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Alex Honnold, Free Soloist, Star of Academy-Award-Winning Documentary Free Solo

The fearless American free soloist brought climbing into the limelight, and upped the risk ante so high it may never be surpassed.

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This article is part of Climbing’s ongoing Who’s Who biographical study of climbing’s all-time greats, achievers, and, in the case of Aleister Crowley, most notorious. 

Alex Honnold (August 17, 1985) is an American climber known primarily for his big wall free solo ascents, largely in Yosemite National Park, California.

Honnold achieved widespread fame after starring in the 2018 documentary Free Solo, which followed his successful attempt to free solo El Capitan via the climbing route Freerider (VI 5.13a 3,300 feet). The film received near-universal critical acclaim and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Free Solo also received the award for “Best Documentary” at the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA), in addition to numerous other accolades.

Early Life

Honnold was born to Charles Honnold and Dierdre Wolownick in Sacramento, California, and was climbing in gyms by the age of five. By the time he was 10 years old, Honnold was climbing almost daily and participating in local and national climbing competitions. He graduated from Mira Loma High School in 2003, enrolling in classes at the University of California Berkeley, with plans to major in civil engineering.

Honnold soon dropped out of college, however, spending his time climbing and living out of a minivan, and later, a tent, as he traveled to various crags around California. By 2007, he was basing himself out of a Ford Econoline to focus on climbing full-time.

The same year, Honnold made a rare one-day free ascent of Freerider and free climbed the Salathe Wall (VI 5.13b 3,500 feet), in Yosemite National Park. He also managed a spectacular free solo of both Washington Column’s Astroman (IV 5.11c 1,000 feet) and The Rostrum North Face (IV 5.11c 700 feet) on the Rostrum, two of the most iconic Yosemite big wall routes, in a single day (though he used a 5.10 variation on the Rostrum to avoid a party on the 5.11 pitch).

Alex Honnold free climbs in Red Rock, Nevada.
Alex Honnold on Synthetic Happiness (5.13c), Red Rock, Nevada. (Photo: James Lucas)

Rise to Climbing Fame

While Honnold’s early free solos like Astroman and the Rostrum were held in high regard by many in the climbing world, both routes had been free soloed before, notably by famed soloist Peter Croft, who also managed a single-day free solo linkup in 1987.

In 2008, however, Honnold began to break ground himself, first by free soloing Zion’s Moonlight Buttress (V 5.12c, 1,200 feet), initially aided by Jeff Lowe in 1971, and later the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome (VI 5.12a, 2,200 feet), in Yosemite.

Peter Croft called the latter feat, “the most impressive ropeless ascent ever done,” at the time. Honnold’s free solo of Half Dome was featured in the documentary, Alone on the Wall (2009), which also saw Honnold appear on CBS News’ 60 Minutes, and later became the name of a memoir he penned with David Roberts, in 2017. Honnold currently holds the speed record for the Half Dome route, (1:22:00), which he set in 2012.

In more recent years, Honnold has had great success setting a variety of speed records in Yosemite. Notably, he and Hans Florine set a new speed record for the ultra-classic El Capitan route the Nose (2:23:46) on June 17, 2012, beating Dean Potter and Sean O’Leary’s previous record of 2:36:45. In June of 2018, he and Tommy Caldwell broke and set several subsequent speed records on the route, eventually landing with a sub-two-hour time, 1:58:07.

In addition to big wall speed and free solo ascents, Honnold has bouldered up to V12 (The Mandala, Bishop, CA) and led up to 5.14d (Arrested Development, Mount Charleston, NV).

Free Solo

While Honnold became somewhat known outside the climbing world following his Half Dome free solo and subsequent appearance on 60 Minutes, his fame exploded after he starred in Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s Free Solo.

The 2018 documentary centers on his attempts to free solo El Capitan via Freerider, a goal he achieved on June 3, 2017, with a time of three hours and 56 minutes. The film follows Honnold for several years of his life, covering his childhood, relationship with girlfriend and now wife Sanni McCandless, his planning and training for the El Cap free solo, and two injuries that hamper his climbing.

The film received acclaim from audiences and critics both inside and outside of the climbing world. It won an Oscar for “Best Documentary Feature” at the 91st Academy Awards, “Best Documentary” at the British Academy Film Awards, and “People’s Choice Documentary” at the Toronto International Film Festival, in addition to numerous other accolades.

To date, Free Solo is considered among the best climbing films of all time. It holds a 97% “Fresh” score on film review site Rotten Tomatoes, which states that the film “depicts athletic feats that many viewers will find beyond reason – and grounds the attempts in passions that are all but universal.”

Alex Honnold solos cosmic debris in yosemite 5.13b
Alex Honnold free soloing Cosmic Debris (5.13b), Yosemite Valley. (Mikey Schaefer)

Activism and Personal Life

Honnold is a longtime vegetarian and avid atheist, and practices straight-edge ethics, refraining from alcohol and drugs.

Honnold founded a nonprofit organization, the Honnold Foundation, in 2012, and purportedly donates ⅓ of his annual income to the nonprofit. The Honnold Foundation maintains that solar energy is an “environmentally sound solution to global energy poverty,” and supports solar projects in developing communities around the world.

Honnold married his longtime girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, in September 2020. The couple has a home in Las Vegas, Nevada. They welcomed their first child, a daughter named June, on February 17, 2022.

“I’m totally prepared for [June’s birth] to reign in my risk-taking a little bit,” Honnold said in a November 2021 interview with Climbing, “though I could see it having no impact as well. I already try to manage and mitigate risk as much as possible—I certainly don’t think of myself as a big risk-taker. So it’s possible that not much will change. But I’m open to the possibility that I’ll just want to stay at home and play with my kid as well.”

“Generally, when I’m soloing a lot I’m spending tons of time outdoors on rock, which might be harder if I’m taking care of a kid,” he added. “But I’m open to anything, we’ll just see. Seems like the kid will be the priority…”

Dierdre Wolownick with her son Alex Honnold on Matthes Crest.
Dierdre Wolownick with her son Alex Honnold on Matthes Crest. (Amy Mountjoy)

Climbing Accomplishments

  • Freerider (VI 5.13a 3,300 feet), Yosemite National Park, California.
    • Free ascent with Brian Kimball in one day (2007).
  • Astroman (IV 5.11c 1,000 feet) and The North Face (IV 5.11c 700 feet) on the Rostrum, Yosemite National Park, California.
    • Second one-day free solo linkup of the two routes in history (2007), after Peter Croft in 1987.
  • Salathe Wall (VI 5.13b, 3,500 feet), Yosemite National Park, California.
    • Rare free ascent (2007).
  • Moonlight Buttress (V 5.12c 1,200 feet), Zion National Park, Utah.
    • First free solo (2008)
  • The Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome (VI 5.12a 2,200 feet), Yosemite, California.
    • First free solo (2008).
  • Ambrosia (V11), Bishop, California.
    • Second ascent (2010).
  • The Mandala (V12), Bishop, California
    • Semi-rare ascent (2011).
  • The Phoenix (5.13a), Yosemite National Park, California
    • Free solo of the first 5.13a in the United States (2011).
  • The Nose (VI 5.8 A2 3,000 ft), Yosemite National Park, California.
    • (Former) speed record of 2:23:46 with Hans Florine (2012).
  • The Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome (VI 5.12a 2,200 feet), Yosemite National Park, California.
    • Speed solo in 1:22 (2012).
  • “Yosemite Triple Crown” (Mt. Watkins, El Capitan, and Half Dome), Yosemite National Park, California.
    • Solo in 18:50 (2012).
  • Too Big to Flail (V10/5.13d), Bishop, California.
    • First ascent (2012).
  • El Sendero Luminoso (V 5.12d 1,750 feet), El Potrero Chico, Mexico.
    • First free solo ascent (2014).
  • University Wall (IV 5.12a C2, 900 feet), Squamish, British Columbia, Canada.
    • First free solo (2014).
  • The Fitz Roy Traverse (5.11d C1 65 degrees, 16,500 feet), Fitz Roy Massif, Patagonia
    • First completion with Tommy Caldwell (2014).
  • Torre Traverse (Cerro Standhardt, Punta Herron, Torre Egger, and Cerro Torre), Patagonia
    • Second completion with Colin Haley (2016).
  • Freerider (VI 5.13a 3,300 feet), Yosemite National Park, California.
    • First free solo (2017).
  • The Nose (VI 5.8 A2 3,000 ft), Yosemite National Park, California.
    • Speed record of 1:58:07 with Tommy Caldwell (2018).
  • El Niño (VI 5.13c 3,000 feet), Yosemite National Park, California.
  • Passage to Freedom (VI 5.13d 3,000 feet), Yosemite National Park, California.
    • First free ascent with Tommy Caldwell (2019).
  • Arrested Development (5.14d) Mount Charleston, Nevada.
    • Second ascent (2019)

Interview with Alex Honnold, on whether he’ll quit or minimize free soloing

By Michael Levy

Alex Honnold and Sanni McCandless are having a kid—a daughter, in fact! For the climbing world, this is the equivalent of a royal birth. I half expect the guys over at Reel Rock are already working on a father-daughter concept for a film in 2030.

But as joyous as it is, I also found myself wondering if this major life event might give Honnold pause in how he approaches his climbing projects in coming years. Plenty of top alpinists and climbers have dialed back—or at least done some serious soul-searching about—their most extreme behavior when they become parents. Will Honnold put it in cruise control once the little one arrives? I’m not suggesting he’d be top-roping 5.10 for the rest of his days. But might he hang up the soloing shoes?

The hypotheticals related to Papa Honnold only get more complex from there. When star athletes become parents, it’s not surprising when their kids follow in their footsteps. But while following a mother into the WNBA or a dad into the MLB is one thing, Alex Honnold’s daughter becoming a free soloist would be something else entirely. For obvious reasons.

Alex Honnold and Sanni McCandless as they face the inevitable: parenthood. (Photo: Renan Ozturk)

So what if Honnold’s daughter did take a keen interest in free soloing? How would he feel about that? Would he support her? Be steadfastly opposed?

These are the types of questions we posed to Honnold in a recent interview. As he always does, he gave clear-eyed thoughtful answers.

Even as he entertained my what-ifs, Honnold said there’s only one thing he and McCandless are concerned with right now: “First we need her to arrive healthy and whole.”

Check out the full interview!

Levy: Tell me the emotions—how excited are you and Sanni to become parents?

Honnold: I’ve always wanted a family long term so I’m excited to be starting the journey, but so far I’m not actually feeling a ton. It’s slightly surreal since I’m not the one actually carrying the baby. And I think that for Sanni so far it’s more about managing the physical challenge of pregnancy than revelling in the excitement. We’re both excited long term, it’s just not quite thrilling yet…

Levy: Did you always figure you’d have kids one day?

Honnold: Yeah, I always hoped to. I’ve always had a good relationship with my family and grandparents and I’ve always assumed I would carry that on into the future. We’ll see how it goes!

Levy: How, if at all, might becoming a father change your calculus related to risk?

Read More About How Pro Climbers Deal With Parenthood.

Honnold: I’m totally prepared for it to reign in my risk taking a little bit, though I could see it having no impact as well. I already try to manage and mitigate risk as much as possible—I certainly don’t think of myself as a big risk taker. So it’s possible that not much will change. But I’m open to the possibility that I’ll just want to stay at home and play with my kid as well.

Levy: Related to that: Do you think you’ll continue to push your free soloing? Or will you dial it back?

Honnold: I’m not sure either way. I have no huge soloing goals right now, but I have a few ideas on the back burner that may eventually come together. The biggest difference I suspect will have to do with how I spend my time. Having a small child seems more conducive to short bursts of intense training, which lends itself to bouldering and sport climbing. Generally, when I’m soloing a lot I’m spending tons of time outdoors on rock, which might be harder if I’m taking care of a kid. But I’m open to anything, we’ll just see. Seems like the kid will be the priority…

Levy: What would you tell your son or daughter about free soloing? Would you discourage or forbid it? Tacitly allow it? Actively teach them if they decided it was particularly important to them?

Honnold: It’s a girl. The idea of her free soloing seems so far away that I’m not too concerned. First we need her to arrive healthy and whole, then we’ll just see if she even enjoys climbing. But if she gets into climbing I’m certain she’ll have a strong appreciation for the spectrum of risk from hiking to scrambling to free soloing. Most of my rest day hikes end with some kind of scramble, I’m sure she’ll grow up clambering around on rocks. But whether or not that ever turns into soloing will be a much bigger question. I’m not opposed as long as it’s done carefully and intentionally by a mature adult.

Levy: Let’s say your daughter, years from now, decides she wants to solo the Freerider. What would go through your head?

Honnold: Well, I’d probably be pretty concerned. But I have a lot of good beta for her…

That seems very unlikely though. Hopefully it’s a bridge we never have to cross. But on the other hand, it’s only 12d/13a. In another generation that’ll be truly easy…

Levy: I’m sure you’ll support your kid in whatever makes them happy, whether that’s climbing or something else entirely. But hypothetically, what would be a greater disappointment: if your kid is purely an aid climber or if they exclusively use hand jammies?

Honnold: Using hand jammies is still free climbing, so it’s still acceptable for any child of mine. Plus, I suppose I want her hands to wind up a little less ogre-ish than mine. Hand jammies might help.

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