Alex Honnold is a true risk-taker. And he’s now set himself apart as the greatest rock climber of all time. On June 3rd, 2017 Alex began his ascent of the 3,000 foot vertical granite cliff El Capitan in Yosemite National Park with no ropes and no room for error. If he had slipped, he would have fallen to his death. 3 hours and 56 minutes later, he was celebrating a perfect execution.
The result of this death-defying climb into nature was an Academy Award in 2019 for the National Geographic documentary Free Solo. The film was directed by award-winning filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who followed Alex for over two years as he prepared for this climb of his life.
But the preparation for this climb took much more than 2 years.
Alex Honnold’s multi-media keynote begins with a 30-second clip of what he calls “the best day of my life.” In 30 seconds on the face of the monolith 3,000 foot El Capitan, Alex ascends about 10 inches. The most important thing to Alex on that day was that he felt as comfortable as a walk in the park–which is what most people at Yosemite were doing that day.
As preparation is the key to any valued outcome, Alex then shares how he planned for this most important summit of his life on El Capitan, and how a free solo summit of the smaller Half Dome was an important part of this preparation. Half Dome is the famed 2,000 foot half-circular rock formation that helps to brand Yosemite National Park and acts as its landmark mountain. As Alex describes this similar but shorter climb that was 8 years prior to his now famous ascent, he shares how he hit a perilous point in that climb where he didn’t have an answer. It was a foothold that he didn’t trust. After a series of panicked moments which seemed like hours as he could hear tourists laughing on the trails above, Alex took danger out of the mix and took a step to balance with his right foot–which worked–and then he charged from there up to the top of the summit. As he reaches the summit of Half Dome with no ropes, no gear, and no backpack, the throngs of tourists who typically gather around a climber for selfies didn’t bat an eye. He knew that to those tourists he just looked like a shirtless hiker who had gotten too close to the edge.
The laughter continues as Alex tells of his descent down the hiking trails barefoot when he is stopped by a tourist who remarks “You’re hiking barefoot?? That’s SO hard-core!”
Never satisfied, Alex Honnold felt that this summit did not represent true mastery, so he set out to master El Capitan in a free solo climb that wouldn’t take place for another 8 years. His preparation for that famous climb was intense, and included over 50 treks of that mountain with ropes. Using rehearsal, repetition, preparation, and memory, 3,000 feet of climbing represented thousands of distinct hand and foot movements. Every step had to feel absolutely automatic, so Alex memorized each sequence of the climb.
Understanding that free soloing is an effort more of the mind than it is physical, Alex used visualization techniques to prepare and he imagined the entire experience before he did it. He also had to prepare for the What If’s: What if he couldn’t stretch to reach a point? What if it got too scary? What if he was too tired? Alex shares that Doubt is the precursor to Fear and these rehearsals both on the mountain and in his mind left no room for doubt. Conquering El Capitan meant enough to Alex that he had to continue his quest.
June 3, 2017. Alex felt confident and ready and prepared. It was a perfect execution. 3 hours and 56 minutes of glorious mastery.
Alex Honnold’s TED talk has over 5 million views. As a hugely popular keynote speaker, Alex shares the risks involved with this decade-long dream to complete one of the most dangerous free solo climbs ever. Because taking risks in business is tantamount to success, Alex’ keynote speeches detail the similarities between his risks and the preparation for them and the uncertainties we all face on a daily basis.