Alex Honnold has almost become a rock star in the climbing community. Hands down this post is about the best free style climber in the world today. In 2017 he achieved one of the most impressive feats, that of climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park free solo without a rope and harness. Alex is also an atheist who accepts that he is mortal and is talked about in the atheist community as well. Could there be some lessons about accepting your own death through Alex?
“I’m a militant atheist. I don’t believe in an afterlife or any of that kind of stuff, but then I also don’t really live in the moment that much either. I’m not very Zen. I’m always thinking about the future or the next project and what I’m doing next to the point where I’ve had partners kind of chastise me for not enjoying where I am more. But maybe that’s part of the appeal of soloing because it forces you to exist inside that moment, in that little bubble that you’re living in while you’re doing it.”
“Life is inherently risky. There is only one big risk you should avoid at all costs, and that is the risk of doing nothing.”
Alex Honnold (from his Facebook group page)
Recently there was a story I saw on the Friendly Atheist that deserved to be turned into a post here at this blog. Being from Central California and having grown up outside Yosemite National Park this story attracted me. In addition in exploring the atheist movement there are many aspects to consider. It deals with a person who has attained a rock star status inside the mountain climber community. Its about Alex Honnold. For me this was not an easy post to do because I have a fear of heights and I watched a couple of videos about Alex. As I did my hands literally started to physically sweat. But due to the atheist implications I decided to research and put together this post.
Who is Alex Honnold?
Alex Honnold was born in Sacramento, California. At the local gym he started to engage in climbing by the age of 5 and was doing it frequently by the age of 10. He participated in competitions but dismisses himself and his climbing abilities. According to my research this is who Alex is. He is a person who likes to downplay his strong attributes. In 2003 he graduated from Mira Loma High School and enrolled in the University of California – Berkley where he studied civil engineering. But a series of tragedies occurred while in Berkley. His maternal grandfather died and his parents went through a divorce. To deal with it all Alex went and would rock climb at Indian Rock. During this time he did not develop many friendships in his life. After not feeling that school was for him he made the decision to drop out of Berkeley. Alex then loaded up his minivan and traveled around California just to engage in rock climbing. In 2007 he purchased a 2002 Ford Econoline and turned his attention specifically to mountain climbing.
In 2006 no one had heard of Alex Honnold. But by 2007 his name started to become known among the climbing community. In 2007 he free soloed Yosemite’s Astroman and the Rostrum in a day. In the process he matched well known climber Peter Croft’s accomplishment in 1987. Then in 2008 he free climbed Zion’s Moonlight Buttress in Utah. When people heard about this feat initially they thought it was a joke. Then a few months after that he free climbed the northwest face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. His popularity spread from the climbing community to mainstream after his 2012 solo of the northwest face of Half Dome was featured in the book “Alone on the Wall.” He also was interviewed by 60 Minutes. Other publications or media outlets such as National Geographic, Rolling Stone, CBS, Adventure Sports Journal, New York Times and PBS have featured him in stories or done interviews of Alex. On June 17, 2012 Alex Honnold and another American rock climber Hans Florine set a new record in climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan when they climbed up the Nose route. This climb was done with ropes and proper equipment. I will get more into the El Capitan free solo climb below in the next section.
Rock climbing is dangerous. In 2017 two well known rock climbers Jason Wells and Tim Klein fell 1,000 feet to their death in a climbing accident in Yosemite. There is an active GoFundMe for the Klein family which you can access here. Free climbing is even much risker. What Alex Honnold has done has also stirred controversary with some believing that he is giving rise to a sport that is far more risker than regular rock climbing. Because of this in 2014 Clif Bar a company that sells organic food and drinks announced that they would no longer sponsor Honnold. They concluded that it was too risky to support and that it raised ethics issues. Other companies however still support Alex. Those that do are The North Face, Black Diamond, La Sportiva, Goal Zero, Stride Health, and Maxim Ropes. You can also read his interview with Trails Edge here. Alex has also turned to urban climbing as well. He has free climbed a sky scraper in New Jersey and is practicing in San Francisco for what will be his greatest climb. What will that be? The 101 floor Taiwan Taipei which is one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world.
Alex today lives in Las Vegas, Nevada where he owns a home. He lived out of his van for years and still feels like that is home. He is a vegetarian who avoids caffeine, or alcohol. Alex enjoys reading classic literature and books about the environment, and economics. He describes himself as a Mormon minus the religion when it comes to living. When it comes to faith he classifies himself as an atheist.
Free Climbing El Capitan in Yosemite and Free Solo Film
One of the dreams that Alex Honnold had is to climb El Capitan free solo. In order to understand El Capitan you need to comprehend what it means for the climbing community. El Capitan is ground zero of the rock climbing community. It is the location that many climbers from across the United States set their goal on doing. El Capitan is also the biggest single granite wall in the United States. It is entirely almost all granite. On June 3, 2017 Alex Honnold made the first free solo of El Capitan. His climb was done in 3 hours and 56 minutes. His climb was captured by Jimmy Chin who documented the climb. For Jimmy it was an ethical challenge he dealt with. He was to record his friend free climbing what many consider to be the most difficult rock climb in the United States. The question he struggled with is what if he contributed to his friend’s death? What if he fell because he became a distraction? You can watch some of this up above in the New York Times video.
Being an Atheist and Accepting of Death
In National Geographic Alex explained that while he has fears in life he also has accepted his coming death one day. He is at peace with that and wants to live life to the best that he can until that happens. What has given Alex pause and allows him to reflect on death is the loss of two friends. Sean Leary died in Zion National Park in Utah in 2014, and Dean Potter died in Yosemite in 2015. For a couple of days he reflected on their life, his own and the risks that exist. He is committed to the free solo climbing and he has wrestled with the possibility of his death. But each time the death of a friend in the climbing world occurs he goes and reflects on it. Alex however is also a very committed atheist. He is very much anti-religion. Its my understanding that he grew up as an evangelical Christian in Sacramento when he was young. And that his rejection of faith has been an issue for his mother. In Rolling Stone he described why he is anti-religion. “No I’m very anti-religion. I think its all just medieval superstition. Religion relies on some desire for a spiritual connection and I do get that from just being out in Yosemite. I get that feeling of grandeur and awe in the world sitting on a cliff at sunset, watching the mountains glow pink, that a lot of people get through religious faith.”
But Alex says that the rejection of religion has allowed him to accept his own morality. It allows him the freedom to do what he has done. He can stare into the abyss knowing that when his life is over, that its over. Alex has become somewhat of a celebrity in the atheist community because of his thoughts on religion. He has captured the attention of atheist and free thinking bloggers. You can read Alex being discussed in Barry Duke’s The Free Thinker’s, “Courageous US rock climber says he’s ‘very anti-religious’.” Also at The Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta has discussed Alex also in, “An Atheist Rock Climber Who Doesn’t Use a Harness.” The Freedom From Religion Foundation has also written about Alex Honnold which you can access here.
Conversation I Had with an Atheist Years Ago
I personally wonder if Alex Honnold and many other atheists could be one to something. While Alex might be an extreme example the fact is that I have had other conversations with atheists who believe similarly. Years ago in a gym I bumped into someone that I know. We talked briefly and he knew about a faith crisis and how I pushed back from Christianity at the time. He explained to me that life was meant to be enjoyed. You only have one chance at it and you embrace it for all you can do. That means you enjoy life, take risks and have a good time. Because as he explained when it is over then it is over.
It seems to me that in this area many atheists may have a better balance on life than many Christians. They can know how to enjoy life and celebrate it more. They also aren’t restrained by religious dogma which happens with other people as well. From time to time I reflect about this when I hear about someone doing extreme sports, adventure and more who also is an atheist. Likewise there are many atheist or secular troops in the military who do incredible things in brave conditions. That old saying there are no atheists in foxholes is a terrible lie. There are atheists in foxholes. Perhaps with atheists this might be something that people can learn from them. Learn to live and enjoy life. You don’t have to be like Alex Honnold and climb El Capitan, but there are many other adventures you can do in your life that can be meaningful and rich.