Is Alex Honnold’s El Cap Free-Solo the Greatest Sports Achievement—Ever?

Alex Honnold’s plans were no secret. We all knew free soloing El Capitan had been on his mind since the beginning of his climbing career; we just never knew when or even if this crazy idea might ever become a reality.

At 9:28 a.m., Saturday, June 3, 2017, Honnold succeeded in free soloing El Capitan, becoming the first person ever to do so. His ascent of the 3,000-foot Yosemite monolith via Free Rider (5.13a) took 3 hours 56 minutes, but the actual feat itself was over a decade in the making. It involved thousands of hours of soloing on easier terrain. Thousands of hours of training and pushing himself sport climbing. And countless hours of visualizing what it might actually be like to head up on El Capitan with nothing more than a pair of shoes and a chalk bag.


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For many climbers, particularly Honnold’s closest friends, the news of his audacious feat was met with a breath of relief that Honnold had actually survived. That quickly gave way to complete and utter astonishment. Already, I’ve seen climbers anoint this El Cap solo as the greatest achievement in sports—ever. But is it?

The answer, probably, is yes. Though to limit it as an achievement only within the world of “sports,” I think, is far too restrictive. First, it’s hard to even to call free soloing a “sport.” There are no other sports in which the penalty for even the most modest of errors is certain death.

Honnold’s progression to this point is as much a part of the story as the ascent itself. Now, in retrospect, it all seems premeditated in a sort of genius way. In 2007, a quiet kid from Sacremento, his face always partly shrouded by a hoody, burst onto the climbing scene by repeating the greatest free-solo of the 1980s: Peter Croft’s link-up of Astroman and the Rostrum. In 2008, Honnold free-soloed the Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park, a feat that by itself would’ve cemented his legacy as the greatest free soloist of all time. Later that year, he soloed Half Dome. Then there was Sendero Luminoso in El Potrero.

Each of these ascents was a milestone. What’s most incredible is to now view them not only as milestones but stepping stones.

“For me, free soloing is all about preparation,” Honnold wrote in his book Alone on the Wall.

Indeed. How many times did Honnold climb Free Rider in preparation for this solo? Unlike Moonlight Buttress, a route that Honnold has never fallen on, the Boulder Problem pitch of Free Rider has spit off Honnold repeatedly. It’s an insecure V7 crux, 1,700 feet up the wall.

What was the moment that made him realize he could climb through these moves with enough certainty to justify the risk? After how many times of rehearsing the route?

And how many hours did Honnold spend thinking about free soloing El Capitan over the last 10 years? Visualizing each and every move.

The answers to these questions would be as utterly glib as asking Michael Jordan how he knew he’d hit a game-winning shot. Some things can’t be described. In fact, this interview with Honnold more or less proves this point.

The idea of being ropeless 2,000 feet up El Capitan is something many climbers have pondered while resting in El Cap meadow, smoking weed, and staring transfixed up at the granite monster towering over them. For most, those moments were nothing more than ass-puckering fantasies that would spur uncomfortable fits of laughter. For Honnold, it was a serious project to be tackled.

This may explain why these ascents are, in Honnold’s mind, “no big deal.”

Most climbers might describe the idea of free-soloing El Capitan as being a matter of tackling over 3,000 feet of insecure climbing. I can almost guarantee that Honnold looked at it much differently. He most likely saw just three insecure moves on the Boulder Problem pitch—the rest of it, meanwhile, was far more confidence-inducing climbing. This may explain why these ascents are, in Honnold’s mind, “no big deal.” He meticulously breaks them down in such a way that they aren’t (for him).

One way to measure the greatness of any sporting achievement might be to consider the amount of time that passes before it’s achieved again. New world records are set in virtually every single Olympics. Every year brings new sports stars who stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. Look at someone like Usain Bolt, who has a dominant record in the 100-meter dash that might last for generations. The difference is, lots of people can run the 100 meters (albeit not quite as fast as Bolt).

Honnold, meanwhile, is performing in an event that no one else is even qualified, much less willing, to participate.

I can’t be sure, but I have a hunch that Honnold’s legacy will stand for a very, very long time. Which is one reason that I personally hope he now takes a step back from free soloing in the way that Peter Croft did—if only to reexamine any motivations for continuing. That Honnold has never struck me as particularly attached to outcomes or driven by ego inspires confidence that he’ll enjoy the next 80 years of adventure.

I find it remarkable to experience such genuine astonishment in 2017

Above all, what I’m left with, like most climbers, is a sense of complete and utter astonishment. I find it remarkable to experience such genuine astonishment in 2017, a dark year by many accounts but also an era in which it sometimes feels like we’ve seen it all. I’m taking this weekend to appreciate the fact that we just lived through history and witnessed one of the most incredible performances of all time.

We’ve all stared up at stars, and wondered what’s out there in the universe. It takes a once-in-a-generation visionary to figure out how to actually go there.

Honnold’s El Cap free solo transcends all sports. It suffuses a higher, more ancient realm in which our greatest virtues as human beings are often contained by our oldest and deepest fears. This solo was a moment in which those virtues triumphed. As a result, to witness this moment, to be a part of this community, and to feel deeply inspired by what Honnold achieved, somehow, it feels like we all triumphed, too.

Check out the exclusive story in National Geographic, and stay tuned for a feature film from Jimmy Chin.

  • Richard Parker

    This commentary is simply marvelous…no fancy language, no attempt to use words to describe an act of pure genius, commitment, and vision…well done, Andrew. You speak for me (climber and guide for over 40 years) and I am guessing for many who really do have a sense of what Alex just did…bravo!!!!

  • Patrick

    Bravo, Andrew.

  • Tim Henkels

    Perfectly composed Bisharat!

  • ChandlerG

    As a climber for over 35 years, including trips up El Cap and Half Dome, I can say one thing …what Alex did is simply the greatest athletic feat of all time. Period. What he did was absolutely incredible. Three thousand feet, thousands of individual moves each that could have been his last, and he pulled it off in a manner that is nothing short of graceful, beautiful art. Non climbers may not understand fully what happened here, but that’s ok. Even they can see that this was nothing short of amazing. What now? I hope Alex will hang up the solo game, climb with a rope, and live a long and happy life. Too many of my friends have died soloing (as well as wingsuiting) and I wish they were still here. Thank you Alex for the most awe inspiring feat I have ever seen. It humbles me as a climber and a human on this planet.

    • Panos Boutouris

      I can’t believe people just arguing about the significance of the feat when you should just bow and give a simple congratulations to this unbelievable thing Alex has done. Well done Alex and I am sure he doesn’t give a fuck of what everybody thinks of his unbelievable achievement.. well done again

      • Bobby Williams

        First off beyond words!!! Amazing job Alex!!!! WOW! That said: If Alex did not care about what others thought he would have soloed alone! without photographers or camera crews… Which means the obvious cares enough to show everyone what he is doing. I know Peter Croft free soloed most of the time alone. Actually denied photographers to follow him and gave them false times as well as routes…. most times told no-one. One of the original instant messages of a FreeSolo is with the rock chalk bag and climbing shoes… 😉

        • Brett Smith

          I get the spirit of your thought. However, I’m betting the sponsors who allow Alex to practice and practice and practice would have been pretty upset with him had there not been some serious documentation of such a feat. I’m sure working enough hours at a “regular” job to live off, would have made this impossible and we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

      • ChandlerG

        Exactly. Alex is a humble man who just did something so outside the realm of human achievement as to be almost unbelievable … until you see the photos.

  • Nathan Kaban

    Wow, well said.

  • Jaren Watson

    Amazing, inspiring free solo. May never be equaled, within the realm of free soloing.
    Greatest climbing achievement ever? Hard to say.
    Greatest athletic achievement in the history of humankind? My, what hyperbole. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment, but good lord. This may not even be the best achievement in 2017.
    I’m not diminishing what Honnold has accomplished. What he’s done is astonishing.

    • Bobby Williams


    • 4newdogs .

      A few parts of the thought process missing in your observation. No big deal. Carry on. :)

      • Jaren Watson

        Claims require evidence. Carry on.

  • David Sahalie

    big wave surfing is a better analogy than a 100m dash

    the achievement is largely mental, not athletic as such (however golf and poker are ‘sports’?). the actual grade of 13a, v7 crux, isn’t that remarkable in and of itself.

    not diminishing the accomplishment for what it is, but to call it the ‘greatest athletic achievement of all time’ is myopic to the world of climbing

    • I’m surprised to see so many people calling free climbing 3,000 feet of rock in under 4 hours without a rope mostly “mental”–as if it’s an epic game of sudoku. It does diminish the accomplishment.

      As far as big-wave surfing goes, nobody has ever died big-wave surfing (actually, I think maybe there has been one freak death, ever)–and people surf big waves all the time.

      Nobody else has ever tried to free solo El Capitan. The sheer amount of time he was exposed and climbing one hard, slippery, exposed pitch after another does distinguish this achievement beyond 25 seconds of riding a big wave or even flying a wingsuit. I can’t think of another sport where the penalty for something like a simple muscle cramp, an errant swarm of bees/birds, etc. would kill the person.

      • thewalrus

        you’re really downplaying big wave surfing. no need to do that. also, more research is needed on your part. people have died big wave surfing. a number in fact. Mark Foo at Mavericks springs immediately to mind. and a 30 second google search shows that far more have lost their lives pursuing the biggest waves.

        I liked the article. but why the need to downplay another impressive sport in the responses?

        • True. People do do die big wave surfing, but not that often. falling off your board is not automatically a death sentance the way falling free soloing is

          • Jaren Watson

            Danger and consequence are somewhat lacking as factors that imply “most athletic achievement of all time.” If death potential equals athletic ability, the finest athletes in the world are sitting around a table playing Russian roulette.

            Honnold’s climb is the most impressive free solo. We can’t say much beyond that.

          • Jim Thompson

            Exactly, Jaren. Right on the money. And even in terms of risk, while risky, folks certainly do way more risky things all the time. What Alex did was pretty controlled and well within his ability, he wasn’t actually taking huge risks, he says so himself. Not the kind of risks that thousands of others make each and every year where grievous injury or death occurs. People constantly make far more risky choices. If it was that risky, he’d be disabled or dead already, like thousands of others are.

          • The danger and consequence of this achievement are bolstered by the fact that NO ONE ELSE HAS EVEN TRIED TO DO THIS. Plenty of people play Russian roulette, surf big waves, fly wingsuits, etc. The participation numbers of those willing to try their hands at the sporting event that is “free soloing El Cap” is down to just 1, for a reason.

          • Honnold fell on the crux move two weeks before his solo. It spit him off many times.

            If it was well within his ability why did he train ten years to do it?

        • Todd Gillman

          I’m not interested in contributing to a scrum here but just have to say that the glaringly obvious difference between what Honnold does/did & your big wave analogy is that at any given big wave spot on any given big swell there will be a lineup of guys (mostly) being towed in & (often) rescued when things go south. 1., that there are even 10’s or 100’s of guys pushing it in big wave is all that needs to be said, versus the mantle that Honnold bears in a league very much his own. 2., the margin for error & level of risk is simply not the same. I’m definitely not “downplaying” the risk & skill involved in being a successful big wave rider – that shit is bananas – but at the same time, there’s just no way I can wrap my brain around downplaying Alex’s accomplishments to try to make an analogy work ..which I think is the point of the piece – this may qualify as the single greatest athletic accomplishment of our time.

      • David Sahalie

        nobody has tried to solo el cap bc no one in the sport at this point has the mental fortitude that Honnold does. He is in a league of his own. I get your point about Honnold’s task he has taken on, but it is hard to analogize to other sports.

        4 years ago, Shawn White was, and by many measures still is, the best at snowboarding. but that doesn’t make him the the best at any sport ever.

        Potter’s unroped highline feats are the best comparison in my mind. high skill level needed, certain death, lots of uncontrolled variables.

        • Saying no one else has the “mental fortitude” makes it sound like no one else has the wingspan to reach between two very far apart holds. The mind isn’t just some physical endowment, like height; it’s a muscle that has to be trained, in addition to being, apparently, naturally gifted.

          History will be the judge of just how special this achievement is. Within 20 years, I’m sure there will be dozens of kids spinning 19 feet high out of the half pipe like Shawn White is now, but I can’t imagine there will be many free solo repeats of El Cap … I’d be happy to be proven wrong on this, though.

          • reformedcyclist

            do we need to rank it? it is what it is, no matter where we all place it on our “all time” lists. way to go Honnold…the rest of us are just spectators.

      • reformedcyclist

        BASE, ski mountaineering, untethered slacklining, formula 1, etc. any of those activities could end instantly in death due to a muscle cramp, a falling rock, or any of a bunch of other unforeseen problems. reducing the significance of Honnold’s achievement to “he could die due to one mistake” misses the greater context, i think.

  • Andrew, you’ve put into words what many of us are feeling – sheer astonishment. As with many classic sports questions, regardless of this being the “greatest” achievement will be up for discussion. It’s indisputably in the highest tier of human sports accomplishments. Personally, I think calling it the greatest athletic achievement of all time is fitting. I’m a casual climber and I’ll never be in the 5.13 realm for a single pitch, let alone a 3,000′ ascent. And even if I had that talent, I can’t begin to comprehend the superhuman mental capacity to translate that skill into free soloing.

    I’m not sure what other sports come close. Robbie Madson has done things on a dirt bike that baffle the mind. Like Honnold, they left no room for error – but those stunts were quickly concluded. Some of the Red Bull mountain bike challenges are in the same spirit, as are some big mountain ski / snowboard descents. But given the need for endurance along with precision, I think Honnold is in a class by himself.

  • Pete

    Alex – I’ve been praying that you don’t fall, the thought is unbearable. Wear a base jumping chute or something?

  • James Moore

    This ranks right up there with Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree… a unique and remarkable human achievement.

  • CORoadie

    The preparation and the ability, both physically and mentally to do this surely is one of the greatest feats in the history of climbing and the history of sports. But ‘best ever’ is such as subjective thing that it becomes almost meaningless. Having participated in what many call ‘risk sports’, having had moments when I thought, well this could be it (usually in rivers or chutes, not on big walls) but it wasn’t I can truly respect the dedication needed, the fact he understood what he was getting into and understood the consequences and did it anyway. The fact that he took a climb that scares the crap out of most mortals, that puckers up most climbers, even roped, and did it with style and did it without any safety net shows his confidence and dedication. Alex will long be remembered as surely the greatest free soloist of his generation, and maybe even the greatest climber (but even there, climbing what, boulder problems, big walls, 8k peaks?) and an athlete like no other. That is all I need to know. He is something and someone special and I hope the world continues to see great things from him for years to come. I am heartened by the interview in which he says now it is time for different challenges, harder free climbs, harder boulder problems, moving the sport forward. That is what great athletes always do, move their sport forward for all.

  • Taylor Wescoatt

    Yes it’s amazing but I don’t think simply reducing safety precaution is the same as greater sporting achievement. Climbing Everest without oxygen isn’t the greatest Everest achievement – climbing it first is. Circumnavigating the world with no radio isn’t the greatest sailing achievement, doing it faster is. Greatest climber ever, sure. Riskiest move ever, idk maybe, lots of people have died trying risky things.

  • reformedcyclist

    Hermann Buhl, 1953, solo on summit day of the first ascent of Nanga Parbat…De Benedetti skiing the south face of the Aiguille Blanche/Mont Blanc…any of the alpine-style attempts in the Himalaya in the ’70s and early ’80s (without 02, modern weather forecasting; Al Rouse and Andy Parkin and others)….

    Epic achievement by Honnold, but greatest sports achievement ever? That’d be a tough argument…

  • Doubtless an amazing feat. But still insane. His mom ought to smack him upside the head. Alex Honnold is addicted and lost his rocker. I say that cause I like him and don’t care to see the same headline for him as there was for Dean Potter. It isn’t worth it.

    • the_chemist_of_discord

      I’d class Honnold and Potter quite differently. Potter seemed the quintessential adrenaline junkie, while Honnold is Mr. Spock.

    • Potter died wingsuit. A little riskier. Just a little. I mean a lot.

  • Mark Rolofson

    It is no doubt a mind blowing feat & an insane accomplishment. Certainly the most committing rock climb that has been free soloed. That said, it can not be seen as the most amazing athletic achievement, because much harder climbs are being done with a rope. Far more impressive of an athletic achievement is free climbing the Dawn Wall or climbing 5.15.
    Alex Honnold obviously is enjoys free soloing & is comfortable with it. I believe free soloing should never be encouraged. Sponsorship & money are not the right reasons to engage in an activity that could so quickly end your life. I don’t envy Alex or any other serious free soloist. They are living on borrowed time.

    • Jess Rabourn

      Have you ever free soloed a grade 4+ route? Even an easy one like Royal Arches? No roped climb of any difficulty will EVER match the athletic accomplishment of what Honnold did.

      • Mark Rolofson

        As the matter of fact, decades ago in my twenties, I did a bit of free soloing. I free soloed a few short 5.10s of 50 ft. in length & several of milti-pitch moderates (5.9 & easier). I free soloed the east face of the First Flatiron with a 5.7 friction start, the first time I climbed it. It has 1,000 ft. of easy climbing. It was pretty casual, being well below my ability. The last 5.9 free solo I did was in 1992, the same day I redpointed a 5.13b. That 5.9 was no big deal at the time. After that, I decided that free soloing is a foolish activity & a good way to kill yourself. Not worth the risk.
        There is no doubt that free climbing Free Rider is an athletic achievement (roped or unroped). It is mind blowing Alex did it. He is certainly capable of much harder climbs with a rope. Free soloing hard climbs is a lot like being a gunfighter. Eventually you will lose & the price is your life. If you’re okay with that then fine. I guess I don’t worship free soloists & the type of respect I give them is questionable. Bachar was considered a hero figure by some California climbers of the 1980s. There is nothing heroic about free soloing. Free soloing 5.12 or 5.13 is insane. I have much greater admiration for Caldwell & Jorgensen for freeing the Dawn Wall or Adam Ondra’s amazing 2nd free ascent in 8 days.

        • Jim Thompson

          What do you do today in terms of outdoor activities? As well, what level of free-climbing has Alex Honnold achieved? I mean how competitive is he with the very top echelon of sport’s climbers. He admits himself there are climbers that are more powerful than him, he considers himself an endurance climber. I assume this means that technically, he would not compete that well in a world-class climbing competition?

    • Honnold could free climb Dawn /Wall if he committed to the project. Caldwell and Jorganson who did the FFA of Dawn Wall would never consider gong up on El Cap without a rope regardless of the amount of preparation they did. While Caldwell and Honnold frequently climb together and have the same ability, Honnold’s ascent is psychologically years ahead of anything being done on a rope because of the consequences which can be mitigated, but not eliminated. Living on borrowed time? Garbage. Peter Croft who did the first ropeless ascents of Grade Vs in The Valley is alive and well a generation later.

  • Adam Wood

    No mention of Hansjorg Auer’s solo of The Fish 12c, on the south face of the Marmolada back in 2007? Similar height and exposure, alpine approach, not that much easier in outright difficulty of crux pitches, and done with very little pre-practice (a FAILED redpoint attempt 3 years earlier, and 5 hours top roping the crux sections the day before the ascent). These things are of course subjective, but I would say this ascent ranks right up there with Honolds.

    • Jake Sevins

      Have you seen the Fisch Route? It’s got a lot more easy climbing and the wall isn’t nearly as steep as El Cap. I agree that 12c isn’t that far from 13a, so max difficulty is comparable, but overall Free Rider is a much harder route. But when you consider that Auer’s ascent was 10 years before Honnold’s I think Auer deserves some recognition for his groundbreaking ascent.

  • steve

    Good grief. Pass me the vomit bag.

  • Mircea Murariu

    I have only admiration and respect for Andrew and the way he presents Alex. In my personal opinion Alex is a legend in climbing community with out any more to saying about. He’s achievement is unique and difficult to be repeated. Awesome

  • GusLevy

    Well, Kim Jong Il did shoot 18 on a regulation Par-18 golf course…but Honnold definitely gets the 2nd Place trophy.

  • Tom Stoltz

    Alex’s climb is probably the greatest stunt of all time. Athletically speaking…. quite a few people can free Free Rider. I don’t think we should be celebrating his solos or any solos for that matter. However, I do believe in overpopulation and Darwin’s theory of natural selection. So maybe encouraging more people to free solo isn’t a bad thing.

  • DaveinOlyWA

    I agree that Honnold’s feat is not the greatest athletic achievement of all time. It truly is THE single greatest achievement in the history of Mankind! The Oscar “Free Solo” won is partly cinematic, partly an expose on the drive to succeed but it truly is due to an unbelievably amazing person and story.