Alex Honnold, Liz Cambage, Brooks Koepka and NFL stars such as Myles Garrett and the Eagles offensive line are featured in ESPN’s 2019 Body Issue. To see interviews, pictures, videos and more, visit our full 2019 gallery.
“DUDE,” ALEX HONNOLD tells me, “you should go in the loft.”
We are standing at the bottom of a ladder leading to a loft above his bedroom in his Lake Tahoe house. This is the second loft Honnold has directed me to on a tour of the place. The other one is in the living room. He grew up climbing into that one, long before he set his sights, as we saw in Free Solo, on slightly more ambitious endeavors. Back then — back before Honnold bought the house that had been in his family for decades and remodeled it to his liking — the loft wasn’t really a loft. It was a hidey-hole. More than Alex loved to disappear in it, he loved the beauty of reaching it, the feeling of having conquered something, of elevated air, of being alone and feeling alive.
I climb halfway up the ladder to peer into the loft. It’s carpeted. Sunlit and warm, with a view of the mountains. Honnold’s longtime girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, has plans to use it as a home office for her life-coaching business. A solid loft, as lofts go.
As I head down, Honnold looks at me with earthy brown eyes — earnest, obsessive and in a dead heat with oversized ears as his head’s main point of reference — and utters the most Honnold thing ever. “It’s funny. Nobody ever actually summits the loft. Like, you go halfway, you look, and then you come down. For me, if you start up a staircase, you have to summit. Because I would call that not actually going to the loft.”
“It’s odd,” he says, “but I’m starting to see that it’s the norm.”
You know what else is odd but now the norm? Two years after he became the first to climb the 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without a rope or any protective gear, a terrifying and mesmerizing feat that garnered an Oscar and a lifetime of corporate speaking gigs, as well as a reputation for being indifferent to death, Alex Honnold is talking about summiting a loft, in a beautiful new house he shares with his beautiful longtime girlfriend — not alone or desperate or driving to his next perilous climb in his signature white van.
IF YOU SAW Free Solo, you know why this is odd. If you didn’t, the film was more than a breathtaking study of what can be accomplished when the body and mind silence the fear of fastening yourself to millimeters of dimpled granite thousands of feet in the air. It was a raw and honest glimpse at the requirements of greatness. Honnold displayed his own version of the traits possessed by so many transcendent athletes — the mix of ambition, ruthlessness, insecurity, selfishness and self-confidence required to go it alone. He kept Sanni at arm’s distance through several cringeworthy state-of-the-relationship conversations. He kept obsessive daily notes of each stage of El Cap, committing each pivot to memory. And he lived in a van, devoted to its simplicity. It had everything he needed: a bed, a kitchen, a fridge, a hangboard, room to stretch and contort — he’s always stretching and contorting — and most important, the freedom to leave any place or person on a whim.
Any great athlete will tell you the urge to redefine your limits doesn’t wane with age. It gets worse, and so conspires against future happiness. Legacies fade, talent diminishes, but the drive to do something great remains. Extreme climbers are so hardwired for the quest that for many, the only way forward is to die on a mountain. Everything else is prelude. In the book The Impossible Climb, Tommy Caldwell, one of Honnold’s childhood heroes who later helped him train for El Cap, tells author Mark Synnott, “It’s hard to say this, but I think Alex will probably just continue doing this until he dies.”
Today Honnold is alive and 34 years old. After Free Solo‘s release, he went on a seven-month victory lap. At the Oscars, Bradley Cooper sought him out to chat. At an after-party, Alex and Sanni saw Mahershala Ali heading their way. Sanni was so eager to meet the actor that she tossed her hors d’oeuvres on the floor to shake his hand. Honnold toured the country, hit the late-night talk shows, gave speeches, chatted with Julian Edelman about training, spent months in hotel rooms, rode the New York subway, retained his unkempt look — charcoal hair uncombed and angular and subtly punk — and again and again tried to answer honestly when asked, “What’s next?”
The answer, for Honnold, might be more difficult and mysterious than holding himself thousands of feet off the ground. What’s next is to begin a life. A real life, with Sanni and all the blessings and trappings that will give him more to lose on a rock than just his own existence — a life that in some ways begins the orange July morning I arrive in Tahoe, when Honnold has finally moved out of the van and woken up for the first time in his new house.
“DID WE NOT run this?” Honnold says to Sanni, staring at a yawning half-full dishwasher. “They’re still dirty.”
Honnold stands in the kitchen, looking like he just rolled out of bed, because he always looks like he just rolled out of bed. Sanni is at the counter on her laptop. The van sits in the driveway. The house is in a gated community on the shores of Lake Tahoe, which sounds more pretentious than it is. It’s a compound of rustic cabins and houses passed through generations. Honnold grew up spending parts of summers in this place, where his last name matters more than his first. He was the world’s most famous soloist long before Free Solo — now he’s the most legendary — but when he rolls up to the longtime security guard at the front gate here, he’d better say he’s at the Honnold House if he hopes to get in.
The Honnold House isn’t his first house. He and Sanni share another one in Las Vegas. But this feels like his first home. They bought in Vegas because it’s a rock climbers’ nirvana, but they stay there so infrequently that Honnold gets calls from realtors offering straight cash for it. The Free Solo scenes of them buying in Vegas were striking, his minimalist instincts in overdrive. He offered to sleep on the floor rather than buy a bed. He wanted a small and unsexy fridge, white plastic instead of stainless steel. After they bought the house, he still slept in — still preferred — the van. Tahoe doesn’t offer much by way of climbing, but it does offer the lakeside sunsets stamped in Honnold’s memory of an otherwise “melancholic” childhood growing up outside Sacramento. He was a smart but socially awkward “dark soul” of a kid, unmotivated except for a love for going up things. He bought the family cabin, he says, because he wants it to remain the family cabin.
Now all he has to do is live in it. Honnold woke up this morning grumpy. The bedroom doesn’t yet have window shades, and the sunrise hit him like a spotlight.
“I might sleep better in the van,” he says.
“Not me,” Sanni replies.
Honnold doesn’t like the way the new stainless steel refrigerator opens, so he didn’t eat breakfast for a few hours. But he has perked up. He and Sanni played cribbage on his grandfather’s board. Sanni won, closing the gap on Alex’s lifetime lead — yes, they keep track — to 54-45. Now he’s picking up after a breakfast of leftover Vietnamese food, taking pride in mundane domesticity.
“See, the kitchen’s almost clean,” he says, smiling.
“Almost clean,” she says.
Sanni has layered blond hair, symmetrical dimples and eyes that echo the lake. The two met in Seattle years ago, when she attended one of his book signings. It was before El Cap, when he was a precocious climber but not yet a transcendent one. She thought he was cute and smart and weird, and decided to pass him her number. He texted her that night. They met up two weeks later, and that was that. She was fascinating in Free Solo, as willing as Alex to risk torment for a life large enough to feel real. Many awkward conversations were captured on film, none more so than when she realized he had chosen a morning to solo El Cap and hadn’t planned to tell her. At one point in the film, he said, “I will always choose climbing over a lady.” Yet here they are, balancing out each other’s crazy. Mostly.
Honnold pulls a glass from the dishwasher and glances at it. They have a set of nice new wineglasses. This one doesn’t match, a rogue glass that they’d used in the van. Sanni wants to donate it. Honnold doesn’t. He tucks it behind a row of wineglasses. “Look at that,” he says.
“No, it doesn’t go up there,” Sanni says with a slight moan and laugh. “I’m going to notice that forever.”
“I’m not going to notice it at all,” he says.
He tinkers with it, burying it further behind the wineglasses, which slides them dangerously close to the edge of the shelf. “Don’t put the — no, no, no,” she says.
“Now you can’t even tell that it’s a cup,” he says.
“But now I’m going to drop all my wineglasses,” she says.
The house is loaded with land mines. For him: Sanni’s old-school turntable, which sits in the corner with a stack of records. “I think it’s totally stupid,” says Honnold, who has all the music he’ll ever need on his phone. For her: a worn blue recliner, which belonged to Honnold’s grandparents and might be as old as the property.
“I’m probably going to be sitting in that chair forever,” Sanni sighs.
“I know, but it’s a totally nice chair,” Honnold says.
She leaves the room. He putters in the kitchen. There are a few random pens scattered about. His mind whirs. If Free Solo taught us anything, it’s that Honnold is a genius at transcending spatial relationships. He pulls the rogue cup from the shelf, fills it with the pens and places it far from the wineglasses. Boom. Peace in our time.
“Oh, look at that,” he says with a proud smile when Sanni returns to the kitchen. “Perfect. So much happier.”
ONCE THE ROCKS cool from the morning sun, today’s plan is to climb. Honnold wants to go to Cascade Cliff, outside of South Lake Tahoe. If he completes Blue Sky Black Clouds, a grade 5.14b — climbing-speak for hard as hell — crack in the cliff, it will be his biggest climbing accomplishment in at least a year.
We’ve got a few hours to kill.
Sanni wants to make the bed before I see the master bedroom, so Honnold steers me to the lofts and then to his version of a home office: the garage, which will be a climbing gym when finished. It has an inclined climbing board on one wall, and tomorrow a huge moon board — a massive panel with climbing holds — will arrive. He’s excited about all his new toys. It’s weird to see him proudly look up at an indoor wall he hopes to conquer rather than up at a national landmark.
Honnold’s latest goal is to improve his speed on sport climbs and to boost his finger strength. The former is a departure from his patient and methodical soloing style, an attempt to become a more well-rounded climber. The latter seems ludicrous to anyone who watched Free Solo and saw his life hanging by a chalked-up knuckle. His fingers, like his body, assert power, gangly but so muscular as to be swollen. You expect his fingers to be worn and callused, like a guitarist’s, but he keeps them moisturized to be sensitive enough to feel tiny variations in rock, as if reading Braille. He’s never considered himself a great athlete — or even an athlete, for most of his life. He likes football — his team is the 49ers — but was “too contrarian” for team sports growing up. He hates running, hates aimless hiking with huge backpacks and has barely lifted weights. He might have made a decent competitive swimmer, he thinks, only because he hates water so much that he’d hustle to get out of it. But he saw power and potential in the hidden architecture of a rock. It spoke not only to his loner tendencies but to his pathological need to be great at something he could control. “I love the feeling of improvement,” he says. “It’s the excitement of newness, even though it’s not, you know, impressive.”
The campus board is impressive, with three sets of ledges from which to hang by his fingers: 10 millimeters, 8 millimeters and 6 millimeters. He stands in front of the board and maneuvers his fingers onto the 6 mm ledge, holding on by half a knuckle. He tries to hang and slips off.
“In some ways, I haven’t worked hard as a climber,” he says.
It’s difficult to take him at his word when he says this, but he offers an entire argument as to why it’s true. He believes living in the van for a decade hurt his climbing. He had no home base, and so he had no home gym. He learned to climb rocks by climbing rocks, often alone. He hasn’t climbed regularly in a gym since he was a kid, when his dad, Charles, would take him — moments that are precious in retrospect. Charles died of a heart attack in July 2004, when Alex was a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley, a year after he and Alex’s mom, Dierdre Wolownick, divorced. Honnold grew up in a house where family members rarely expressed their love for one another, and there was so little affection that as an adult he had to teach himself how to hug.
When his dad died, Honnold tried to disconnect from the known world — dropping out of college, mostly living in a tent for two years and then the white 2002 Ford van he bought in 2007, climbing rocks, staring at El Cap and imagining the possibilities. He didn’t intend to become a soloist, but he became one because at first he was too shy to ask others to come along. Later, as he once wrote in an essay for Rock and Ice magazine, it was “because I feared doing something stupid when people were watching.”
Nobody was watching when he came closest to dying. It was Dec. 26, 2004, the first Christmas without his dad. Wearing his father’s snowshoes, Honnold decided to hike Mount Tallac, where his family had scattered some of Charles’ ashes months earlier. He had never snowshoed before, and he slipped and fell hundreds of feet, tumbling over himself. He woke up in a rocky area, with a broken hand, a badly bruised leg and several chipped teeth. His gloves had torn apart and his thumbs were raw, “as if they’d been sliced with a carrot peeler,” he said after the accident. He called his mom with a cellphone that she’d given him the day before as a Christmas gift and said, “Where am I?” She called 911. A helicopter saved him. More than scared, he was pissed, embarrassed that he had to be rescued. When he recorded the expedition in his notebook — writing with his left hand because his right was too busted up to hold a pen — he called himself a “pussy.”
Ask Honnold about fear and death and, well, he seems tired of discussing fear and death. It’s been posited, of course, that he doesn’t feel fear like the rest of us. Free Solo introduced the word “amygdala” — the brain’s fear center — into the zeitgeist when a brain scan in the film showed that his amygdala is unmoved by experiences that would freak out most of us. He doesn’t buy it, though. It’s an insult to reduce years of hard work, the long nights spent in his van visualizing every move, to a simple brain scan. He insists he fears just like everyone else — if, say, a crocodile entered his house, he’d freak out — but he’s spent so much time alone on cliffs that any anxiety is contained. He was scared of El Cap during most of Free Solo, after all. Only at the end did he transcend it.
Death, however — he’s always had a complicated relationship with it. It hovers over everything he does, and he picked a numbers game of a profession. Friends have died on rocks, and more will. He’s an atheist — “We’re all animals,” he says — and his dad’s death helped him prepare for his own, should he have slipped on El Cap. You can die doing anything at any time, he says. Life goes on without you. Sanni will find someone new to love. He won’t be missed. Dust in the wind. Sanni cried hard the night before he climbed El Cap, wondering if she had seen him for the last time. He didn’t cry. He slept. He slept well.
Still, Honnold is processing his dad’s death now more than ever, not because El Cap has been summited but because of the house. He feels his dad’s presence in it. The headstones for Charles and two of Alex’s grandparents are on the property, near a tree with a bird feeder. “In some ways I was too young to appreciate how big of an impact that had, or what the loss actually was,” he says.
“I think you have more empathy now,” Sanni says back in the living room.
“Hmm,” he says, stuffing his reflex to disagree. Honnold had a run in the lead-up to El Cap when he was cruel and impatient — cruelly impatient — with lesser climbers, dismissing them as glorified hikers, especially if they became more conservative after parenthood, as if all children would be as indifferent to their dad’s death as Honnold imagined loved ones would be to his own. He hid in ice crevasses to fake his own death, scaring friends who were already worried he would die on a climb. He had to psych himself into a warrior mentality of sorts to solo El Cap, a mindset that doesn’t travel well off the rock, he’s learned.
“I’m definitely more mellow now,” he says.
“Do you feel like you’ve actually changed your level of empathy or do you feel like you’ve gotten better at anticipating when empathy should come into play?” Sanni asks.
“I’m memorizing my lines,” he says.
At one point during the morning, he leaves the kitchen and returns with a green spiral notebook, the journal with the El Cap entry. He took notes of each hand and foot maneuver on El Cap and over the course of two years recited them to himself, formatting his mind to trust his body more than his eyes. He flips through the pages until he hits the entry for June 3, 2017 — the day of El Cap.
Freerider. 5-12D Solo!!! = 3:59. Felt amazing. Smooth + awesome!
He looks at it for a moment, seeing all the invisible moments of glory and desperation that allowed him to write that simple, historic line. Sanni looks too, over his shoulder, as they scan notes below the El Cap entry, stuff he didn’t want me to see. He slaps the notebook shut and puts it away. She sees tiny progress.
“When Alex and I first started dating,” she says, “he wouldn’t even let me hold his journal.”
“SHOULD WE GET our shizzle together?” Honnold says to Sanni as they sort out their climbing gear. He has his own vernacular. “Shizzle” means stuff. “Dialed” means locked into an endeavor to the point of clinical efficiency — like, flying is easier if you’re dialed into TSA Pre-Check. “Pumped” doesn’t mean stoked but rather the feeling of his forearms being so flexed during a climb that they swell into bowling pins. (I expect him to have a euphemism for “climbing,” but he always just says … climbing.) Alex and Sanni fill backpacks with water bottles and a lunch of hummus and bell pepper sandwiches; Honnold avoids meat and almost all processed food, reserving treats like pizza and ice cream for special occasions.
Alex and Sanni joke that they spent the first two years of their relationship in front of the cameras, although it’s hard to tell whether they think it’s funny. Relationships in their infancy are hard enough without a camera crew — and the urge to scale deadly cliffs is so incompatible with a well-adjusted life that climbers have a phrase for it.
“Angst climbing,” Honnold says in the kitchen.
When Honnold was a teenager, he read Kiss or Kill, a collection of essays from climber Mark “Dr. Doom” Twight. The book captures the dark currents and existential suffering that drive many in his profession. Twight called climbing “a tool to forestall suicide.” Honnold dismissed much of Twight’s claims as shtick, but he related to elements of the book. In college, he lived off campus and had barely any friends. Two questions swirled in his head, he says: “Why can’t I get laid? Why am I so ugly?” He was bright — a straight-A student in high school and in the top 2 percent of the general population on the Mensa IQ test — but he spent all of his time out of class and off campus, climbing nearby Indian Rock. School seemed useless. He first considered joining the military but then thought about a slightly less honorable career. He would see dorm windows left open, with computers within reach, and thought he’d make a good cat burglar. “I used to think, ‘Man, it would take less than 45 seconds to go and grab a laptop and disappear, and nobody would know.’ Seemed like an easy way to make a living.”
He picked climbing instead, dropping out of school and throwing himself into his craft, developing a cult following when in 2007 he became the second person ever to free solo two brutal walls in Yosemite in one day, a 1,100-foot granite pillar named Astroman and the 800-foot Rostrum, not telling anyone beforehand that he would try them and later mentioning to only one friend that he had succeeded. But he was alone in his van, often in a bad headspace.
“You’ve done your fair share of angst climbing,” Sanni says in the kitchen, knowing that he soloed Rainbow Wall in Red Rocks after a bad breakup.
“Not with you, though,” he says.
“No, but that was always an issue,” she says. “You would always joke, ‘I need angst in my life to do rad things.’ Like, having a happy relationship just makes it harder to get out of bed early and go.”
Honnold wasn’t joking. He spent most of his life holding to the belief that achieving greatness is impossible if you’re “happy and cozy.” When he and Sanni first started dating, it went so well he felt he needed to create distance, at times manufacturing angst. They had a blowout fight — OK, like most couples they’ve had a few, including when she lost control of the rope as he was training for El Cap and he fell, reinjuring his back. This fight, though, was in a parking lot. Sanni left the van for good — only she forgot her wallet in it. Honnold tracked her down at San Francisco International Airport and asked her to stay. “Sanni put her foot down firmly on the no on-and-off, so it’s just stayed on,” Honnold says.
“To your great disappointment,” she says, laughing.
“In retrospect, you don’t really need the drama of blowing stuff up over and over,” he says.
“I don’t think it’s totally gone,” she says. “In some ways, the roller coaster is — I don’t want to say more fun, but …”
“It’s more exciting,” Honnold says. “I’ve sort of committed myself to a path. And so you just sort of lose that feeling of freedom a bit.”
WE PASS FREEDOM on Highway 50 an hour or so later on the way to the mountain, when Honnold recognizes his old life.
“A climber van!” he says.
There’s a white van in the right lane, a spitting image of his own. Shades in back to block the morning sun. Climber bumper stickers. Granola veneer. Caked-on road dirt. After Honnold was profiled by 60 Minutes in 2012, he was flush with sponsorships, living in his van and accruing only about $15,000 in annual expenses. Life was good. He comfortably gave a third of his income to his foundation, which brings solar power to underdeveloped parts of the world. He upgraded to a new van in 2016, a Dodge Ram Promaster. We are not driving that van right now. We left it in the driveway. We are in a Subaru station wagon. Traffic is heavy, giving us time to discuss the parts of his Free Solo persona with which he disagrees.
“Oh, the daredevil,” he says.
“The asshole,” Sanni says.
“No, no, I don’t think that’s part of the public persona.”
“I think it is.”
“I don’t know. I don’t care. I think the risk taking, daredevil, gives no f—s, that’s wildly overblown. People watch Free Solo and are like, ‘I can’t believe you did that thing.’ The thing to take away from it is, I can’t believe you trained two years to do something that actually only took hours to climb.”
Honnold has insisted he doesn’t want to die soloing, lest he join the legions of legends who got too cocky, or too depressed, or too unlucky. If fate were to give him a heads-up that it’s how he would go, he’d immediately stop. But the rocks will always call, and he’s a young man staring at a life of chasing not only his own ghost but also the unmatched rush of absolute perfection under dire consequences. No other climber can relate. An essential part of him seemed to die on El Cap because he survived it. He has more money and fame than he ever dreamed of, two houses, a publicist whose firm’s clients include Leo DiCaprio and Natalie Portman, and an entire army of support staff to arrange his work and life. He’s neither free nor solo anymore. I ask Honnold for something, like El Cap, that he could now train two years for.
“I don’t know.”
“That’s only like nine months. And realistically, it’s more like a crash course in four months.”
“The crash course is more like the first five years,” Sanni says, laughing. “Or maybe the first 18 years.”
Honnold always imagined himself as a grandfather more than a father, both because he had great relationships with his grandparents and because he knows he will struggle with the intense engagement kids require. And then there’s maybe another reason, which Caldwell once explained so eloquently that Honnold included it in his autobiography, Alone on the Wall: “On one hand I am still a kid, full of wonder, chasing dreams of distant summits. But I’m also a father — and this means I am no longer allowed to die.”
Not being allowed to die is different from studying a daunting wall to minimize the chances of death. In Free Solo, Honnold said if he had “an obligation to maximize my life span” — a family — he’d give up soloing. He is resolute that he wants to be a great dad. “But it’s a few years off,” he says now.
The question of kids, of course, raises the question of marriage. It’s easy to imagine Honnold in a permanent committed relationship, or whatever he’d call it, but leaving himself an escape hatch. I feel semi-guilty that my nose is waaaaay in their business, but I go there. I ask about marriage. Well, sort of. I backdoor it by asking Honnold how he feels about the institution of it. He sees right through it. So does Sanni.
“That’s up to him,” she says.
“I don’t mind jumping through hoops,” he says. “Yeah, I’m down with it.”
There’s a comfortable small talk in the car as we wind through the mountains. Sanni has transformed herself with and because of Honnold, not only going from a novice to an excellent climber in her own right but also absorbing the sport as a part of her life, as essential to her days as coffee, the way good partners do. She turns to Alex: “What’s one of my hobbies you do now?”
“Talking about my feelings.”
WE CAN HEAR Honnold breathe from 50 feet down.
He’s on his last climb of the day, making his way up Blue Sky Black Clouds. The cliff extends out, like a V, as if climbing up the backside of a staircase. Honnold estimates that only a handful of climbers have finished Blue Sky, in part because the approach to the wall is a brutal hike — no trails, just hundreds of yards of sharp rock and bramble, sizzling from the sun and at altitude. We hiked most of it together before I got winded and valiantly let Honnold and Sanni go on without me, vowing to catch up. It took awhile. I got lost and ended up sliding down 20 yards of rocks on my rear to get back on track. When I finally reached the cliff, Honnold asked through a wry grin, “Did you have a hole in the ass of your shorts before this?” Fortunately, the audience privy to the hole is small: A few of Honnold’s friends are up here, including Charlie Barrett, who writes rock climbing guides and who’s now belaying Alex.
Honnold is shirtless and exhausted — sorry, pumped. His breaths are heavy and deliberate, reminiscent of the eeriest and most insane scenes in Free Solo, when it was silent except for Honnold’s labored breathing and the snapping wind and you could almost feel his heartbeat. Muscles carve up his back and arms into a primal topography, as he flashes all his famous climbing strokes, the slow and precise hand movements, the calculated pauses to re-chalk his hands and to ponder the next inconceivable twist to an unreachable spot, his 90-degree leg kicks and full-on splits at maximum exposure, a slight body so powerful it seems to bend slabs of granite to his will.
“Ahhh!!!” he yells as he reaches.
His shout echoes around the valley.
“Come on,” Barrett yells. “Come on!”
“Ahhhhh!” Honnold gasps short and sharp, as if he’s vomiting.
“Come on, Alex!” Sanni says.
“Trust it,” Barrett says.
“You got it, come on!” Sanni says.
Honnold jerks himself back and forth, testing each grip before he makes a move, the way he did when rehearsing El Cap. His face transforms when he climbs, any veil of cute goofiness yielding to a concentration so pure and intense it’s frightening, his eyes wide and almost black.
“F—!” Honnold yells as he makes his final reach, horizontal on the cliff.
“Woo-hoo!” Sanni calls out. “Woo-hoo!”
He did it. He smiles and dangles from the rope, 75 or so feet high, and unties his shoes. He is belayed down, like cargo, and when his feet touch the ground, he smiles and raises his pumped arms into a bodybuilder’s flex. His chest is sweaty, his hands white and rough-he punctured a hole in one of his fingers on the climb-but he’s happy. Others could climb this cliff faster and prettier-indeed, when he watches video of it later he’s surprised at how slow he was-but he just climbed something he’s never done before. It was a milestone, even if it won’t be featured at a film festival, and as always, he responds to throttled fear with throttled enthusiasm. After he summited El Cap, he said he was “so delighted.” Today’s climb was, he says, “pretty satisfying.”
Alex and Sanni cuddle on the rocks, eating peanut butter pretzels, breathing in fresh air. We’ve spent all day talking about beginnings and endings, what’s gained and lost when something goes away. He reduced El Cap to a series of manageable moves, and he’s doing the same to life after it. He has this climb, on this day, with these people, in this elevated air, with his empathy lines memorized and the dishes clean.
He turns to Sanni.
“Ready to go home?” he says.
Sanni is ready.
“Does this mean we can stop for ice cream?” she asks.
“Or we could just drive past the ice cream and think about how we could have gotten it,” Honnold says. “Just as satisfying.”
“Pizza sounds really good,” she says a little later.
He hugs her tight.
“No,” he says sweetly.
He hugs her tighter.
THE NEXT MORNING, we go inside the van. We’re in his driveway, waiting for a delivery truck. Honnold grabs the door handle and gives it a pull. It’s weirdly dark. It smells like the woods. The fridge, the stove and the bed are all there but sitting cold. It’s like entering a famous movie set after the picture has wrapped. The van still has gear and clothes scattered about. The red shirt and black pants he wore on El Cap are here, but he threw away the shoes after they broke at the seams, memorabilia that should have been immortalized in a museum. There are a few pictures on the walls, warping at the edges, including one of him and Sanni at Red Rocks, on what he believes was their first date. The hangboard, banged up and so white from chalk it looks like it’s aging, is still right above the door, where he would do pullups and hang from two fingers for hours, just himself and a dream. The van was a place of habits formed, both historic and unhealthy. We sit inside and he slides the door closed, revealing an etch in the dark interior paneling. It’s of El Cap. Mason Earle, the famous climber who lived for a decade in a van of his own, scratched it for Honnold before Honnold soloed it. It’s beautiful and impressionistic, all of the cracks and shadows perfectly detailed, staring at him as he lies in bed, daring him to try. The van feels essential to Honnold’s being. There’s no way he could ever part ways with it, right?
“I could,” he says. “The van is a tool.”
Your kids might want it someday, I say.
“I’m not really into mementos,” he says. “But who knows.”
His phone rings. His face lights up.
“It’s here!” he says.
A huge white moving truck pulls up, containing his new moon board.
“I’m so excited,” he says. “It’s like Christmas.”
The deliveryman is older, unshaven, very chatty and a little out there. He opens the truck and reveals a massive box, shaped like a king-sized mattress. He knows he’s delivering climbing gear, but he doesn’t appear to know to whom — that it’s, you know, the Free Solo guy. The deliveryman mentions he was a climber back in the day.
“I climbed El Cap once,” he says.
“Oh yeah?” Honnold says.
“A fun time,” he says.
The deliveryman didn’t die. Honnold didn’t die. It was a fun time. Now they’re both here, moving a big box that requires two lifting carts. Honnold pulls and I push, but we can’t make it to the garage. The driveway path isn’t clear. He leaves for a moment, disappearing into his house. I stand with the deliveryman, chatting as he taps his foot, before we turn to the sound of an engine firing up and see Honnold wheeling the van out of the way.