Alex Honnold of Free Solo: Colorado Climbing Isn't That Great

Alex Honnold at the Hang, a festival at Earth Treks in Englewood on Tuesday, June 18.
Alex Honnold at the Hang, a festival at Earth Treks in Englewood on Tuesday, June 18. Chris Walker
The first thing Alex Honnold said when he sat down before a group of journalists and TV cameras for a press conference at Earth Treks, a climbing gym in Englewood, was, “Oh, maybe I should put some shoes on.”

Reporters chuckled as Honnold dashed off to grab some footwear. He returned wearing — what else? — a pair of climbing shoes.

For those who’ve seen the 2018 Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, Honnold needs no introduction. For the rest of you who’ve been living underneath a rock (pun intended), Alex Honnold is perhaps the world’s most famous rock climber, a 33-year-old daredevil whose specialty is free-soloing, or climbing without a rope. In 2017, Honnold captured the world’s attention by becoming the first and only climber to complete a free solo ascent on El Capitan, the imposing big wall in California’s Yosemite valley. Honnold ascended the 2,900-foot-tall, 37-pitch Freerider route on El Cap in just under four hours — totally ropeless. The climb was immortalized by Free Solo, and ever since the film hit theaters, Honnold has become something of a celebrity.

That much was apparent at Earth Treks this past Tuesday, June 18, as Honnold was thronged by fans at the climbing gym. The occasion was the Hang, a climbing competition and festival held in conjunction with the Outdoor Retailer expo that drew amateur climbing enthusiasts and climbing legends alike to the 53,000-square-foot facility in Englewood. Honnold was there partly in an advocacy role; he recently joined the board of El Cap, the parent company of Earth Treks, to help evangelize indoor climbing and grow the climbing community around its facilities across the U.S. He was joined by Ashima Shiraishi, the eighteen-year-old bouldering phenom who won the 2019 Bouldering National Championships in February and is hoping to represent the U.S. on the world stage at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan.

At the press conference, Honnold was asked all about his life post-Free Solo, to which the climber responded that he’d only recently finished the worldwide promotional tour for the film and had a bit of a crash afterward. In early June, he returned to Yosemite just to climb, but found he couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized. “I’ve found that I can’t really be in public there,” he said with a chuckle. Going to the grocery store meant getting mobbed. And during hikes, he’d try to blow past people on the trail before they recognized him. It didn’t always work.

"But this is the path I chose," Honnold added.

click to enlarge Ashima Shiraishi and Alex Honnold. - CHRIS WALKE
Ashima Shiraishi and Alex Honnold.
Chris Walke
The climber said that he’s currently focusing on strength training for future projects — he wouldn’t specify exactly what — since doing the film promotional tour took him out of his usual training regimen. During the previous few years, that regimen has included spending the spring in Yosemite, then coming to Colorado for up to a month afterward for more casual climbing.

Westword had some exclusive time to interview Honnold at the event, and at his mention of climbing in Colorado, we were curious about what the athlete’s favorite outdoor climbs are in the Centennial State, including specific routes.

But a warning: Honnold really does speak as candidly as he appears to in Free Solo. Unprovoked by us, he spoke rather bluntly about how Colorado compares to other areas of the U.S. — so take from that what you will!

Westword: So you mentioned how, in recent years, you’ve spent some time in Boulder after spending the peak of the climbing season in Yosemite. For our Colorado audience, what are your favorite climbing areas in this state?

Honnold: I have a soft spot for Eldo, just because I’ve spent a lot of good times with friends going in there. I also like Boulder Canyon.

Those are classic spots. Do you have any specific routes that are your favorite in Eldorado Canyon, like the Bastille, for instance?

The Bastille's kind of...meh. Yeah, I'd say not really; it's always something different. The Yellow Spur [in Eldo] is nice…and in Boulder Canyon, the Bell Buttress is a nice wall with a lot of classic routes. But the thing that's great about Boulder isn't any of those things in particular; it's the fact that there are a lot of options around. But none of the routes are that great. I live in Las Vegas for a reason — because the climbing is way better; the access is way better.

The routes here aren't that great in what way? I feel like you're bumming out the Colorado climbing community!

[Laughs.] No, no, no — anyone who lives in Colorado who has traveled knows that the climbing in Colorado isn't that great in and of itself. It's just that it's super-accessible, it's convenient, and there are a lot of climbers who live here. But I mean, many other parts of the world are a lot better.

Eldo, for instance, is super-slick. There's sketchy gear that's always a little bit scary. But it's right there, so you're like 'Oh, cool, at least there's a lot to climb."

How long have you been coming to Colorado to climb?

I spent like three summers hanging around.

You’ve climbed a lot with Tommy Caldwell. Did he show you any routes here, since he lives in Estes Park?

No, not that much. I've climbed with him a little bit around Estes, but not a ton. The reason I don't climb Estes often is that it's too much work — it's too much hiking. I don't want to walk two hours to climb something when I've just spent the season in Yosemite running down El Cap all the time.

So it sounds like Colorado is where you do more relaxed climbing.

Yeah. Vegas is better. But, you know, Colorado's all right.
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker