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Adventure Travel

Jun 05, 2017

Alex Honnold Free Solos El Capitan

Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold has just completed a climb that is probably the biggest deal the climbing world has ever seen: On Saturday, June 4, at 9:28 am, the 31-year-old topped out the 33 pitch Freerider, becoming the first person ever to free solo a major route on El Capitan.

WRITTEN BY

Michael Levy

In a National Geographic interview, Honnold said of free soloing El Capitan, “This has been my biggest life goal for years.”

Freerider’s hardest individual pitch is 5.13a (7c+), but contains numerous other famously insecure and difficult sections, with several in the 5.12 range. The climb, a variation to the free Salathe Wall that avoids the latter’s even harder pitches at the top, was first freed by German brothers Alex and Thomas Huber in 1998.

The 5.13a crux pitch that Honnold climbed is known as the “Boulder Problem” pitch and involves an improbable sequence on a razor-thin hold. Even before getting to that pitch, however, Honnold did battle with wide cracks known as the “Hollow Flake” and the “Monster Offwidth.”

Up on the wall, he was preternaturally calm considering he was adrift in a 3,000-foot tall sea of granite. “Not any real moments of doubt,” Alex said in the National Geographic interview. “The Freeblast [the first section of the route] was still engaging for sure. And the first roof (at the start of the third pitch), I’m always a little bit tense there because you’re just starting up the route.”

In an email to The Outdoor Journal several hours after Honnold’s climb, Maury Birdwell, longtime friend of Alex’s, Executive Director of the Honnold Foundation and TOJ Advisor, wrote, “Just talked to him, he’s so stoked, I’m so relieved (and I think he is too a bit).” Birdwell added, “People will try to understand Alex and what he experienced up there, but ultimately it’s for him and him alone. It was dangerous, risky, and incomprehensible—like all things wild and beautiful.”

“People will be talking about this for as long as we live,” Brad Gobright—an American climber and himself a leading free soloist—told The Outdoor Journal about Honnold’s climb. “I think it’s one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time.”

Honnold had been preparing himself for soloing El Capitan for years. As one of climbing’s biggest unclaimed prizes, the solo became his ultimate climbing aspiration. He pushed himself on big climbs—both roped and unroped—around the world, from the Fitz Traverse in Patagonia to El Sendero Luminoso in Mexico; from the big walls of Morocco’s Taghia Gorge to Mount Kenya and Mount Poi in Kenya.

“All of Honnold’s major solos before this were done almost casually without much rehearsal,” Gobright said. “Barely anyone knew he was planning to do them until they were already done. [His solo of] Freerider has been more than five years of preparation and anticipation by the entire climbing community. I think the headline of this achievement will make it the most publicised rock climb of all time.”

And, of course, Honnold put in dozens of laps on Freerider and Yosemite’s other glacier-polished walls. Yosemite’s granite faces are slick and glassy, just one more detail that makes the prospect of soloing El Capitan so hair-raising. At times, Honnold was padding up near-featureless slabs, trusting his life to the delicate friction created between his rubber soles and the gray-white stone.

Matt Bush, a South African free soloist who himself is no stranger to technical granite slab climbing, told The Outdoor Journal, “This may be the boldest and most daring freesolo ascent of all time. It’s a phenomenal achievement that exemplifies the power of dreams and the human spirit. It’s been inspiring for me to watch Alex’s seemingly impossible feats. He’s taking freesolo to great levels.”

 

Over the past decade, Honnold has made a name for himself as arguably the greatest free soloist of all time. 2008 was a breakout year for the Sacramento native when he completed the first free solo ascents of the 1,200-foot Moonlight Buttress (5.12+) in Zion, Utah and the 2,000 foot Regular Northwest Face (5.12) of Half Dome in Yosemite Valley, California. He cemented his reputation as the king of Yosemite by becoming the first person to ever complete the Triple Crowna link up of Yosemite’s three largest walls insolo in under 24 hours.

His most sustained big-wall free-solo prior to Freerider was in El Potrero Chico, Mexico in 2014, when he climbed El Sendero Luminosoa 1,600-foot route with 11 pitches of 5.12 climbing and a 5.12d crux pitch.

In 2014 Honnold also completed the first traverse of the entire Fitz Roy skyline with fellow climbing superstar Tommy Caldwell. For that climb, the pair was awarded alpinism’s highest honour, the Piolet D’Or.

Even though he has blown the collective mind of the climbing world, Honnold remains focused on his goals, one of which is to eventually climb a 5.14d (9a) sports route. In the National Geographic interview, he said, “The whole pursuit of this dream has allowed me to live my best life, that makes me hopefully the best version of me. Just because I’ve achieved a dream doesn’t mean that I just give up on the best version of me. I want to be the guy that trains stays fit and motivated. Just because you finish a big route doesn’t mean that you just quit.”

Featured Image: Rock climber Alex Honnold completes a 3,000-foot rope-free climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park on June 3, 2017. The historic event was documented for an upcoming National Geographic feature film and magazine story. Photo credit: Jimmy Chin/ National Geographic

Update: Ted Hesser provided The Outdoor Journal with exclusive shots of Alex Honnold training and working for his foundation, the Honnold Foundation

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Adventure Travel

Jul 04, 2018

Become the Bear! Tackling Middle Aged Life the Bear Grylls Way.

This story originally featured in a print issue of the Outdoor Journal.

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WRITTEN BY

Jamie East

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Bear Grylls is probably one of the most famous adventure celebrities in the world. Aside from all his adventures, Bear also shares his survival skills with anyone ready to pay for it. One such chap was our middle-aged writer Jamie East, who usually preferred watching other people take risks from the safe distance of his television. Until he decided to go out there himself and get dirty.

Well, there’s something liberating about jumping into a freezing, fast-flowing river with all your clothes on. It’s the kind of thing that, as a child, you told yourself you’d do all the time once you were big enough and your parents couldn’t tell you off. Yet staying on the precipice at age 39, all I can think of is, “Is this jumper dry-clean only?”

This is what life does to you. It sucks the adventure from you quicker than a Dyson in a bag of sawdust. Before you know it, you’d rather sleep than live, drive than hike, sink into the sofa than swim.

I suppose this could be classified as bare survival. You exist but don’t live, and I’ve decided enough is enough. What would the 12-year-old Jamie, who got sent home from school for falling down a ravine he thought he could clear in one leap, say to me if he could see the 39-year-old me? “Man up!” probably. “Your clothes are stupid?” most definitely.

Bear Grylls is the man we all aspire to be. Hard as nails on a mountain ledge, soft as grease at home with his kids. The fire in his heart burns brighter than Krypton being destroyed, and he’s harder than a 60-foot working model of optimus Prime made from diamonds. He also embraces the outlook on life we all wish we had time for had those damned IsAs, smart phones and creamy pasta sauces not gotten in the way. Thankfully for those of us with a terminal case of lazy-itis, we can see how the other half live over at the Bear Grylls survival Academy from the bleak Scottish Highlands or the luscious surrey forests in England. Run by Grylls and his team of ex-paratroopers, the survival Academy is an ideal introduction into a world of skills and endurance we think we’ll never need. Be honest; how many of us truly believe that there will come a time when we will be skewering a rat for dinner or navigating a 23,000-acre highland with only the stars to help? But these are skills that used to be second nature to us humans. If there weren’t people like Grylls to show us the way, there are a lot of people around the world who wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale of the time their car broke down in the Australian outback, or when they had to make a snow cave that provided those few vital hours of warmth on a mountaintop. Whether we like it or not, the knowledge could prove life-saving.

A tent set up for participants during the 5-day Survival in the Highlands course in Scotland.
A tent set up for participants during the 5-day Survival in the Highlands course in Scotland.

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The Academy offers several options tailored to your needs. You can opt for a 24-hour experience in Surrey either alone or with a family member older than 10. Although only 10 minutes from the motorway, such is the Surrey countryside that you could be in Montana for all you’d know. The dense forest makes for a real wilderness experience. The deep rivers you’ll be crossing, the rabbits you’ll be gutting, the trees you’ll be stripping to make shelter, and the ravines you’ll be shimmying across really do give you a feeling of being alive. A 20-minute run is considered a “big thing” in my house, so spending days in the real outdoors felt invigorating. I felt alive!

I’m not an all-rounder though. I found some of the requisite skills completely beyond me, navigating by starlight was one. My brain is just not wired to untangle that kind of data.

I used to think I could point out the north star in a heartbeat. Nope. The north star isn’t the brightest one. Nuts.

“The North Star is, in fact, the one perpendicular to blah de blah de blah babble babble wibble waffle.” That’s how that sentence sounded coming from the instructor’s mouth: just a stream of nonsense about ploughs and bears. It doesn’t look like a plough. If it looked like a plough, I’m pretty sure even I could find it. But it doesn’t. It looks like a slightly wavy line of stars that is buried among 200 billion other stars. It makes finding a needle in a haystack look like finding an elephant in an eggcup, so if I’m stuck anywhere in the world (and I mean anywhere: La Rinconanda, the Kerguelen Islands or just past the BP garage near my house) without Google maps or a TomTom, you may as well kiss this writer’s sorry ass goodbye, because I’ll wither away in a puddle of my own dehydrated tears.

Jamie had to eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river and set traps and eat rabbit he skinned with his own bare hands.
Jamie had to eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river and set traps and eat rabbit he skinned with his own bare hands.

But there are things that must have been festering in my subconscious all these years, like a coiled snake ready to unleash, on an unsuspecting world. For instance, I could light a fire that is neither at the end of a cigarette nor underneath a pile of half-frozen burgers. I mean a real fire created by nothing but flint and dried bark. It’s a panic-inducing task, and I’m not ashamed to say it took me nearly 40 minutes. As my instructor, Scott, told me, it’s all in the timing. Put on too much too soon and you’re buggered. Too little too late and, yup, you’re buggered.

Instructions for making a fire without matches or anything a sane human would have within arm’s reach
You need the slightest feathers of bark piled up like Candyfoss. You need your spark. Mine was from the flint on my Rambo knife. The very second that spark takes hold of one of your bark feathers, blow very gently. If all goes well, that will turn into a largish smoldering lump of smoke. If it doesn’t, go back to the beginning. You now need to start throwing on more feathers of bark, a fraction larger than the one before, before moving onto dried-out twigs no thicker than a hair on a baby’s ear. Eight hours later, you have a fire that could singe your eyebrows from 183 m. Well done!
Soon to be survivalists learning how to free rope traverse - a basic zip-line technique that can be used for water crossings and emergency evacuations.
Soon to be survivalists learning how to free rope traverse – a basic zip-line technique that can be used for water crossings and emergency evacuations.

So, if ever I do go missing near the BP garage by my house, just look for the massive fire right next to the petrol station. Well, I may need to think that through a bit more.

The Scottish Highlands course that is offered is similar to this, apart from a few key points. It goes on for five days and takes place in one of the most remote places in Britain. It’ll probably pour down with ice-cold rain for the entire trip, and you’ll have to eat rat and cross a river in your underpants. Apart from that, exactly the same.

Spending time with this team baked common sense into my brain. The lessons easily transform into mundane, everyday life. The buzz phrase of the trip is “Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance.” out in the highlands, this means, “If you don’t prepare well, you will likely starve and die.” At home, this translates to, “Use a tape measure, or your shelf won’t be even.” The sentiment is still the same. Don’t judge me.

You should know what you’re getting into, of course. This is a Bear Grylls branded experience, after all (and all the equipment says as much). You won’t be expected to drink your own body fluids, squeeze drops of moisture out of elephant dung, or decapitate a rattlesnake with the sole of your boot, but you will feel as though you could if you were the last man on Earth. I did eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river, set traps and eat rabbit I skinned with my own bare hands. And do you know what?

I’ve never felt more alive or more connected with the world I selfishly pillage on a daily basis. I’m not alone, either.

People the world over have sought out the Grylls way of life. Upon his return to the US, my fellow survivor Caleb said “my hands are shredded, my nose is stuffed, my throat is raspy and my body is tanked, but I am alive now more than ever. It was everything I hoped for: an empowering learning experience.

Crossing a freezing river in Surrey during the 24 hour family course.
Crossing a freezing river in Surrey during the 24 hour family course.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. After the aching had subsided, and the clothes were washed, the niggling feeling that I was approximately 3 percent more of a man than I was before I began, just wouldn’t leave me. It still hasn’t.

I didn’t imagine that sleeping rough, eating worms and swimming in rivers could possibly have this much of an effect on my psyche, but it really has. I’m not saying I could rescue someone hanging off a cliff, or survive in the jungle for more than a couple of hours. But if you get the chance, breathe in the air, sharpen that stick and venture out into the big, wide world. Just remember to take a compass with you. I swear those stars are out to get you.

Photos by Discovery Channel, Jamie East & The Bear Grylls Survival Academy.

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