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EW goes rock climbing with Alex Honnold of 'Valley Uprising'

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Discovery Channel

Alex Honnold, 29, is an accomplished, professional rock climber who is known for his epic, free solo ascents. He’s also one of the subjects of Valley Uprising, a documentary about the evolution of rock climbing in Yosemite Valley that recently made the festival rounds. It’s now premiering on Discovery Channel as part of the network’s inaugural Elevation Weekend.

The film shows Honnold and his predecessors methodically maneuvering their way through the bold faces of Yosemite’s biggest walls. In advance of the film’s Discovery debut, Honnold gave me a rock climbing lesson, but on a much smaller scale—at Rockreation, an indoor rock climbing gym in Los Angeles.

Upon arriving, it was clear that Honnold was at ease with his surroundings. He’s been climbing since he was about 11—18 or 19 years—and in that time, he also worked at a gym that was very similar to the one we were in. “[Rockreation] feels very homey,” Honnold said. “Pretty much every gym I go into I feel very comfortable. I dump my stuff, take my shoes off, do my thing.” I couldn’t say the same for myself. I’ve tried my hand at rock climbing in the past, a few times at Rockreation itself…and the last time I went, I was eight or nine years old.

Honnold and I climbed on walls about 15 feet high without ropes or harnesses, which is to say we were bouldering. He went first, demonstrating on a blue route that hadn’t been completed by anyone before. He didn’t make it to the top on his first try, but that didn’t appear to matter. As I watched him work out the puzzle, it seemed to me that his interest in the sport is about the process as much as the actual ascent.

I asked him what he loves about climbing. “What’s not to love?” he responded. “I like the movement. I like how playful it is. I like swinging around and trying different things. I think it’s pretty fun.” 

He added: “I’ve been doing this almost 20 years, and it’s still delightful to come to the gym and bounce between holds.” 

Then it was my turn. I was really hoping that I would look like Tom Cruise in the opening scene of Mission: Impossible II, but it didn’t quite go down like that. I didn’t fail, but I’m also no Ethan Hunt.

Honnold had me jump straight into it, directing me where to move on a green route that I was following. I got near the top of the wall, with only a few holds to go, and I froze. I looked down—and even though I knew I wasn’t that high up, I climbed back down to the comfort of the ground. Honnold said I needed to commit. Upon taking his advice, I was able to do just that, and made it to the top. I asked him if I was a rock climbing prodigy; he responded by laughing. (Sooo, that’s a yes?) 

My mental block got me wondering if Honnold ever gets scared—say, when he’s three-quarters of the way up the 2,000 foot high Half Dome climb. He doesn’t, really. Referencing the advice he gave me about the green route, he said he won’t go up a climb unless he’s decided, and is prepared, to do it. He does, however, have a very interesting perspective on fear and danger. “I’m afraid of things that are dangerous,” he said. “I’m afraid of actually perishing.”

I pointed out that a lot of people would say rock climbing is dangerous. “Maybe, but you’re still doing it with the element of control,” he responded. “I would argue that going out and getting drunk every weekend with your friends is more dangerous, because there’s way more factors that you’re completely out of control of.” Touché, Honnold.

As for the actual film, Honnold appreciates the spotlight it’s shining on the sport, especially because, he said, there’s not much media on the subject. “I think it’s cool to put that kind of climbing film out for a mainstream audience,” he said. “I think it’s a great film and it really shows the essence of climbing in Yosemite. Obviously, I’m biased because I love climbing, but I think when other people see the film, they’ll be equally inspired by it, even if they don’t climb, because of the passion everybody has for climbing.” 

Eventually, the lesson came to a close. But before it did, I attempted to ascend a more difficult red route. I’d been having the same sort of mental block as with the green route I’d attempted earlier. I would climb up to a certain point, and climb down, climb a little higher, and climb down again. Honnold pushed me to just go for it.

I wish I could say I made it to the top, but this is not a story of triumph. 

“You did fine, but you were held back by your mind,” Honnold said when I asked him for his honest opinion. “You didn’t try your hardest. You [were] never like ‘Ahhhhhh!’ and just fell off. When someone is trying to the death, they explode in crazy positions off the wall. You were very controlled, very ‘Oh, don’t like that.’ You never know how hard you can climb unless you just go ballistic and fly out.”

I drove away feeling, frankly, a little defeated. (Like I said, I really wanted to be Ethan Hunt.) I was also totally sore, and my hands were bright red, with newly-developed calluses. But I also felt inspired to give rock climbing another try…and finally ascend the red route that was just a little too out of reach.

Discovery’s Elevation Weekend kicks off on Saturday with the premiere of Valley Uprising at 8 p.m. ET/PT, followed by Everest Avalanche Tragedy at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

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