?

“I think realistically most of them I could probably downclimb if I had to,” he said. “But they all would be much better to go up than down. That particular move would be very hard to reverse, so those upper corners [on the Original Route] are pretty committing.”

After topping out the Original Route, he scrambled up to the close-by summit of Rainbow Wall and signed the summit register. “Since I was totally alone out there I figured I had to document it somehow.”

Surprisingly, even though the hardest pitch came on Cloud Tower and the hardest move came on the Original Route, the crux of the day for Honnold was the easiest route, Levitation 29, which he soloed in full sun, around noon. He refueled with some water and snacks that his cousin-in-law had stashed for him at the base, and then proceeded to literally bake on the wall.

“The rock was physically hot to the touch and my feet were killing me,” he said. “I was describing it to Sanni [McCandless], and I said it felt like being a bull that had been stabbed by a matador and was in a blinding rage. There aren’t really any stances or ledges to pop your shoes off, so you just have to just keep going. My feet hurt so much.” 

After topping out his third big route of the day, the sun still beating down, Honnold was having serious second thoughts about his original plan of tacking on Dogma, a 15-pitch 5.11+ on Horseshoe Wall.

He summed up his decision-making and thought process in this final part of the day as follows: “Levitation was decidedly unpleasant. It wasn’t a heroic rock climbing experience, it was just heinous getting to the top of that one. On the hike out I thought I should call it, but then decided to go to the base of Dogma and see how I felt being in the shade for a bit, since I was already out there. I got up to Dogma and did the first three or four pitches in my Tennies [approach shoes], but my skin was so soft and wet, and I’d already climbed 4,000 feet or whatever. When I got to the first 5.11 pitch and had to put my climbing shoes back on, my feet hurt even to stand on, my fingertips were wet, and I was just like, ‘This is not how you want to go soloing!’”

Content with his already enormous and historic day of Red Rock free soloing, he down-soloed the beginning of the route and began the hike back to the car.

Despite moving fast and his aching feet, Honnold had some slower transcendent moments throughout the day. On Cloud tower, a curious peregrine falcon kept swooping by him, surprisingly close. “I’ve had that happen on other routes, but for a minute I thought I might be in danger. It was sort of a reminder that when you have a partner and a rack and you’re jangling and loud, you scare off the wildlife. But when you’re by yourself and silent and questing up a wall, the animals are much more curious. It’s much more immersive of an experience. You’re just kind of part of the landscape.”

Though Honnold made clear that this kind of adventure wasn’t necessarily the dominant direction he saw himself taking his climbing in the future, he reflected, with a bit of wistfulness, on how adventurous link ups like this—or like the CUDL Traverse he and Tommy Caldwell completed last year in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado—aren’t necessarily that common anymore. 

“Because of ‘Climbing Gold’ we’ve been chatting with so many folks, lots of interviews—I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how climbing has changed over the last 25 years,” Honnold said. “When I grew up this sort of soloing adventure thing was much more normal and common. And that’s not really the case anymore. And for better or worse, climbing has moved in a different direction. I’m psyched for the Olympics, excited about the new levels and standards. But sometimes I’m like, ‘I kind of miss this other side of climbing.’ And all my friends who used to do this stuff are either dead or moved on, and there aren’t that many people doing it anymore.”

But then again, one needn’t free solo massive walls to have an adventure. Asked what the best long moderates in Red Rock are, Honnold said the 2,000-foot Epinephrine (5.9)—“it packs the whole Red Rock experience into one tremendous old-school outing”; Dark Shadows— “a classic 5.8, great climbing and incredible rock”; and the slightly less popular Aquarium— “a 1,000-foot 5.9 that feels like 5.7, nice black varnished rock.” 

“I’ve been doing routes like the Aquarium to figure out how to get between things as I’ve been working on my big easy traverse,” he said. “It’s cool: there’s a lot of hidden gems like that out there.”