By Samantha Larson, Grist
Sunny, high 50s, and just a light breeze: It’s a perfect California December morning for rock climbing at the Owens River Gorge and Alex Honnold has just offered to give me a belay — meaning, he’s offered to attend to the safety rope for me on a climb. The official reason I’m here is to get the scoop on Honnold’s environmental foundation. But, for a climber, getting offered a belay by Honnold is probably the closest thing we have to getting thrown a ball by Peyton Manning or LeBron James.
Because his crazy free-solo (climbing without ropes) ascents in places like Zion, Utah, and Yosemite, Calif., have landed him front-page features in Outside, National Geographic, and on 60 Minutes, Honnold has probably done more than anyone else to bring the historically fringe sport of climbing into the U.S. mainstream. When he started climbing full-time in 2005, he got used to living the dirtbag life of a rock-obsessed vagabond on about $8,000 a year. Now, the 28-year-old does stuff like star in commercials for Citibank and Dewar’s Scotch.
So, in considering whether to take him up on the offer to do the climb, I’m intimidated. I step back and tell myself I’m here to learn about what he’s up to away from the crag, anyway. Through his namesake foundation, he’s dropping some of his extra cash into environmental projects like Solar Aid and Grid Alternatives.
He’s bringing a can-do attitude to it, too: Instead of looking down at how far the planet could stumble, he’s looking for the next hold. “I feel like a lot of the traditional environmental stuff is sort of depressing,” he says. “You know, ‘the world is fucked, things are going downhill, we’re going to have to drastically change our lifestyles in order to keep the world from being so fucked.’ I’m not really that pessimistic by nature … There are so many solutions that only take, like, doing it,” Honnold says.
For now, he sees the next handhold as solar power, hence his next trip: a 2.5 week tour he’s embarking on Friday that will combine climbing desert towers, biking, and working for his foundation installing solar panels in Navajo Territory. The Honnold Foundation will work with Eagle Energy to install solar power systems into the homes of 30 Navajo elders who are currently living without access to electricity, and a total of 200 solar lights into five schools.
“There’s something like 18,000 households on reservations there that don’t have access to power,” Honnold told me over the phone recently. “And, in sunny Arizona, especially, solar is the ideal solution. It seems like we should be powering people who are on the grid with it, let alone people who are off the grid.”
For the record, I did suck it up and do the climb. Later in the day, a hush came over the crowded crag — everyone around me was looking up. There was Honnold, at the top of that same climb, totally solo.
Here’s some footage I took of Honnold on the climb:
Honnold and Wright leave for their trip on Friday. Look out for their movie Sufferfest 2.0 about it next year.