Honnold and Stanhope Interview: Southern Belle (5.12d R)

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Will Stanhope and Alex Honnold in

11/5/10 – Alex Honnold and Will Stanhope completed the third free ascent of Half Dome’s notoriously runout Southern Belle (5.12d R) this week. After working out the first five pitches a few days beforehand, the pair began hiking to the south face at 5 a.m. on November 1 and topped out at sunset.

The 14-pitch route was free-climbed in 1988 by Dave Shultz and Scott Cosgrove, and didn’t see a repeat until Dean Potter’s and Leo Houlding’s ascent in 2006. During an attempt in 1994 with Alan Lester, Hank Caylor broke both ankles after an 80-foot fall.

Climbing caught up with Honnold and Stanhope about their send.

Why Southern Belle? Alex: Will wanted to do it. I wasn’t mega-fired up about it because it has such a scary reputation, but I just took advantage of his motivation. It’s a really proud face that I’ve never climbed on, so that was an appeal.Will: I’ve wanted to climb this route for some years now. It is a beautiful, seldom-seen face, and there are so many stories surrounding it. In many ways, I wanted to see if the rumors were true.

What were the scariest pitches?Alex: I was most scared leading the sixth pitch. The topo shows a 5.11b pendulum-traverse-type-thing, and it turned out being kind of extreme. Basically, the whole route was exciting to lead, and mellow to toprope. It was really nice being up there with Will and relaxing every other pitch.Will: Pitch 6, Alex’s lead. Really hard, runout 5.11 climbing off some wacky, old pin backed up with a small, wobbly cam.

Courtesy of Stanhope's Facebook page: "Attempt #1 on the gorgeous Southern Belle with Honn-bold. Pitch 5. Micro-wires forever."
Courtesy of Stanhope

Any other scary moments?Alex: The route-finding was the scariest. It was always hard to tell if you were actually on route or not because the bolts were so far apart. The only times I started getting spooked were when I thought I was off-route.Will: Attempting pitch 5 for the first time. This pitch is a micro seam protected by some real small gear. It goes on forever. Being a granite guy, I’m not used to placing a ton of micro wires. Leo Houlding told me to bring a double set of micros. Thanks for the beta, mate!

Why is this route so rarely attempted?Will: It’s terrifying.Alex: Maybe because it’s a little dangerous. Though, honestly, it should get done more. It’s not that dangerous, and it’s super high quality. I bet now that Will and I have good gear/route-finding beta, some of our friends might do the route.

Did climbing the first five pitches beforehand give you an advantage, or make it even scarier?Alex: Various things caused us to climb slowly, and the crux pitch took a lot of work to figure out. It’s quite a hard boulder problem.Will: Climbing the first five pitches was critical. With limited daylight, it meant we could blast them pretty quick on the actualy send.

Any falls in the runouts?Will: The crux [fourth] pitch was thin crimping, and it took Alex and me a few hours to figure out. On the actual send, Alex cruised it. I took a few falls on toprope, then sent it from a mini-ledge, no hands stance about 15 feet above the last anchor. Alex: No other falls for either of us during the day. Thank God…

I heard you ran out of water on top…Alex: We brought 2+ liters, which seemed reasonable at the time. But the face cooks in the sun all day, and we got super burned and dehydrated. And the fresh rain puddles on top just looked awfully tempting.

Date of ascent: November 1, 2010

Sources: Alex Honnold, Will Stanhope,