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TED2018

Alex Honnold: How I climbed a 3,000-foot vertical cliff -- without ropes

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Imagine being by yourself in the dead center of a 3,000-foot vertical cliff -- without a rope to catch you if you fall. For professional rock climber Alex Honnold, this dizzying scene marked the culmination of a decade-long dream. In a hair-raising talk, he tells the story of how he summited Yosemite's El Capitan, completing one of the most dangerous free solo climbs ever.

- Rock climber
Alex Honnold is a professional rock climber whose audacious free-solo ascents of America's biggest cliffs have made him one of the world's most recognized climbers. Full bio

Hello. I'd like to show you guys
30 seconds of the best day of my life.
00:13
(Applause)
00:50
So that was El Capitan
in California's Yosemite National Park,
00:56
and in case you couldn't tell,
01:00
I was climbing by myself without a rope,
01:02
a style of a climbing
known as free soloing.
01:04
That was the culmination
of a nearly decade-long dream,
01:06
and in the video I'm over
2,500 feet off the ground.
01:09
Seems scary? Yeah, it is,
01:12
which is why I spent so many years
dreaming about soloing El Cap
01:14
and not actually doing it.
01:17
But on the day that that video was taken,
01:18
it didn't feel scary at all.
01:21
It felt as comfortable and natural
as a walk in the park,
01:22
which is what most folks
were doing in Yosemite that day.
01:25
Today I'd like to talk about
how I was able to feel so comfortable
01:28
and how I overcame my fear.
01:31
I'll start with a very brief version
of how I became a climber,
01:32
and then tell the story
of my two most significant free solos.
01:35
They were both successful,
which is why I'm here.
01:38
(Laughter)
01:41
But the first felt largely unsatisfying,
01:43
whereas the second, El Cap, was by far
the most fulfilling day of my life.
01:47
Through these two climbs,
you'll see my process for managing fear.
01:51
So I started climbing in a gym
when I was around 10 years old,
01:55
which means that my life
has been centered on climbing
01:57
for more than 20 years.
02:00
After nearly a decade
of climbing mostly indoors,
02:01
I made the transition to the outdoors
and gradually started free soloing.
02:04
I built up my comfort over time
02:07
and slowly took on
bigger and more challenging walls.
02:09
And there have been
many free soloists before me,
02:11
so I had plenty of
inspiration to draw from.
02:14
But by 2008, I'd repeated
most of their previous solos in Yosemite
02:16
and was starting to imagine
breaking into new terrain.
02:19
The obvious first choice was Half Dome,
02:21
an iconic 2,000-foot wall
the lords over the east end of the valley.
02:23
The problem, though also the allure,
02:27
was that it was too big.
02:29
I didn't really know how to prepare
for a potential free solo.
02:30
So I decided to skip the preparations
02:33
and just go up there
and have an adventure.
02:35
I figured I would rise to the occasion,
02:38
which, unsurprisingly,
was not the best strategy.
02:40
I did at least climb the route
roped up with a friend two days before
02:43
just to make sure
that I knew roughly where to go
02:47
and that I could physically do it.
02:49
But when I came back
by myself two days later,
02:51
I decided that I didn't
want to go that way.
02:53
I knew that there was a 300-foot variation
02:55
that circled around
one of the hardest parts of the climb.
02:57
I suddenly decided to skip the hard part
and take the variation,
03:00
even though I'd never climbed it before,
03:03
but I immediately began to doubt myself.
03:05
Imagine being by yourself
in the dead center of a 2,000-foot face,
03:07
wondering if you're lost.
03:10
(Laughter)
03:12
Thankfully, it was
pretty much the right way
03:13
and I circled back to the route.
03:16
I was slightly rattled,
I was pretty rattled,
03:18
but I tried not to let it
bother me too much
03:20
because I knew that all the hardest
climbing was up at the top.
03:23
I needed to stay composed.
03:26
It was a beautiful September morning,
and as I climbed higher,
03:28
I could hear the sounds of tourists
chatting and laughing on the summit.
03:30
They'd all hiked up
the normal trail on the back,
03:34
which I was planning on using
for my descent.
03:36
But between me and the summit
lay a blank slab of granite.
03:38
There were no cracks
or edges to hold on to,
03:41
just small ripples of texture
up a slightly less than vertical wall.
03:43
I had to trust my life to the friction
between my climbing shoes
03:47
and the smooth granite.
03:50
I carefully balanced my way upward,
03:51
shifting my weight back and forth
between the small smears.
03:53
But then I reached a foothold
that I didn't quite trust.
03:55
Two days ago, I'd have just
stepped right up on it,
03:58
but that would have been with a rope on.
04:01
Now it felt too small and too slippery.
04:02
I doubted that my foot
would stay on if I weighted it.
04:04
I considered a foot further to the side,
which seemed worse.
04:07
I switched my feet and tried
a foot further out.
04:10
It seemed even worse.
04:12
I started to panic.
04:13
I could hear people laughing
on the summit just above me.
04:15
I wanted to be anywhere but on that slab.
04:17
My mind was racing in every direction.
04:19
I knew what I had to do,
but I was too afraid to do it.
04:21
I just had to stand up on my right foot.
04:24
And so after what felt like an eternity,
I accepted what I had to do
04:26
and I stood up on the right foot,
04:30
and it didn't slip, and so I didn't die,
04:31
and that move marked the end
of the hardest climbing.
04:33
And so I charged from there
towards the summit.
04:36
And so normally when you summit Half Dome,
04:38
you have a rope and a bunch
of climbing gear on you,
04:41
and tourists gasp and they
flock around you for photos.
04:43
This time I popped over the edge
shirtless, panting, jacked.
04:46
I was amped, but nobody batted an eye.
04:49
(Laughter)
04:51
I looked like a lost hiker
that was too close to the edge.
04:57
I was surrounded by people
talking on cell phones and having picnics.
04:59
I felt like I was in a mall.
05:04
(Laughter)
05:06
I took off my tight climbing shoes
and started hiking back down,
05:08
and that's when people stopped me.
05:11
"You're hiking barefoot?
That's so hard-core."
05:13
(Laughter)
05:15
I didn't bother to explain,
05:22
but that night in my climbing journal,
I duly noted my free solo of Half Dome,
05:24
but I included a frowny face
and a comment, "Do better?"
05:28
I'd succeeded in the solo
05:33
and it was celebrated
as a big first in climbing.
05:34
Some friends later made a film about it.
05:36
But I was unsatisfied.
05:38
I was disappointed in my performance,
05:40
because I knew that I had
gotten away with something.
05:42
I didn't want to be a lucky climber.
I wanted to be a great climber.
05:44
I actually took the next year or so
off from free soloing,
05:47
because I knew that I shouldn't
make a habit of relying on luck.
05:50
But even though
I wasn't soloing very much,
05:53
I'd already started to think about El Cap.
05:55
It was always in the back of my mind
as the obvious crown jewel of solos.
05:57
It's the most striking wall in the world.
06:01
Each year, for the next seven years,
06:03
I'd think, "This is the year
that I'm going to solo El Cap."
06:05
And then I would drive into Yosemite,
look up at the wall, and think,
06:08
"No frickin' way."
06:11
(Laughter)
06:13
It's too big and too scary.
06:15
But eventually I came to accept that
I wanted to test myself against El Cap.
06:17
It represented true mastery,
06:21
but I needed it to feel different.
06:23
I didn't want to get away with anything
or barely squeak by.
06:25
This time I wanted to do it right.
06:28
The thing that makes El Cap
so intimidating
06:31
is the sheer scale of the wall.
06:33
Most climbers take three to five days
06:35
to ascend the 3,000 feet
of vertical granite.
06:36
The idea of setting out
up a wall of that size
06:39
with nothing but shoes and
a chalk bag seemed impossible.
06:41
3,000 feet of climbing represents
06:45
thousands of distinct
hand and foot movements,
06:46
which is a lot to remember.
06:49
Many of the moves I knew
through sheer repetition.
06:50
I'd climbed El Cap maybe 50 times
over the previous decade with a rope.
06:52
But this photo shows my preferred
method of rehearsing the moves.
06:56
I'm on the summit,
06:59
about to repel down the face
with over a thousand feet of rope
07:00
to spend the day practicing.
07:03
Once I found sequences
that felt secure and repeatable,
07:05
I had to memorize them.
07:07
I had to make sure that they were
so deeply ingrained within me
07:09
that there was no possibility of error.
07:12
I didn't want to be wondering
if I was going the right way
07:13
or using the best holds.
07:16
I needed everything to feel automatic.
07:18
Climbing with a rope
is a largely physical effort.
07:20
You just have to be strong enough
to hold on and make the movements upward.
07:22
But free soloing
plays out more in the mind.
07:26
The physical effort is largely the same.
07:28
Your body is still climbing the same wall.
07:30
But staying calm
and performing at your best
07:32
when you know that
any mistake could mean death
07:34
requires a certain kind of mindset.
07:36
(Laughter)
07:38
That's not supposed to be funny,
but if it is, it is.
07:41
(Laughter)
07:43
I worked to cultivate that mindset
through visualization,
07:46
which basically just means imagining
the entire experience of soloing the wall.
07:49
Partially, that was to help me
remember all the holds,
07:53
but mostly visualization
was about feeling the texture
07:55
of each hold in my hand
07:58
and imagining the sensation of my leg
reaching out and placing my foot just so.
07:59
I'd imagine it all like a choreographed
dance thousands of feet up.
08:03
The most difficult part of the whole route
was called the Boulder Problem.
08:06
It was about 2,000 feet off the ground
08:10
and consisted of the hardest
physical moves on the whole route:
08:12
long pulls between poor handholds
with very small, slippery feet.
08:15
This is what I mean by a poor handhold:
08:18
an edge smaller than the width
of a pencil but facing downward
08:20
that I had to press up into with my thumb.
08:23
But that wasn't even the hardest part.
08:26
The crux culminated in a karate kick
08:28
with my left foot over to the inside
of an adjacent corner,
08:29
a maneuver that required a high degree
of precision and flexibility,
08:32
enough so that I'd been doing
a nightly stretching routine
08:35
for a full year ahead of time
08:38
to make sure that I could comfortably
make the reach with my leg.
08:40
As I practiced the moves,
08:43
my visualization turned
to the emotional component
08:44
of a potential solo.
08:46
Basically, what if I got up there
and it was too scary?
08:48
What if I was too tired?
08:51
What if I couldn't quite make the kick?
08:52
I had to consider every possibility
while I was safely on the ground,
08:54
so that when the time came and I was
actually making the moves without a rope,
08:57
there was no room for doubt to creep in.
09:01
Doubt is the precursor to fear,
09:03
and I knew that I couldn't experience
my perfect moment if I was afraid.
09:04
I had to visualize and rehearse
enough to remove all doubt.
09:08
But beyond that, I also
visualized how it would feel
09:11
if it never seemed doable.
09:13
What if, after so much work,
I was afraid to try?
09:15
What if I was wasting my time
09:19
and I would never feel comfortable
in such an exposed position?
09:20
There were no easy answers,
09:24
but El Cap meant enough to me
that I would put in the work and find out.
09:25
Some of my preparations were more mundane.
09:29
This is a photo of my friend Conrad Anker
09:31
climbing up the bottom of El Cap
with an empty backpack.
09:33
We spent the day climbing together
09:36
to a specific crack
in the middle of the wall
09:38
that was choked with loose rocks
09:40
that made that section
difficult and potentially dangerous,
09:41
because any missed step
might knock a rock to the ground
09:44
and kill a passing climber or hiker.
09:47
So we carefully removed the rocks,
loaded them into the pack
09:49
and rappelled back down.
09:52
Take a second to imagine
how ridiculous it feels
09:53
to climb 1,500 feet up a wall
just to fill a backpack full of rocks.
09:55
(Laughter)
09:58
It's never that easy to carry
a pack full of rocks around.
10:00
It's even harder on the side of a cliff.
10:03
It may have felt silly,
but it still had to get done.
10:05
I needed everything to feel perfect
10:07
if I was ever going to climb
the route without a rope.
10:09
After two seasons of working specifically
toward a potential free solo of El Cap,
10:12
I finally finished all my preparations.
10:15
I knew every handhold
and foothold on the whole route,
10:17
and I knew exactly what to do.
10:20
Basically, I was ready.
10:21
It was time to solo El Cap.
10:23
On June 3, 2017,
10:25
I woke up early, ate my usual
breakfast of muesli and fruit
10:27
and made it to the base
of the wall before sunrise.
10:31
I felt confident as I looked up the wall.
10:33
I felt even better as I started climbing.
10:35
About 500 feet up, I reached a slab
10:38
very similar to the one that had
given me so much trouble on Half Dome,
10:40
but this time was different.
10:43
I'd scouted every option, including
hundreds of feet of wall to either side.
10:45
I knew exactly what to do
and how to do it.
10:49
I had no doubts.
I just climbed right through.
10:51
Even the difficult and strenuous
sections passed by with ease.
10:54
I was perfectly executing my routine.
10:57
I rested for a moment
below the Boulder Problem
11:00
and then climbed it just as I had
practiced so many times with the rope on.
11:02
My foot shot across to the wall
on the left without hesitation,
11:06
and I knew that I had done it.
11:09
Climbing Half Dome had been a big goal
11:12
and I did it,
11:14
but I didn't get what I really wanted.
11:16
I didn't achieve mastery.
11:17
I was hesitant and afraid, and it wasn't
the experience that I wanted.
11:19
But El Cap was different.
11:22
With 600 feet to go, I felt like the
mountain was offering me a victory lap.
11:24
I climbed with a smooth precision
11:28
and enjoyed the sounds of the birds
swooping around the cliff.
11:30
It all felt like a celebration.
11:32
And then I reached the summit
11:34
after three hours and 56 minutes
of glorious climbing.
11:35
It was the climb that I wanted,
and it felt like mastery.
11:38
Thank you.
11:41
(Applause)
11:42

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About the speaker:

Alex Honnold - Rock climber
Alex Honnold is a professional rock climber whose audacious free-solo ascents of America's biggest cliffs have made him one of the world's most recognized climbers.

Why you should listen

A gifted but hard-working athlete, Honnold is known as much for his humble, self-effacing attitude as he is for the dizzyingly tall cliffs he has climbed without a rope to protect him if he falls. Honnold has been profiled by 60 Minutes and the New York Times, featured on the cover of National Geographic, appeared in international television commercials and starred in numerous adventure films, including the Emmy-nominated Alone on the Wall. He is the subject of the documentary feature Free Solo, which was released by National Geographic Documentary Films.

Honnold is the founder of the Honnold Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes solar energy access worldwide. To this day, he maintains his simple "dirtbag-climber" existence, living out of his van, donating a significant portion of his income to the Honnold Foundation and traveling the world in search of the next great vertical adventure.

More profile about the speaker
Alex Honnold | Speaker | TED.com