Alex Honnold's next big climb isn't Free Solo, it's free solar

The world's boldest rock climber is using his newfound fame to help change the world.
James Martin/CNET
This story is part of Road Trip 2019, profiles of the troublemakers and trailblazers who are designing our future.

Alex Honnold promised his mother he'd send a postcard.

That was back in 2010, just before embarking on a trip to Chad, the "dead heart of Africa," a landlocked country bordered by Libya, Niger, Sudan and Nigeria.

A rock climbing trip to the Ennedi Plateau, a sprawling blank desert expanse punctuated by gigantic, contorted features. Pillars, arches, bewildering towers made of practically untouched rock.

Rock just begging to be climbed.

Back then Honnold was eight years from the release of Free Solo, the Oscar-winning documentary that chronicled his daring, ropeless ascent up the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. But he was no different from the Honnold I'm following now, over the next few days, as he hops effortlessly from speaking gigs to rock climbing to -- bizarrely -- a museum panel about landmines.

In some ways the diversity makes perfect sense. His is the schedule of a celebrity and, in 2019, Honnold is without doubt the most famous rock climber on the planet. Black-haired and dark-eyed, he squints purposefully, scrolling on a busted iPhone SE he has no interest in replacing. He's bleary-eyed but friendly. A man engrossed in the process of trying (and failing) to find the perfect equilibrium on a friend's rocking chair in Salt Lake City.

Free Solo catapulted Honnold to Hollywood levels of fame, but in 2010 he was already the boldest climber alive. He'd free soloed other challenging routes in Yosemite like Astroman and the Rostrum, climbs that require elite levels of strength, technique and endurance. He'd also scaled Zion National Park's Moonlight Buttress in the same way, sans protection, in one of the most dangerous climbs ever attempted -- a feat that grabbed the attention of the climbing world at large.

A UC Berkeley dropout born in Sacramento, California, Honnold began climbing in local gyms at age 10. Almost instantly, it became the focal point of his existence. He was never as talented or strong as the gymnastic-style athletes who dominate the competition circuit, but he quickly discovered his own climbing superpower: an otherworldly ability to control fear in high-stress situations. It's a critical trait for a free solo climber, a style of climbing where the consequences are absolute.

If you fall -- in most cases -- you die.

Back in 2010, Honnold was also only two years from another important goal: starting the Honnold Foundation. A nonprofit initially supported solely by Honnold himself, now augmented by funds from sponsors and public donations, his foundation helps fund solar projects all over the world. This year it's on track to raise over $1 million.

"If I've learned one thing from climbing," he says, "it's the power of incremental progress."

Honnold believes many global inequalities stem from access to power. He believes they could be alleviated, at least in part, by solar energy. Some 1.1 billion people -- 14% of the world's population -- don't have access to power. To Honnold, that's a tremendous waste of human potential.

"You drive through these villages [in places like Chad] and you see kids playing around. If those kids were born somewhere else, they could be airline pilots or astronauts. They could do anything," Honnold, 34, tells me. "But the reality is they're going to wind up hurting their entire life. That's just the reality of it. They have no access to education, no access to power, and no real way to change their livelihood.

"The unfairness of that bothers me."

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Honnold believes access to power can help iron out global inequality.

James Martin/CNET

Human potential

But back to that postcard.

It didn't take long for Honnold to realize his mother, Dierdre Wolownick, also an accomplished rock climber and marathoner, probably wasn't going to receive one.

"When I landed in Chad and saw the situation," remembers Honnold, "I was like, 'I'm definitely not sending any postcards here.'"

The area of Chad he was exploring barely had roads, let alone a functional postal service. Reaching the rocks he and his party planned to climb required three days of grueling driving in the Ennedi Desert. They'd be eating dust, dislodging wheels stuck in sand. This wasn't your regular climbing trip.

It was a harsh, unforgiving environment. And, en route, Honnold was shocked to see people living, and surviving, in one of the most remote parts of the world with no amenities, no utilities and -- crucially -- no access to power.

The phrase Honnold uses: eye-opening.

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Alex Honnold, pictured here talking to me in Salt Lake City, did the unthinkable, becoming the first person to climb El Capitan without a rope.

James Martin/CNET

"It was wildly different from my life in the US," Honnold says. "I'd read books about the fact there are a billion people on Earth living without access to power. But it was another thing to actually go to those communities and meet a few of those billion."

At one point during the trip, Honnold and his friends were held up at knifepoint. Honnold, perhaps the last person on Earth you'd rely on to accurately describe the true danger of a high-stakes situation, said it didn't feel that threatening. "I was like, 'Oh, kids will be kids.'"

Mark Synnott, Honnold's traveling companion, a climber who helped organize the expedition, had a different view. He remembers young men in masks emerging purposefully from a canyon armed with large knives. He remembers having to ward them off with a gnarled tree branch. In the end, nothing was stolen and everyone was OK, albeit a little shaken up.

The robbery attempt, and the trip as a whole, stuck with Honnold.

"The thing is," he says, "I never had to rob anybody. I grew up in middle-class California. Totally comfortable. I've never been in a position where I felt I should take something from somebody. I never needed to."

The man in the van

In 2012, back when he was a scruffy nomad living and climbing out of a van perennially parked in Yosemite Valley, Honnold was already donating a third of his sponsor-driven income to solar-focused charities.

In those days, the Honnold Foundation was essentially a vehicle for Honnold's own charity work. "It was just me donating money to environmental projects that I found inspiring."

It was and remains a relatively simple organization. Based in Salt Lake City, with only one full-time employee, it focuses exclusively on solar projects.

The foundation's broad goal: reduce the world's environmental impact and address social inequalities by providing solar power access to those who need it most. The Honnold Foundation does this by providing funds to solar initiatives both at home in the US and abroad.

Initiatives like SolarAid, for example, a company that replaces potentially hazardous kerosene lamps with solar batteries in remote, off-grid regions of Eastern Africa. SolarAid's work is part of a broad, continent-wide attempt to completely replace every Kerosene lamp in Africa.

But the Honnold Foundation also works closer to home. 

On projects like Grid Alternatives, a California-based nonprofit that's installed more than 9,500 solar systems throughout the United States, Mexico, Nicaragua and Nepal. Since its founding in 2001, Grid Alternatives has helped low-income families save over $300 million and offset 820,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

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A younger Alex Honnold in the French Alps with his sister.

Dierdre Wolownick

Honnold feels like SolarAid and Grid Alternatives occupy opposite ends of the same spectrum. The work in Africa has a tremendous impact on the human life of individuals, he says, but doesn't impact the environment like broader solar installations in the US.

"Putting solar panels on somebody's home domestically is slowly greening the grid," explains Honnold. 

Honnold doesn't just donate, he regularly volunteers. From Angola to Detroit, he's helped install hundreds of solar panels across the globe. Sometimes he brings his mom along.

"Alex is a humorous, curious, intelligent, and overall amazing kind of human," says Rebekah Casey, a deputy director at Grid Alternatives who's seen Honnold regularly turn up to volunteer without fanfare. "His mom is awesome, too."

Why start a foundation? Why not simply donate anonymously to worthwhile causes? That's a question Honnold struggled with in the beginning. Ultimately his decision to start a foundation was rooted in the idea of public giving and inspiring others to do the same.

Cedar Wright, one of Honnold's regular climbing partners (and a pro climber himself), believes Honnold wrestles with the idea of his growing profile and relative wealth from lucrative sponsorship deals and public speaking gigs. Honnold is almost certainly the highest-earning rock climber on the planet, and puts his net worth at around $2 million. He's previously joked he makes about as much as a "moderately successful orthodontist."

"I think Alex feels a little bit guilty he can make six figures to speak to a bunch of corporate drones for a couple hours," Wright says. "He finds some solace in funneling a significant portion of his income into doing something positive."

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When Honnold starts climbing in the gym, people tend to stop and watch.

James Martin/CNET

Witness the fitness

With back muscles hunched over a lean frame, and forearms packed tight with cables masquerading as tendons, Honnold has a physicality common to many strong climbers. He's no different from the gym rats haunting climbing spots across the globe.

But Honnold is difficult to ignore as we enter The Front, a decked-out climbing gym in Salt Lake City, replete with cutting-edge training equipment. Before we even get close to the wall, he's posed for six photographs with six different fans, shocked to be sharing the same space as the world's most famous rock climber.

As soon as he starts climbing, everyone, including me, leaves Honnold alone.

Most world-class climbers, particularly athletes like Adam Ondra or Alex Megos at the forefront of roped sport climbing, tend to move fast on the wall, racing against the slow build of lactic acid in the forearms. Honnold is different. Despite holding multiple Yosemite speed records, Honnold is a marathon man. In the gym at least, Honnold climbs slowly, deliberately -- focusing on perfect technique. A habit, perhaps, developed from time spent free soloing where the stakes are impossibly high.

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Honnold does a lot of foundation planning in the gym between climbs.

James Martin/CNET

Honnold is obsessed with the delicate subtleties of climbing. Stored in his brain is an encyclopedia of movements he can draw on in any situation. Like most climbers he loves to unpack the nuances. Should he drop his knee or open his hips? Can you do that move static or do you need to throw dynamically? It's a conversation I could be having with anyone interested in moving on rock, only I'm having it with the most celebrated climber in recent history.

Honnold is acutely aware he's being watched, particularly in gyms like this. It makes him wary. When he starts climbing, mobile phones come out. He's being filmed constantly. If anyone else were to start climbing in the gym right now, he says, almost wearily, there would be zero expectations. He can only disappoint people.

But right now, Honnold is climbing strong. Together we take turns on a training board. I'm a relatively experienced climber and train three times a week. I can keep up on the warmup routes, but he quickly ramps up the difficulty. Before long I can barely do a single move.

Honnold tends to downplay even his most insane achievements; his nickname among climbers is "No Big Deal." But even he's happy to admit his current level of climbing fitness is high, the result of a sharp focus on hard training in gyms like The Front. A few weeks after our time together, Honnold completed his hardest ever roped route: a 5.14d called Arrested Development in Mt Charleston, Nevada near Las Vegas. Physically, he's never been stronger. Technically, his best climbing is ahead of him.

But Honnold's goals are drifting away from the mind-boggling ascents that made him a household name. Following Free Solo and his historic ascent of El Capitan, Honnold is dedicating more of his time to philanthropy.

"I think now that Alex has free soloed El Cap, which I think was his ultimate goal as a climber, he'll be focusing a lot more of his energy into the Foundation and less into the next rad achievement," says Wright, who spent time helping Honnold install solar panels in homes in the Navajo Nation.

Climbing is often thought of as a selfish pursuit, and that's a theme well explored in Free Solo. It's an easy leap to conclude that his foundation is a response to that. That rock climbing has made Honnold rich and famous and this is his way of giving back.

But Honnold doesn't see it that way. To him, rock climbing and his work with the foundation are inextricably linked. It was climbing that allowed Honnold to travel, climbing that gave him an insight into other cultures. It was also climbing that made Honnold passionate about preserving the planet.

"I don't think that there's anything wrong with climbing being a selfish pursuit," he says. "I've had so many incredible experiences that I care about the outdoors in a broad enough way to start something like the Honnold Foundation and try to be useful. By having impactful experiences in nature you wind up more inclined to try to protect the environment."

The Faustian bargain

The biggest misconception about Honnold is that he is "weird," a misconception fed by mainstream media coverage of his exploits. It's an easy narrative to spin: Honnold as Spock from Star Trek, an always logical alien confused by the behavior of regular human beings. The bearer of the world's weirdest Faustian pact: the man who exchanged social skills for the otherworldly ability to climb without fear.

But the narrative is wrong -- or at best exaggerated. Honnold isn't weird. And he isn't awkward around people. Whether learned or natural, he has an easy way with friends and an ability to bring everyone, even strangers -- including me -- effortlessly into his orbit. We train, we talk. We nerd out over cutting-edge equipment like the moonboard, an app-driven training wall designed for hard training. Honnold recently built one in his own home.

"I consistently find Alex to be thoughtful and curious," says Dory Trimble. She's belaying Honnold, who is scrambling up a difficult route in the gym, with one tricky move he can't quite figure out. She pauses to brace herself. Honnold is about to take a fall and it's Trimble's job to bear the weight, gently allowing him to abseil safely to the floor below.

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Dory Trimble, the executive director of the Honnold Foundation.

James Martin/CNET

"Alex pays attention and, if not empathetic, he understands. He sometimes gets written off as a weirdo in press coverage. But if you know an engineer, you know Alex."

Trimble should know. As executive director and, until very recently, the only full-time employee at the foundation, she works with Honnold daily and keeps it growing at an exponential rate.

It's in the climbing gym where Trimble and Honnold work through much of the foundation's planning. In between climbs, he discusses scheduling. When can we do this meeting? When can we organize this event?

"I talk on the phone with Alex a lot," says Trimble. "But the best way to get him for an extended period of time is to go to the gym with him."

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Honnold believes his love for the outdoors made him more inclined to protect the environment. 

James Martin/CNET

Honnold is the face of the foundation but Trimble is the glue holding it together. "The foundation, in its current form wouldn't exist without Dory," says Honnold. She's helped scale up the operations of the foundation while insulating him from "much of the hard work."

Trimble is a climber herself. That's partly why she cold-called the foundation, why she worked as an unpaid volunteer before becoming the foundation's first full-time employee. She initially offered to help Honnold and the team "tell their story in a different way." That role evolved into Trimble eventually taking over the directorship to evolve the foundation from a baseline vehicle for Honnold's own sizable donations to a fully fledged nonprofit organization.

It was interesting timing, Trimble explains. At one point during the production of Free Solo, director Jimmy Chin pulled Honnold and his partners aside. He knew Free Solo would most likely change Honnold's life. He knew this was an opportunity for his foundation to take things to the next level. Chin suggested, in the nicest possible way, that everyone involved in the foundation needed to "get their shit together."

Trimble was in charge of making sure the Honnold Foundation got its shit together.

"It wasn't about fixing something that was broken," explains Trimble. "It was about scaling up and increasing our ability to impact solar energy access worldwide."

And she's been successful. Today, Honnold's contributions represent a small portion of the total donated to the Honnold Foundation. The vast majority of the Honnold Foundation's holdings come from personal donors and corporate sponsors. In 2018 the foundation raised $445,186. In 2019 it's already on track to breeze past $1 million.

The Honnold Foundation is in the process of growing up.

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Fellow climber Tommy Caldwell thinks Honnold has climbed "foot by foot, more technical rock than anyone in history."

James Martin/CNET

Life's work

Free soloing El Capitan, an achievement once believed outside the realm of reason, was a lifelong goal for Honnold. Today, in 2019, his next moonshot is tougher to pin down. When I ask about the Honnold Foundation, and the El Cap equivalent, he initially comes up blank. The issues of climate change are too tremendous in scope, he explains, the potential solutions too slippery.

"With the work through the foundation," Honnold says, "it's hard to imagine having a huge impact on the world, because I don't even totally know what that looks like."

But to Honnold, climbing, and his work on the foundation, is never about the achievement, it's about the process.

"With climbing," he says, "you see these big walls that seem impossibly large, but that doesn't mean you don't start chipping away at it. You build up the requisite skills, you work toward it, and then eventually you can take on something big."

Honnold is "no bullshit," a phrase I heard from multiple people. Trimble puts it best: "Alex says and does exactly what he means. He's a person without subtext."

So when I ask Honnold what he's most proud of with regard to the Honnold Foundation, his answer is typically candid.

"In some ways, you could say the foundation hasn't really accomplished anything," he says. "There's just so many issues facing the world. I don't really know if there is an end goal to that. It's more about the path you keep, keep working and keep moving forward."

When you're dealing with issues as broad and terrifying as climate change, the temptation can be to break ranks and quit. Is it possible to fix a problem of this scale? That's a question Honnold struggles with.

But the idea of incremental progress, so ingrained in Honnold after decades spent climbing the world's biggest walls without a safety net, is hard to break. It is, after all, his life's work.

You see the wall, the obstacle in your path. You chip away. You take one step after another in the most efficient way possible and, before you know it, you're ready to ascend 3,000 feet of blank granite armed with nothing but your hands, your feet and a chalk bag.

The light in the dark

Later that night we head to the Leonardo Museum in Salt Lake City. Honnold is part of a panel event exploring the issue of landmines. In 64 countries across the globe, there are an estimated 110 million landmines still lodged in the ground. In 2015, Honnold visited one of those countries: Angola.

It was a trip described as a "half climbing, half solar project." Climbing was involved, including the first free solo of a route called Roadside Attraction, but Honnold also spent time installing solar units in villages that had no power previously.

In one village, the residents were unsure, so the decision was made to build a demo project. To install one single solar panel. To show how the panel worked and to prove that it did work.

It worked and, of course, everyone was happy with the result.

Honnold would go on to install 100 solar panels during his trip. Later an agreement with the Angolan Energy Minster was struck to install 3,000 more.

But it all started with that first solar panel. And one single light in the dark.