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Alex Honnold on risk, activism and searching for purpose

Unfiltered meets the world’s greatest-ever climber to discover the inside story of his latest record-breaking challenge in one of the last great unexplored frontiers: a first-known crossing of Greenland’s Renland ice cap and a 3,750ft climb of the exposed sea cliff Ingmikortilaq, an immense rock face towering above the freezing ocean
Alex Honnold
Alex Honnold

Alex Honnold is an American rock climber best known for his free solo ascents of big walls, most famously becoming the first person to free solo a route on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The climb was the subject of a 2018 biographical documentary “Free Solo”, which won a BAFTA and Academy Award. His new series “Arctic Ascent with Alex Honnold” is available now on the Hulu and Disney+ streaming services. Visit honnoldfoundation.org.

Alex Honnold’s free solo ascent of El Capitan in 2017 was described by the New York Times as “one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever”.

And if you’ve seen Academy Award-winning documentary “Free Solo”, which follows Honnold’s unaided climb (yes, unaided, which means no ropes, no safety equipment, just shoes for his feet and chalk for his hands) of the 2,900ft (884m) Freerider route in just 3hr 56min, you’d be hard-pressed to name another example of human endeavour that combines indescribable levels of confidence, bravery and downright insanity.

Indeed, trying to do justice to exactly what Honnold achieved to someone who hasn’t watched “Free Solo” is utterly impossible. The words don’t exist. You have to see it yourself to believe it, but don’t expect to comprehend it. Even if you do, you won’t be able to explain what you’ve just witnessed. It’s like watching someone flap their arms and launch into flight in front of your very eyes, then land like they’ve done nothing out of the ordinary. It’s not just super-human. It’s more like watching human evolution up close, in real time, as a man scales a billion-year-old bit of vertical rock the way you or I take a stroll through the park.

Following Honnold’s groundbreaking – and stomach-lurching – ascent of El Capitan, the acclaimed climber’s latest project, “Arctic Ascent with Alex Honnold”, follows his exploration into the heart of Greenland against the backdrop of a climate change and its impact on the Polar ice cap. The challenge? To summit Ingmikortilaq, an unclimbed ice and rock sea cliff towering nearly 1000ft higher than El Cap.

Honnold teamed up with climbers Hazel Findlay and Mikey Schaefer, glaciologist Dr Heïdi Sevestre and Greenlandic guide Adam Kjeldsen to venture to a landscape being profoundly impacted by the climate crisis.

But the journey, captured on film by the National Geographic documentary team, isn’t just about conquering peaks; it’s about confronting the urgent realities of climate change. As they navigate perilous terrain and changing conditions, the team confronts the stark reality of a warming world.

The series also captures the tension between adventure and responsibility. There’s breathtaking imagery and heart-stopping climbs – as we’ve come to expect from the creator of Free Solo – along with a powerful message about the importance of preserving our planet’s fragile ecosystems. Unfiltered took the opportunity ahead of the launch of the three-episode series to discover more about Honnold’s endeavors and how his newfound status as a father is impacting upon the personal risks he takes.

“Arctic Ascent with Alex Honnold”, a new National Geographic documentary, is available to stream now on Hulu and Disney+.

Alex, in the series we see you in a portaledge hanging on the sheer face of the 3,750ft sea cliff. You’re looking at photos of your toddler daughter. How has fatherhood changed your attitude to risky expeditions?

I’d say it’s affected the types of expedition I’m willing to do, or that I don’t want to do. I think the trips I do now just have to be more purposeful. They have to mean more to me if I’m going to be away from family that long.

Has becoming a dad made you more risk averse?

Well, I didn’t want to die in a climbing accident before I had kids – and I still don’t want to die in a climbing accident, so that hasn’t totally changed.

But if I’m being honest, it does change a little bit because I’ve wound up choosing to climb closer to home and I guess I’ve re-assessed my goals. Right now, my wife is nine months pregnant expecting our second child. Plus, we have a toddler already. I’m setting goals that are more training oriented and process focused and less like big adventure goals.

It almost sounds that fatherhood and its responsibilities are subliminally changing your approach to life at least?

Maybe. I know that I’ve found myself wondering if I’ll end up with a lower tolerance for risk in a few years if I’m consistently not doing big adventures. Part of me is thinking is this the whole ‘middle aged suburban dad thing’ is sinking in? Will I hit a point where I’ve been setting different goals for myself and realise that I’ve lost the capacity to do things that I used to do? Or maybe it’ll be the complete opposite and I’m going to be so pent up for adventure in a year or two that I’m gonna go totally crazy. Who knows?

I guess there’s little more purposeful reason to be away from the family than highlighting the impact climate change is having upon our planet?

Yeah, though to be honest, the most important part for me is still the climbing. I love the giant unclimbed wall, the physical challenge, the adventure of climbing that peak.

But I think that that by itself wouldn’t be enough for me to leave the family for that long. Where I live there’s a lifetime’s worth of climbing close by. I could have a good time climbing every day and still get my daughter out of bed every morning and put her to bed every night. There has to be a greater purpose than just the climbing for me at this point.

And the draw of Ingmikortilaq – an unclimbed sea cliff that’s nearly 1000ft higher than El Capitan – is enough to do that?

Absolutely. For the sake of climate science communication and sharing the natural beauty of Greenland and for highlighting how much climate change matters for the hundreds and millions of people that live on coasts.

Alex Honnold: “I’ve always cared about environmental projects and tried to do something useful in the world.” (Photo credit: National Geographic/Pablo Durana)

Will your climate activism be the key motivation for any adventures from now on?

I don’t think it’ll be just from now on. I’ve had a foundation that helps marginalized communities transition to renewable energy for over a decade. I’ve always cared about environmental projects and tried to do something useful in the world. I think that the climate-focused projects will always be sort of a kind of added benefit that that will help push a climbing project over the line.

As I say, I love rock climbing and I’m predominantly motivated by rock climbing. But I think that when it can be beneficial to others, highlighting the right kind of natural beauty in the right part of the world, for mainstream audiences, that makes a climbing project feel more worthwhile to me.

The series definitely shows us the beauty and the beast of climbing in the Arctic.

Absolutely, when I think of all the other things that are on television, nowadays and there I am highlighting the wonder of eastern Greenland I think that’s a win!

The film also highlights some of the perils that climbing to this extreme entails. How did you select the team that would accompany you on such a challenging expedition… or did it choose itself?

It was a bit of both. Several of the people are close friends of mine I’ve worked with extensively before, like Mikey Schaefer, he was a big part of the free solo team. Also, Hazel Finley is someone I’ve been on expeditions with all over the world and we’ve put together a tonne of climbing in.

Then some of the team came together through the production side, like climate scientist Dr Heïdi Sevestre. As it turns out, Heïdi was probably the best member of the team. She’s incredible, so passionate about the science and she totally brought the whole expedition to life in a way because we learned so much more about the landscape.

Alex Honnold descends deep into a moulin, also known as a glacier mill, which is a roughly circular, vertical well-like shaft formed where a surface meltstream exploits a weakness in the ice. (Photo credit: National Geographic/Pablo Durana)

Such a unique expedition must require a lot of logistical planning too?

It’s like a bunch of puzzle pieces floating around – the objectives, dates and availabilities – and eventually they start to fall into place. The real challenge with Greenland is that you’re limited by when the pack ice breaks up. The break-up of the ice pack is based upon how heavy the previous winter was. Basically, any time you’re doing an expedition like this you’re constrained by nature.

Speaking of nature, what is it like to see climate change taking place as a tactile action in front of your very eyes?

Yeah, you do see icebergs calving off of glaciers but that’s totally natural. It’s part of the hydrological process; snow falls on the ice sheet and eventually condenses and slides downhill and the glacier eventually falls into the ocean, evaporates and comes back. That’s all natural and quite a beautiful thing to watch as it happens.

But it takes somebody really knowledgeable about the science, like Heidi, to help us understand what we’re actually witnessing; that the Arctic is warming three or four times faster than the rest of the world. Sure, the Alps in Europe are melting out superfast – but the Arctic is melting out three or four times faster than that. Suddenly the more you know about it, the more you realise how relatively fragile it all is. The beauty of a film like this is that it helps communicate how you can be both awed by nature – and concerned about the trajectory that it is on.

Alex Honnold and his team pass Ingmikortilaq by boat in Eastern Greenland. (Photo credit: National Geographic/Pablo Durana)

In one episode that ongoing change manifests itself as a whole bunch of ice and rock falling down on you as you’re climbing the wall. Was that a shock for you?

It was unfortunate, but it’s not surprising for walls like that, in that part of the world, to start having ice fall off and rocks fall down. That’s the nature of being in the mountains, they’re really dynamic. It’s a varied landscape, things are constantly changing but you try to minimise the risk as much as possible. You’re not trying to get hit by falling ice all the time – but it happens.

You’re juggling that balance now between family life and continuing to raise awareness of climate change through your climbing. What’s next on the horizon for you?

It’s family trips for the foreseeable future. We’re hoping to do a couple of trips this year, a casual sort of climbing family vacation. And then we’re going to talk about another expedition like this one, perhaps next winter. But having two kids under two this year means it’s probably going to be all hands on deck for the time being!

“Arctic Ascent with Alex Honnold”, a new National Geographic documentary, is available to stream now on Hulu and Disney+.

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