Millions of Americans are afraid of heights, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. Even those of us who don't suffer from acrophobia would likely find it terrifying to scale a vertical rock thousands of feet above the ground, supported only by a few ropes and spikes and a (hopefully reliable) partner. The idea of undertaking such a feat with no partner and without any equipment at all is, for most people, unimaginable.
Alex Honnold, 30, a native of Sacramento, is the world's premier free solo rock climber. Using only a pair of grip-soled shoes and his bare, chalk-dusted hands, Honnold has ascended some of the most formidable peaks on earth, from Yosemite to Borneo. In "Alone on the Wall," a new memoir written with veteran adventure writer David Roberts, Honnold recounts his journey from shy, awkward kid and college dropout to real-life SpiderMan.
Though he's an extreme sport superstar who's been featured in Men's Journal and The New York Times Magazine as well as in ads for The North Face and other well-known outdoor gear companies, Honnold lives modestly. He sleeps in a scruffy, customized van, traveling from rock to rock, since he can't bear to go too long without climbing. He's admitted that he may not be the easiest guy to date.
Honnold's free spirit — his friends call him "No Big Deal" — and his passionate intensity are both apparent in his prose. In the personal reflections that alternate with Roberts's background narrative, laid-back dude-speak — "Rad!" "Sweet!" — and plenty of f-bombs pepper technically detailed descriptions of climbs so harrowing that even Honnold finds the videos nerve-racking to watch.
Perhaps surprisingly, Honnold does not claim to be fearless: "I feel fear the way anyone else feels fear," he said in a recent phone interview as he drove his van away from a climbing gym in his hometown.
What sets him apart is that he's thought through that experience. "I differentiate between true danger and irrational fear," he said. "Very few people are just afraid of being up high, they're afraid of falling from up high. I differentiate between risk and consequence, what will happen if I do fall off vs. the risk of falling, which is determined by my level of fitness and the solidity of the rock and weather conditions. I feel the risk of me falling off is extremely low — but the consequences are extremely high."