Click on the image below to launch a slide show from Honnold’s link-up. All photos by Peter Mortimer / reelrocktour.com.
Last week, speed climber Alex Honnold reached the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome, nearby Mount Watkins, and El Capitan under 19 hours. Free soloing—no ropes or protection—roughly 95 percent of the routes, Honnold ascended 7,000 feet of vertical granite. Peter Mortimer of Sender Films and a crew captured the event for a film that debuts this fall at the Reel Rock Film Tour. Mountain caught up with Mortimer to hear more about the climb, staying safe on the wall, and how the tourists reacted.
When did you know Honnold was going to attempt this?
We’ve been following Alex around for the last year for a film. I think he mentioned this goal early in the fall in Yosemite. He was getting into condition mentally and physically. Alex is incredible—if he tells you he’ll do something six months out, he’ll do it. The training he puts in is unbelievable.
Can you walk us through the chain of events?
Alex wanted to do Watkins first because it’s a long hike in. He started the clock at the base of Watkins, and the idea was to climb Watkins, then hike out to Tioga Pass and drive down to the base of El Cap. He climbed El Cap in the night, starting at 9:30, and he got to the top at 3:30. Then he hiked down East Ledges, got a ride to the base of the trail for the Death Slabs and hiked those at sunrise. He started climbing Half Dome at 8:00 and was up at 10:50.
Were you ever worried about his safety?
Honnold is so confident and even-keeled. There’s not a very intense vibe, even though it’s so intense what he’s doing. He’s very laid back; very measured and calculated. I just feel so comfortable with him knowing he’s within his abilities. He solos stuff all the time that we don’t film. He says in some ways it’s more fun when we’re there because he’s got his buddies around, but we try to impact him in the most minimal and positive way possible.
From a pure fatigue aspect, mentally and physically, this was most at his limit I’ve seen him. Not so much on a move-to-move basis, but he really pushed it. He just looked like he’d given it his all at the end. We always call him “No Big Deal” Honnold. But I’ve got him on camera saying, “OK, that was a big deal.”
How do you put this achievement into perspective for non-climbers?
We’ve been working on a film for years about the history of Yosemite’s counterculture, looking at all these major achievements in the late 50s, the first climbs of Half Dome and El Cap, and then when they did each one in a day in the 70s. I’m pretty sure—and I think Honnold would say this too—this is a real culmination of all these different climbs that have been done before in Yosemite. It’s arguably the greatest all around climbing achievement in Yosemite. It’s the thing he’s done that’s he’s most proud of.
For 95 percent of it, if he falls, he dies. The big thing in Yosemite has always been doing the most and biggest formations in the shortest amount of time. We’ve been shooting Honnold for the last year, and every little scene, he’s always building his skills for this one big event. Now he’s ready to go sit on a beach and relax. This is the last step. I don’t see how anyone could do something equivalent to this for a decade, but who knows?
How did you set up to film it?
We hired a bunch of the rock monkeys in Yosemite, these amazing climbers who are now all getting to be amazing shooters as well. Without much stress, a team of 10 covered the entire thing. We knew what the plan was. Alex took a practice run on each one of [the routes] last week, and we got some footage on each. He wanted to do that at the same time to feel what the conditions were like, which was really nice from a filmmaking standpoint.
We have to be as professional as possible—not drop anything on him or get in his way. We can’t have our ropes in the crack he’s climbing. All the guys filming are good friends with Honnold, and he was saying that climbing El Cap in the night was one of the most mentally taxing things he’s ever done and he was so excited to see his friends.
When he reached the top of Half Dome, did people realize what had just happened?
All these tourists were up there, and there was a line of 50 people shaking his hand and taking photos with him. He couldn’t believe it. He thought that I had orchestrated the whole thing and told them to make a big deal, which was actually not the case. A couple people knew enough to realize what was going on. It was like Brad Pitt was there on top of Half Dome. For him, he’s reinventing himself on this crazy mind and body expedition—for hours on end, he’s had total isolation—and now there are nine-year-old girls from Sacramento going, “You’re my hero!” —Olivia Dwyer
Visit reelrocktour.com to find out where and when you can see the film on Alex Honnold and the Yosemite Triple Crown. Other films slated for the 2012 tour include the ascent of Meru’s Shark Fin by Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk; a film on sport climbing in Europe; and a study of the off-width crack climbing subcultur