You’d be forgiven for thinking that Alex Honnold, the only person in history to scale the 3,000 foot El Capitan wall in Yosemite National Park without ropes, is not easily phased.
Throughout Free Solo – the Oscar-nominated documentary from filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Tommy Caldwell which documents his climb – he appears cool and assured, despite the near-constant threat of painful death that accompanies his hobby.
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But while scaling a vertical rock face several hundred feet above sea level doesn't faze him – he's still finding his feet when it comes to public speaking, admitting "in some ways" he found the TED talk he performed in 2017 even scarier than his El Capitan climb.
“I dropped a whole final paragraph of my TED talk,” he tells RadioTimes.com. “I found it very challenging to perform.”
It’s no spoiler to say that, in contrast, his climb went off without a hitch (he wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t). He was so well-drilled by the time he attempted it that he rarely seems to doubt the positive outcome, having meticulously plotted the route with which he was most comfortable on numerous practice runs with ropes.
And he feels that a few more runs out on a stage in front of cameras and a live audience (an increasingly common occurrence in the wake of the film’s success) will change things.
“The TED talk was actually really, really scary, because it was so high pressure and it was so much more intense [than an average public appearance], and it’s something that I’d never done before. It’s a good example to me that there are always things that you’re constantly drilling and improving and pushing yourself to do. It’s the same process in climbing or in public speaking or whatever else you’re trying to achieve. That’s why I don’t think that I’m fundamentally different than anyone else.”
His voice drops when I ask him how he’d feel about stepping on stage at the Academy Awards, should the film go on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. “I don’t think I’ll have to,” he says, with a hint of relief, after a moment of consideration. “I think only the director and producers are supposed to go on stage.”
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He adds: “Nobody cares about documentaries anyway. They’re all there to see Best Feature.”
But the film has been a hit, burrowing its way into the mainstream during its limited run in cinemas (it will be available to a much wider audience when it hits the National Geographic channel later this year).
With it has come discussion about responsibility, with some voices in the climbing community suggesting that it risks glorifying free soloing.
Rock climbing journalist Kevin Corrigan argues that while “the filmmakers do a good job of questioning Honnold leading up to the ascent”, they still frame him as the “hero” of the story, and that ultimately “victory silences scrutiny”.
Honnold dismisses this, as he reckons free soloing is not the kind of climbing that your average audience member is going to attempt after watching the film.
“I actually haven’t really noticed that much backlash against the potential for imitation or what else,” he says. “I just think that the film, it’s just so far out there. It’s not the kind of thing that people watch and think “I should do that. It just represents, it’s just so hard. It’s not something you can just imitate by seeing it once.”
For now, he's got glitzier affairs to worry about, and thankfully he has an unlikely ally in Hollywood to guide him through awards season: actor and 30 Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto.
The two became friendly after meeting on a climb with a mutual friend, and they hang out regularly whenever Honnold is in Los Angeles. Leto lent him a tux for the Producers Guild Awards in January, and was one of the first people to congratulate him upon completing the El Cap climb, by getting thousands of fans at a 30 Seconds To Mars concert in Nashville to scream his name.
"It’s funny cause so many of my friends texted me after free soloing El Cap, naturally, but no one had sent me a fricking concert," he says. "It's kind of amazing."
Free Solo comes to National Geographic soon