For Famed Rock Climber, A 'Big Break' That Thankfully Wasn't Literal

Jan 3, 2016
Originally published on January 4, 2016 1:26 pm

As part of a series called My Big Break, All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

Normally, Alex Honnold tries to avoid breaks of all kinds. As a professional rock climber, Honnold has made his name climbing some of the tallest, most difficult rock faces in the world, many of them without the safety of a rope — and entirely alone. The task is so dangerous that only 1 percent of climbers attempt it.

So it's crucial that the handholds he uses do not break beneath his grip. But he does credit one moment, happily, with being his big break.

"The first thing I think of is being featured on 60 Minutes. It's probably the one thing that set me on the path to devoting my life to being a professional climber," Honnold says. "I was very much a dirtbag climber living in my van, and this producer from 60 Minutes approached me and said, 'This is going to change your life. This will be the biggest thing you've ever done.' "

Ever since that 2011 appearance on 60 Minutes, Honnold has regularly been featured in the media spotlight, garnering the cover of National Geographic and getting sponsorships from major outdoor companies.

"I often joke that I've become a professional schmoozer," he says. "Like nobody really cares how well I can rock-climb anymore; they just care how well I can schmooze."

But before the hype, Honnold was a college dropout, living out of his mother's borrowed minivan, driving from climb to climb.

And schmoozing hasn't always come easily for him, either. As a kid growing up in Sacramento, Calif., he was too shy to approach strangers at the climbing gym. One side effect of this shyness was that he got used to rock climbing by himself, without a rope.

"I suppose being a bit of an antisocial weirdo definitely honed my skills as a soloist. It gave me a lot more opportunity to solo lots of easy routes, which in turn broadened my comfort zone quite a bit and has allowed me to climb the harder things without a rope that I've done now."

Honnold says the key to his success has come largely from avoiding big breaks — and the big risks they often entail — moving incrementally toward ever more audacious climbing feats.

But there was one climb in particular that tested his limits and brought him to the attention of the climbing community, and eventually the wider world: when he decided to climb Half Dome in California's Yosemite Valley.

"It's a route that everybody aspires to and physically looks up to, because anywhere in Yosemite you look up at that wall."

After days spent deliberating how and when to tackle the wall, Honnold set out quietly one July morning to make rock climbing history.

"Basically I was able to climb the wall on autopilot. I'd already made all of the hard decisions," Honnold says. "But then, basically my autopilot started to run out by the time I got to the top, because I was just starting to get tired, and it was hard to maintain that focus."

Near the top of the wall, just 100 feet from safety, he heard the laughter of day hikers who had reached Half Dome's peak on a far easier ascent. The sounds of others snapped Honnold out of his fade.

"I just took some deep breaths, and finally said 'This is what I have to do. I'm going to trust this foot,' and then I just stood up on the foothold and that was that."

He completed the climb that day, eventually even walking among those same day hikers he'd heard while climbing.

"Nobody knew that I was even a climber; nobody even asked what I had just done or where I had come from," Honnold recalls. "They just thought that I was some random guy hanging out on the side of the cliff. I had just done one of the most personally significant climbs of my life. I was like, 'Aw, nobody even noticed.'

"That's crazy."

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So here's one more story from the sports world, and this one is part of our occasional series My Big Break. Imagine yourself a thousand feet off the ground, clinging to the side of a wind-blown cliff face. You're not sure how to make your next move. What you do know is that the only way out is up.

ALEX HONNOLD: Basically, I thought I was lost on the wall, which is pretty crazy when you're a thousand feet off the ground, and you think you're, like, adrift on this ocean of granite. You're suddenly like, where am I?

MARTIN: For most people, that sounds like something out of a nightmare, but for professional rock climber Alex Honnold, there's no place he'd rather be. Honnold has become one of the most famous living extreme athletes, climbing some of the tallest, most difficult rock faces in the world, many of them without the safety of a rope. So for him, a big break is usually something he tries to avoid at all cost.

HONNOLD: When I think big break, the first thing I think of is being featured in "60 Minutes."

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOCK TICKING)

HONNOLD: That was probably the one thing that set me down the path of devoting my life to being a professional rock climber.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

LARA LOGAN: He scales walls higher than the Empire State building without any ropes or protection, and the penalty for error is certain death.

MARTIN: Ever since that appearance on "60 Minutes" in 2011, Honnold has been a regular media stand-in for the extreme sports set.

HONNOLD: I often joke that I've just become a professional schmoozer. Like, nobody cares how well I can rock climb anymore. It just has to do with how well I can schmooze.

MARTIN: But before the hype, Honnold was a college dropout living out of his mom's borrowed minivan, driving from climb to climb. And schmoozing didn't always come easily. As a kid growing up in Sacramento, Calif., he was too shy to approach climbing partners at the gym. One side effect that shyness - he got used to rock climbing by himself, without a rope.

HONNOLD: I suppose being a bit of an antisocial weirdo definitely honed my skills as a soloist. It gave me a lot more opportunities to solo lots of easy routes, which in turn broadened my comfort zone quite a bit and has allowed me to climb the harder things without a rope that I've done now.

MARTIN: One of those harder climbs was his unprecedented ascent of Half Dome in California's Yosemite Valley. The 2000-foot vertical rock face had never been climbed when Honnold set his sights on it in the fall of 2008. His attempt was a signal to the climbing community that he was a new force to be reckoned with.

HONNOLD: So when I freestyled Half Dome, I was listening to music, repeating these three Eminem songs off the "8 Mile" soundtrack.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOSE YOURSELF")

EMINEM: (Singing) His palms are sweaty, knees weak. Arms are heavy.

HONNOLD: I'd already made all the hard decisions, like I'm going to do this. I'm committed to doing this. I'm able to do this. I'm ready. And then you don't really have to reevaluate any of that. You can just, like, put yourself in autopilot and just cruise up the wall. But then my autopilot started to run out by the time I got to the top because I was just starting to get tired. And it was just hard to maintain that focus.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOSE YOURSELF")

EMINEM: (Singing) Man, back to reality. Oh, there goes gravity. Oh, there goes...

HONNOLD: At the crux of Half Dome, at the very top of the wall, imagine, like, a smooth wall of rock - a nearly vertical granite slap with tiny ripples for your hands and feet. And so you're really trusting the rubber on your shoes to stick to these ripples. And that's what made me so scared - was that I had to step onto a little, tiny ripple, and I just didn't want to trust my whole life to stepping onto this little thing. And then I started to hesitate, and then I got scared. And, you know, everything starts to cascade out of control a little bit.

While I was, you know, literally clinging for my life on the side of this cliff, I could hear all these tourists up on the summit, which was only a hundred feet away. I could hear people laughing and, like, talking on their cell phones and having a good time. It felt like there was, like, a mall scene right up above me. And finally I just took some deep breaths, and I was just like, you know what? This is what I have to do. I'm going to trust this foot. And then I just up on the foothold, and that was that. Thankfully, my foot stayed on. I made the move, and I was done.

So I climbed on to the summit. And then there were all these people hanging out eating lunch and taking pictures and things, which was this weird contrast because normally when you talk about Half Dome and you have a a partner and a rope, tourists just think it's outrageous. And they think it's so amazing that you climbed the wall, and they all flock around you and ask you questions. But when I topped out without a rope, nobody knew that I was even a climber. I'd just done one of the most personally significant climbs of my life, and there are all these people standing there. And none of them are like, oh, wow, good job or, like, that's great that you climbed that wall. They're just like, huh (ph), I wonder what that guy's doing.

MARTIN: That's professional rock climber Alex Honnold telling us about his big break. His new memoir "Alone On The Wall" is out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.