Alex Honnold doesn't like to watch his friends "free solo" on big rock formations like El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
"Free solo" means that the climber uses only his or her body to climb: There are no ropes, no partner, no bolts drilled into rock for stability and support. There's also no room for error: One mistake and the climber falls and dies.
When it's Honnold himself on the wall, though, it's another story: He thrives on each challenge and is, at age 30, the world's most prominent solo climber. In a Nov. 25 phone interview, Honnold, in California, told me:
"I think it's much scarier to watch free solo. I know that if I am free soloing I feel fine; when you're doing it, you know the margin, the degree of safety, how far you are within your comfort zone."
Honnold blows wide open any conventional understanding of the term "comfort zone." In Alone on the Wall, his new book written with David Roberts, he engagingly conveys his love of climbing ("I can't do without it," he says bluntly.) and his confidence that his actions are high-consequence but low-risk.
"I've walked away from more climbs than I can count," he writes, "just because I sensed that things were not quite right."
"I love the feeling of touching the rock, the feeling of my body going up the rock. With free soloing, I love the combination of feeling really insignificant on the wall, tiny before nature, but combined with feeling totally bad ass with doing something difficult and doing that well. Insignificant and pretty heroic."
In 2008, Honnold burst into public notice when word got out that he had free solo'ed Moonlight Buttress, a 1,200-foot, near-vertical cliff made of sandstone in southern Utah's Zion National Park. In his book, Honnold describes that climb joyfully:
"Sticking my first digits into the crack, I turned them slightly into perfect fingerlocks, and I felt bomber. At any given moment, I had only a tiny amount of skin inside the crack — like half of two fingers — and my toes weren't on holds, but just pasted to the wall. So little of my body was actually touching the rock. There was air all around me. I felt like I was stepping into the void, and yet it was an amazing sensation. I was one-hundred-percent certain I wouldn't fall off, and that certainty was what kept me from falling off."
In addition to free soloing, Honnold climbs with gear and partners, as well. He loves doing "massive link-ups on big walls," or challenging back-to-back climbs, like completing seven different routes on El Capitan in seven days — or very nearly conquering the Torre Traverse, "a big Patagonian enchainment" of four huge towers (a storm stopped him and his climbing partner just short of the fourth summit).
In Alone on the Wall, Honnold explains how a three-week climbing visit to Chad's Ennedi Desert five years ago was a turn pointing for him:
"The simple facts of Chadian life — what it takes to survive in that kind of climate with nothing but a hut and some animals — stunned me. And this made me realize, perhaps for the first time, how easy my life was compared to those of people in less privileged societies."
Wanting to supplement his personal choices — he's a vegetarian living in a van with 180,000 miles on it — Honnold established the Honnold Foundation in 2012 with a dual focus on energy-environment issues and on improving the standard of people living in poverty. Solar energy projects in California, Colorado, on the Navajo reservation in the U.S. and at certain locations in Africa have been a focus of the foundation's work so far.
By telephone, Honnold noted that he had returned not long before from Angola:
"There's no solar energy in Angola, so we were trying to demonstrate that the market is viable, or rather, determine if it is. We imported a bunch of systems into the country and worked to distribute them in an exploratory solar project. We're considering a similar project in Mozambique."
But I was also curious about a specific incident recounted in his book. While climbing in the American Southwest, the book notes, Honnold "knocks loose huge chunks of sandstone" and comments that it was a "disgusting" thing to have done. So, I asked him, shouldn't we worry more about climbers' impact on the natural formations they climb?
Honnold's voice tone, laid back and friendly otherwise, briefly tensed. He told me:
"Rock climbing has infinitely lower impact than driving to and from the rocks. Basically a zero impact. All human activity has an impact, look at trails that approach the mountains and the roads blasted in cliffs to get to different places; our transportation infrastructure is high impact, so cutting handfuls of plants down [off a climbing route] has a very low impact [as does the occasional] tearing pieces of rock off. Rock is constantly falling off walls anyway — the scale with climbing is so infinitesimal, kind of like digging holes on the beach. Either way the tide comes in and it sorts itself out."
The high carbon footprint caused by flying internationally is, though, a serious concern of Honnold's — a topic that brings us right back to his hope that the work of the Honnold Foundation will bring about a net positive gain.
"I've tried to approach environmentalism the same way I do my climbing: by setting small, concrete goals that build on each other," Honnold writes in his book.
Here is a good model for us all — and an especially relevant one right now when when all eyes turn toward the climate-change summit in Paris. Even as international leaders work toward significantly cutting the carbon emissions at the root of anthropogenic global warming, each of us can pledge to set small, concrete goals and become part of the solution.
Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape