The Artistry of Alex Honnold

Tim Farrand

Alex Honnold is one of the world’s greatest climbers, specifically in the area of free soloing.

Free solo climbing is when a climber—a free soloist—climbs without any safety gear. No ropes. No harness. No cams, pitons, or anything else. Nothing that would protect or aid their climbing. They climb with only a bag of chalk, rubber shoes, and the strength of their bodies.

In free soloing, one mistake—one missed foothold—and there is no recovery. You fall.

Free soloing is so difficult that only about 1% of climbers ever attempt it. It requires a level of athleticism far above any other climbing method.

Alex Honnold: Daredevil or Artist?

When I first saw clips of Alex Honnold free soloing, my instant reaction was one of awe and fear. I was fascinated but also nervous. Even now, my palms get sweaty and my heart rate increases just by seeing pictures of him climbing. In the clips I was watching, I knew that he survived the climb but it looks so irrational that I couldn't believe that anyone could actually survive what he was doing.

It is amazing that someone can climb a massive vertical piece of rock using only small ridges, cracks, and variations in texture. But why would anyone put themselves in that situation?

I assumed Alex must be a daredevil or adrenaline junkie that needs to get a fix from climbing without ropes because other forms of climbing don't satisfy him anymore. Or maybe he just has an ego and knows that doing these insane free solos will get him media attention unlike anything else.

He isn't climbing routes that have been established or that people would normally free solo. He climbs routes that are difficult for experienced climbers with ropes. Climbs that others would consider unthinkable as free solos.

You just have to look at the mountains he has climbed, such as Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite National Park—which have never been completed by another free soloist besides Alex—to see how utterly challenging theses ascent are.

Half Dome
El Capitan

But Alex has done them and survived! I was intrigued so I began to watch more videos of him climbing. What I saw surprised me. Every move seemed fluid and natural. It didn't look dangerous when he was doing it. There was no pausing to consider where to go next or awkward, improvised movements. Everything looked like it was comfortably within Alex's muscles. It seemed as if he was traversing a well-known path. Like he knew each hold for his hand or position for his foot. His execution is so natural as if he was meant to be a part of the rock. He no longer seemed like a daredevil to me but rather an artist.

Alex the Artist

As I looked more into Alex's life and climbing process for free soloing, I realized that these climbs were not some spur-of-the-moment act or random ascent but rather the end of a long process of development and planning. 

Alex works incredibly hard every day on his climbing technique. He knows exactly how to position his hands and feet on any type of hold or crack he encounters. And for the major climbs he has done, such as going up the vertical 3,000 feet of El Capitan, he works for years climbing with ropes and mapping out every part of the route.

Alex perfects his climbs with diligent preparation. They become a part of him to the degree that when he free solos, he often breaks the speed record for the route. When he is climbing, he is not risking anything to go faster but simply has rehearsed it enough that it is, as he describes, like "a walk in the park:"

Alex's free soloing comes from a place of mastery. His type of climbing is an art form and the process he undergoes to perform a climb is identical to the process of any other performer.

Watching his two-year preparation for free soloing El Captian in the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, I began to realize that his process for completing these massive climbs was the same process I took—or any other pianist I know—when preparing to give a solo recital. A pianist on the level of an Arthur Rubinstein or Martha Argerich could be described as executing with the same kind of mastery and years of preparation as Alex. They are soloists of different kinds yet with the same routine of diligent practice, patience, and focused execution.

Alex's Climbing Workshop

When preparing to climb El Cap, Alex would not just repeat the climb from bottom to top over and over with a rope in order to learn the route but would isolate very specific sections. Just like a pianist breaking up a piece into sections and phrases, Alex broke the climb into a linear series of pitches—sections of the route—and isolated the dozen or so that posed the greatest challenge. Like a pianist mapping out the fingerings for a specific phrase, Alex would map out every hand and foot position for each pitch. He would then spend entire days with a rope repeating those isolated sections to make sure that the movements were absorbed into his muscle memory.

If a section felt uneasy, he would workshop it to find a more fluid approach. The pianist in the practice room does the same thing. When a passages feels uncomfortable or awkward, we isolate it and repeat the movements in order to make the insecure become solid within our hands.

To prepare mentally for the climb, Alex would use visualization to make sure each position of his hands and feet were perfectly mapped out within his mind. He describes it as imagining "a choreographed dance that is thousands of feet up:"

Alex goes on to explain that his visualization extends to dealing with the emotional side of the performing the climb. He imagines every possibility of what could happen on the wall and embodies the emotional feeling of each circumstance. His goal was that, not matter what happens, he won't be experiencing it for the first time. Even the most catastrophic of events he has fully imagined so that he can climb without fear of uncertainty, even if he doesn't reach the top.

The Boulder Problem

One of the most challenging parts of climbing El Capitan is the Boulder Problem. This is a section with incredibly awkward hand holds with very little for the feet to anchor themselves to. It ends with a move that has two options: a dangerous leap to a secure edge or a precarious karate kick to a flat wall. If he misses the leap, he falls. If his foot slips after the kick, he falls.

Here is Alex discussing the boulder problem over a clip of him rehearsing it:

And here is Alex's execution of the Boulder Problem during his successful free solo ascent using the karate kick instead of the dangerous double dyno at the end:

Enter the Practice Room

For a pianists equivalent, you can watch pianist Tiffany Poon work out a tricky section of Chopin's Variations on "Là ci darem la mano." Tiffany is one of the few pianists who allows people to watch unedited practice sessions. This is not quite equal to a "boulder problem" for a pianist—there are plenty of other pieces that pose much greater challenges—but this clip does give a look inside the practice room. She focuses on just one measure of this work and attempts different solutions for getting the notes into her fingers.

Like Alex, she is working on a section that poses an awkward challenge. Her goal, like his, is to secure it within her muscle memory with a sense of effortless fluidity:

A solo piano recital and a free solo climb are not all that different in this sense. They take years of developing technique and hours upon hours in practicing the specific choreography of each piece or mountain before any attempt to take off the ropes or step out on the stage can be made. The stage or the route represents a space where the slightest mistake can throw everything off.

"When I'm free soloing, even on the easier pitches, I'm totally focused on what's in front of me. The universe shrinks down to me and the rock. You don't take a single hold for granted." [1]

Music and the Brain

Alex's free soloing of El Capitan has been cited as one of the greatest athletic achievements in history. The level of physical fitness needed to perform such a feat means testing the body to its limits.

In a similar but drastically different vein, the performance of a musical instrument is one of the most mentally straining acts. According to recent studies, performing a musical instrument is akin to a full-body workout for the brain as explained in the following TED-Ed animation:

Now, a pianist will not literally die from a missed note or a lapse in memory, but a recital is still a high-stakes environment. There is a feeling that everything can come to a sudden crash if you are not completely focused on every moment, every movement, for the duration of the performance. 

The psychology between free soloing and climbing can't be so far removed. One can look at a pianist and wonder the same thing I did about Alex: why would anyone ever put themselves through it?

It seems like an unnecessary amount of risk and stress to be a solo performer. You are only as good as your last performance, as they say, and you have to constantly repeat your challenges.

The reason anyone does it is because something is gained in performance—in that perfect atmosphere of intimate, non-verbal communication—that outweighs all the rest. Something transcendent occurs and a level of personal achievement is attained that cannot be found anywhere else.

Arthur Rubinstein speaks about performing as an act of love:

In another interview from when Rubinstein was 90 years old, he speaks of performing as not only an act of love but one of connecting emotionally with the audience. The concert hall, when viewed from the outside, looks a bit like an undertaker approaching a big black coffin, but once Rubinstein begins to play something indescribable happens. He speaks about the act of radiating out, from himself, the emotional content of the music—how there is something, maybe the soul, that connects everyone in the room at that moment. In fact, he feels like he is literally holding them in his hands as he is playing.

However one approaches the recital or the mountain, there is something within us that pushes us forward. There is a feeling that it is on the one hand a very difficult and dangerous act but on the other hand—often an even stronger feeling—that what happens there is at the pinnacle of human experience. It is something very special in life to be able to find what gives you that peak experience and to work to make it your profession. That is the luckiest thing in the world.

Charlie Parker and Alex Honnold: Pushing Boundaries

Artists are often looking to push the boundaries and challenge what was previously thought of as the limit of possibility. Each generation looks forward to new pathways.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Alex, like so many others, started a podcast called Climbing Gold. In his first episode, titled "More Bird Than Larry Bird," Alex talks about the relationship between free soloing and and 1940s jazz. [2]

There is a discussion as to whether climbing is a sport or an art form. Sports play within very defined sets of rules. You work to optimize your performance but within specific boundaries. Going outside those boundaries would be "chaos!" as Kramer states in reference to a golf match:

Breaking the Rules

Climbing is about breaking all the rules. It is about exploring and seeing whether that line of what is possible is real or just imagined. Alex has spent his life showing that what seems unimaginable is actually entirely possible with the right preparation and mindset.

In his podcast, Alex brings up Charlie Parker—nicknamed "Bird"— as a great example of an artist who is not working within the boundaries but rather redefining them.

Alex discusses the track "Ko-Ko" which came out of a famous recording session in 1945 with Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and others that were at the forefront of a new style of jazz called "bebop." Parker was exploring new frontiers in 1940s jazz just like Alex is extending what is possible for climbing in the 21st Century.

The critic Gary Giddins writes:

"The fabulous thing about 'Ko Ko' and Parker's music is that the second time you listen to it — and the third and the fourth and the fifth — the more you listen to it, as you really get to know it, you realize that it isn't just a bunch of noise. It isn't just a bunch of incredibly fast notes. It's all melody.

But it's played so fast that you as a listener have to train yourself to be able to listen as fast as Charlie Parker plays. And if you listen at the same velocity of his phrasing, then you begin to hear that it's just nothing more than one melodic rhythmic concept after another. Parker's the most spontaneous of musicians, and yet at the same time, he is always coming up with melodic ideas, always. There's a tremendous core of beauty and logic and coherence in everything he does." [3]

Take a listen to the 1945 recording of "Ko-Ko:"

Charlie Parker, when asked about how he developed his incredible technique, said that it was through study and practice. He practiced hours upon hours every day to the point that his neighbors almost asked his parents to move because he was "driving them crazy with the horn."

He knew that he wanted to get a new style out of the instrument. In an interview from 1951, Parker was asked how he was able "to break so violently with the alto styles of the day?" His response:

"Ever since I've ever heard music, I thought it should be very clean, very precise — as clean as possible, anyway, and more or less tuned to people. Something they could understand, something that was beautiful, you know? Because definitely there are stories and stories and stories that can be told." [4]

Parker's incredible playing was not to show off but rather to find a new level of expression. He knew there were other "stories" that could be told through this approach, working hard to find a way to tell them.

Like Parker, Alex works incredibly hard every day to master a level of climbing akin to Parker's level of technique. He doesn't do it for attention. In most of his climbs, he doesn't even tell anyone he is doing them until after he finishes. His fame is not a result of a calculated effort but just a natural occurrence for those that step outside what is believed to be possible.

Like Parker, Alex refuses to accept that the edges we have gone to are really boundaries. Rather, they are just as far as we have gotten so far. All that is needed is a change in mindset and these boundary lines become markers that explorers of the past have made. He gets to rise upon the shoulders of those giants and place the next markers which will be surpassed by a future generation.

There is something essentially human about what Alex does, what performers do, and what Charlie Parker has done. We use boundaries to feel safe, but at the same time our curiosity and drive are stronger than our need for comfort. We push ourselves to our limits not because we have to but because we know we can. We know that on the other side is something worth achieving. Something intangible but at the same time deeply understood.

To learn more about Alex, I recommend watching the incredible documentary Free Solo that captures not just his world record climbing of El Capitan—named one of the greatest athletic feats of all time—but also focuses on Alex's process for preparation. It is a wonderful study in mastery as well as what it is to be human.


1 Alex Honnold with David Roberts, Alone on the Wall (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), 40.

2 Alex Honnold and Fritz Cahall, "More Bird Than Larry Bird," Climbing Gold, podcast audio, March 26, 2021,

3 Tom Vitale, The Story Of Charlie Parker's 'Ko Ko,' NPR, August 27, 2000,

4 Ibid.

May 20, 2021

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