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Death-defying free climb lifts Honnold into Oscars contention

2019-02-23 14:48
Alex Honnold (Getty Images)
Alex Honnold (Getty Images)

London - Alex Honnold, a big wall climber who has conquered a series of intimidating rock faces on his own and almost without equipment, could on Sunday add the Oscars to his conquests for his central role in the documentary 'Free Solo.'

Honnold, who was born in Sacramento, California, came to international attention with a series of solo ascents without ropes or other safety gear up legendary climbs. 

As Honnold, who is famous for living in Yosemite National Park in a van, ticked off the famous routes, he became famous himself. 

In June 2017, escorted by a film crew of other expert climbers, Honnold attempted one of the most daunting routes, known as 'Freerider', which zigzags up a 2 750 feet (840m) cliff to one of the tallest parts of Yosemite's famed El Capitan. 

The documentary of that climb, as scary as any horror film, has already won a British Bafta award and is nominated in Sunday's Oscars. It has, Honnold said, altered his life. 

"Nothing immediately changed in me," the climber told AFP.

"The day I did the climb, it was just like a normal day. What changed is with the release of the film and the five months talking about it and seeing reactions to it and time spent talking about the climb, I think that has slowly changed me."

"It's not as if when you finish the climb suddenly you are a new man. I think that finishing the climb has maybe sated my hunger a little bit. I mean, I achieved this big dream of mine and there is nothing else I feel quite the same about."

In the film, Honnold scales the rock face, finding finger and toe holds invisible to the camera, some, according to National Geographic which produced the film, just one eighth of an inch (3.1mm) wide. As he hangs hundreds of feet above the valley floor, death seems only a moment away.

"I think I'm afraid of dying, I mean like everyone else," Honnold said.

"Obviously, there are some climbing experiences that are scary and I just have to manage my fear, the same as everyone else, take some deep breaths and relax and try to perform anyway but I think the best approach is to just not be afraid.

Honnold's preparation meant he knew what to do from the start.

"I was just executing, you know it's like auto-pilot, you just go and do the thing you've been working toward," he said.

"Obviously a little nervous just because it's big and I've never done it... but mostly just moving ahead."

"You know I was afraid of 'El Cap' for many years which is why it took me two years preparation just to do the climb. If I didn't feel fear I would've done it on the first day. If you don't feel fear you just go for it."

As he neared the top, his mood changed.

"The last 100m get easier as you finish so I'd sort of already started the celebration, not celebrating, but the last 50m are pretty easy so I was just like running up like 'Oh! I did it, this is awesome.'"

"Incredible satisfaction," he said. "I was on top sitting in the sun with no shirt on for like an hour and a half just being like 'what an amazing day' and we took pictures, all hung out and we were all hugging."

Honnold takes pride in the awards the film is collecting.

"Climbing is fundamentally more satisfying because it's an object in nature that you can go and see every year - it's always the same, it's unchanging, it's basically like a set level of challenge that you have to rise to."

So what comes next? 

"I don't know, we'll see," he said.

"I would go to Yosemite again in May and go climb outside again for a while."

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