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March 23, 2021

Podcast 116: Free Solo Climber Alex Honnold on Eliminating Fear and Accomplishing Greatness

This week’s podcast guest is the remarkable Alex Honnold, the first person on the planet to climb Yosemite's 3,000-foot El Capitan without a rope.

By Will Ahmed

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Alex Honnold is one of the greatest rock climbers on the planet and is most famous for his daring ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan… without a rope. He was the first person to ever accomplish that feat. The climb was chronicled in the Oscar-winning National Geographic documentary Free Solo.

Few athletes in the world have reached the level of mastery in their field the way Alex has, but he openly says he’s not the most talented rock climber out there. It’s clear that his command of the mental side of performance sets him apart from the rest. He shares how he has trained himself to control and almost eliminate fear while he makes life or death solo climbs. It really is next level stuff.

Additionally, Alex discusses playing to your strengths as the key to accomplishing great things, using visualization to picture the positive and the negative, and why he doesn’t like the public perception that he’s a risk taker.

Alex is launching his own podcast called Climbing Gold, which is a detailed look at the history of rock climbing. WHOOP is honored to be the title sponsor of that podcast, so check it out wherever you listen to podcasts.

 

Alex Honnold Podcast Show Notes

3:40 – Beginnings. Alex details how he got into rock climbing at the age of 10 and how he transitioned into climbing without a rope.

6:05 – Living in a Van. Alex dropped out of college and lived in a van for over a decade. He used the van to travel around to the best climbing spots in the country.

7:11 – Learning to Prepare. In 2008, Alex became the first person to free solo Half Dome at Yosemite, a major accomplishment in the climbing world. But he describes the experience as a let down. “I didn’t really prepare for the free solo of Half Dome at all because it was the biggest and most difficult thing I had done at that point. I basically didn’t know how to prepare for it, it was too big a scope, too big a scale. I intentionally went up there with minimal preparation thinking that I was preserving the adventure of it. As it turns out, it was too much of an [adventure], it turned out being really scary. … When I finished the climb, I felt like I had gotten away with something. It wasn’t the experience I had hoped for in a free solo.”

9:25 – Risk vs. Consequence. “Risk I define as the likelihood of something going wrong and consequence being the severity if something does go wrong. For example, with free soloing, it’s really hard for an observer to tell what the risk is because it’s hard for someone watching a video of me climbing to know how likely I am to fall off, but it’s very obvious what the consequences are, because pretty much anywhere if I fall off, I’m going to die. I think a lot of people conflate that because they look at a video of me free soloing and say, ‘Oh, that’s super risky.’ … The appeal of free soloing for me is to be in a high consequence situation but to make it feel super low risk, to feel totally safe doing something that has very high consequences.”

11:46 – Mastery. “Just doing ‘The Thing’ in a lot of ways isn’t enough. It’s how you feel doing ‘The Thing’ and how you feel building up to ‘The Thing.’ Basically, the way you lead your life on the way to doing ‘The Thing’ [is what] matters.”

18:10 – Playing to Your Strengths. “To improve at climbing, it’s all about focusing on your weaknesses. This is true in life, if you want to get better at things, focus on what you’re bad at. But then I had this realization where it occurred to me that if you want to do your absolute best at something, focus on your strengths. If you want to improve, focus on your weakness, but if you want to do something incredible, focus on what you’re best at. … By really focusing and exploiting those strengths to the max, I’ve been able to do some things that I’m really proud of.”

24:50 – Training for El Capitan. “El Cap is 3,000 feet tall so [people train] for a 3,000 foot climb, which might be comparable to training for a marathon, let’s say. But I knew that in order to free solo El Cap, I wasn’t going to just climb it once, I was going to climb it day-in and day-out all season long as I rehearsed movements and memorized sequences and practiced and all that. I wasn’t training to do a marathon, I was training to do a marathon four times a week all season.”

28:00 – Free Solo. Alex details how the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo came to be and the concerns the filmmakers had about filming Alex’s attempt to climb El Capitan without a rope.

32:41 – Visualization. “To me, the point of visualization is to prepare you for any possibility that could happen while climbing. Basically, the point is to not be caught by surprise by anything. You don’t want to get into a position climbing and suddenly have the thought for the first time, ‘What if I fall?’ You want to have thought that through in its entirety. You want to already know that if your foot slips here, you’re going to cartwheel down the wall, you’re going to bounce down the wall, and you’re going to explode on impact on the ground. It’s all terrible things to think about, and it’s scary to think about, but it’s important to think about those things ahead of time so you don’t suddenly come up with them for the first time while you’re in that position. I think that if you focus only on positive visualization, that’s actually kind of dangerous because that’s luring you into something that could be beyond you.”

37:24 – Overcoming Fear. Will and Alex discuss how discipline and intent can help you train yourself to control fear. Studies of Alex’s brain have shown that his amygdala, the section of the brain responsible for fear, is under-active compared to the normal person.

38:37 – TED Talk. Alex admitted to being extremely nervous before giving his TED Talk on climbing El Capitan. “I’ve been working on every aspect of my climbing for 25 years and I’ve learned a lot of things about managing my fear and controlling emotion. But when I try to apply that to something like a TED Talk … [I thought] ‘This is hard for me.’”

43:16 – REM Sleep. Alex says he gets roughly 3 and a half hours of REM sleep per night. “That’s an enormous amount REM sleep!” Will says. “That’s an outlier level of REM sleep.”

44:23 – Athlete Data. Will references a piece just published by WHOOP on Justin Thomas’ sleep, strain, and recovery the weekend he won the Players Championship.

53:31 – Body Weight Exercise. Alex says he prefers body weight exercises to weightlifting.

55:44 – What’s Next? “Now I’m very much feeling a personal hunger again where I have a handful of soloing projects and I have a handful of things that I’m excited about.” Alex also has a climbing virtual reality project that he is working on.

1:00:57 – New Podcast. Alex has a new podcast, Climbing Gold, which will be released this week. It’s a 20-episode series on the history of rock climbing. “Climbing is having a real moment, and I felt like it’s important to share some of the timeless stories of where climbing has come from and to use those to highlight where it’s going. It’s been a passion project through COVID. It’s really an opportunity to interview all of my heroes.”

1:02:18 – Staying Safe in a Dangerous Sport. “The reality is I’m always trying to be careful. I don’t want to die either! Whether I’m doing it for loved ones or doing it for myself, I’m always being as careful as I can.”

1:04:33 – Public Perception. “Most people get an opinion [of me] from a single YouTube video and say, ‘That guy is insane!’ I say, ‘Come on, I’ve been working at this for 25 years and I devote almost everything I do to this one activity.’ It’s not like I’m just walking up and climbing the rock.”

1:05:44 – Avoiding Risk. Alex says he avoids almost all forms of risk in everyday life. “I hate rolling the dice. I’ve never gambled. I think the lottery is totally stupid. I don’t want to take chances for no reason. I think it’s silly.”

Connect with Alex on Instagram and Twitter, or visit AlexHonnold.com.

Be sure to check out his new podcast, Climbing Gold, when it drops on March 26th. Here’s where you can listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Learn more about Alex’s mission to increase energy access worldwide through solar initiatives at HonnoldFoundation.org.

 

 

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Will Ahmed

Will Ahmed is the Founder and CEO of WHOOP, which has developed next generation wearable technology for optimizing human performance. WHOOP today works with everyone from professional athletes to fitness enthusiasts to executives. Ahmed has raised $200 million from top investors and has an active advisory board that consists of some of the world’s most notable cardiologists, technologists, and designers. He wrote “The Feedback Tool: Measuring Fitness, Intensity, and Recovery,” which sparked the underlying physiology and engineering for his work today. Ahmed was named a 2011 Harvard College Scholar for finishing in the top 10% of his class and a CSA Scholar Athlete; he captained the Harvard Men’s Varsity Squash Team. He was also recently named to Forbes 30 Under 30 and Boston Business Journal 40 Under 40.

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