Alex Honnold is an athlete who likes to scale skyscrapers, cliffs, and walls — all without using ropes or harnesses. The 32 year old California native is the subject of a new National Geographic movie and has been asked — often — whether he has a death wish. But Honnold, who also runs a foundation dedicated to fighting climate change, says that he’s motivated by the adrenaline rush and the sheer need for concentration that comes into play when you climb without protective equipment.
Honnold studied engineering at the University of Berkeley but dropped out before his senior year. He lives in California.
Here’s what you need to know about Alex Honnold:
1. He Climbed 3000 Feet in Yosemite Without Ropes or Any Safety Equipment
National Geographic is about to release a documentary about Honnold’s rope-less climb up El Capitan, a three-thousand foot sheer granite cliff in Yosemite National Park. Honnold says he first got the idea for the climb in 2009, and spent years thinking and planning for the climb; he practiced again and again with ropes, memorizing every move, before he finally decided he was ready to go rope-less.
Climbing without safety equipment meant that Honnold could have died at any moment on his journey up the cliff — a journey which, he says, took just under four hours. Honnold has allowed scientists to scan his brain to try and understand why he doesn’t feel as much fear as most people. The MRI revealed that his amygdala, the part of the brain which processes emotions, is less responsive to fear stimuli than the amygdalas of most people.
Honnold says he doesn’t do any meditation or yoga to prepare for his big expeditions; he says he tries to be “intentional” about preparing himself and plans out every step of his climb as a way to keep himself calm. He admitted to being “burnt out” and feeling in a little bit of a funk after successfully climbing El Capitan.
2. He Describes His Girlfriend as a ‘Strong Woman’ Who Introduced Herself to Him at a Book Event
Honnold talks about his girlfriend, Cassandra “Sanni” McCandless, with a lot of love. He says that they are very happy together — and they are only together because she had the nerve to approach him at a book signing back in 2015. (Honnold is the author of a memoir, “Alone on the Wall,” about his experiences climbing.) He told REI that they met when Cassandra was burned out from online dating and had made a private vow to get back to dating “the old fashioned way,” by meeting people in real life instead of through a screen.
Cassandra wasn’t a serious rock climber at the time, although she’d tried the sport a few times. She went along to one of Honnold’s book signing events in a Seattle book store and thought that he was cute, so she waited in line and handed him a slip of paper that said, “because you made me laugh — and why not?” The slip of paper also had her phone number on it.
Cassandra is a writer who runs a blog called 35 Degrees to the West, about her experience with the great outdoors. Honnold says when he’s in between climbs, he and Cassandra relax by playing video games — his guilty pleasure is Diablo 3, because “it allows big blocks of time to disappear.”
3. He Recently Scaled a Skyscraper in New Jersey — Not the First Time He’s Climbed City Buildings
On September 6, Honnold climbed about a third of the way up a 69-story building in Jersey City, without using ropes or safety equipment of any kind. (He got permission from the building’s owner ahead of time and had promised to be “quiet and discreet.”) He started his climb at a little past midnight and spent a few minutes per floor. Honnold used window frames and ledges to pull himself off but was slowed down because the building was wet from a recent rain.
When he got to the 24th floor, Honnold said he didn’t want to go any further — not because the climbing was too hard, but because he felt intrusive passing by people’s living rooms when the lights were still on and the residents were still clearly wide awake. He had already been captured in a selfie by a man on a lower floor.
So, Honnold texted the building manager to let him in, and he passed the next few hours chatting with his girlfriend on the phone and reading the latest news about the Kavanaugh hearings. Just before 5AM, a maintenance worker finally let him back in to the building.
4. His Parents Were Both College Professors Who He Described as Extremely Hands-Off
Honnold grew up in Sacramento, where he says he spent hours having adventures on his bike as a teenager. He says his parents were buried in their own work and had little time to spare for him or his sister; he describes them as extremely, perhaps excessively, hands-off.
Honnold says that once, when he was 15 or 16, he took his bike out and got completely lost, winding up about 70 miles from home. He had to hitch a ride with a truck driver and then spent hours trying to find his way from southern Sacramento to his home. When he finally got home, Honnold was stunned to realize that his parents hadn’t even realized that he was missing.
His father died when he was just 19, a year after his parents got divorced. In the same year Honnold’s grandfather passed away. Honnold said that was the beginning of his thoughts about death. “Everybody is going to die, so everybody should be open to it.”
5. Honnold Estimates His Net Worth at Two Million Dollars
Honnold freely admits that he is the highest paid climber in the world. But climbing is still not a mainstream sport, so even the world’s best-paid rock climber isn’t as rich as, say, a football star. Honnold own a house in Las Vegas and a cabin in Lake Tahoe. He says that those homes, together with his other accounts, add up to a net worth of about two million dollars.
Honnold’s parents were both language professors at a community college; he says that he grew up “solidly middle class,” wanting for nothing but without big luxuries. He started working at a climbing gym when he was 14 to help pay for his climbing expenses. At 18, he enrolled in the University of Berkeley to study engineering, but dropped out a year later after he decided that he had a chance at being a professional climber.
Honnold lived out of an old van for a time; between 2004 and 2009, he got by on just a thousand dollars a month. Then, in 2009, he landed his first sponsorship with North Face, and his net worth has grown from there. Honnold runs a foundation, the Honnold Foundation, which works on renewable energy and climate change-fighting initiatives.