On June 3, 2017, Honnold became the first person to ever ascend El Capitan, the 3,000-foot granite wall in Yosemite National Park, without the use of ropes, a harness, or a safety net of any kind. His free-solo feat, long considered inconceivable within the rock-climbing world, sealed the 31-year-old’s status as the best rock climber who has ever lived. Climber, filmmaker, and Honnold’s close friend Jimmy Chin documented the climb, which took just under four hours, for a National Geographic feature story and feature film.
Honnold was born in Sacramento and grew up with the Sierra Nevada as his mountain playground. He began climbing when he was 11, and at 19 left his studies at UC Berkeley to devote himself to his rock-climbing pursuits. Yosemite has been a second home to Honnold, who has notched some of his greatest climbing achievements there, including a solo of Yosemite’s Triple Crown—Mt. Watkins, El Capitan, and Half Dome—while living out of his van.
Even Honnold doubted the probability of a totally unsupported ascent of “El Cap,” one of the world’s most iconic climbing destinations. “I think it’s important to let yourself feel that doubt, because I didn’t want to put pressure on myself,” he said, in a post-climb interview with Men's Journal. “But, I knew I had to at least practice it and see if it was possible, otherwise I’d have always wondered whether I could, or should, have gone for it.”
Despite the international celebrity that followed, Honnold has maintained his self-proclaimed “simple dirtbag-climber existence,” living in his van in his favorite place on earth.
Where do you live? I’m from Sacramento, but have spent basically my whole life traveling and living out of my van. I spend more time in Yosemite than any other place—often three months or more a year.
Why there? Yosemite has the best climbing on earth.
What is your greatest California love? The Sierra Nevada. I grew up there and spent my whole life playing in the mountains. The smell of the dry pine forest around Tahoe and the High Sierra—that feels like home to me. There are so many [climbing] opportunities with big mountains, and the rock is so good. The sheer walls in the Sierra are unlike any other mountain range in the United States. The whole Eastern Sierra just drops off with several thousand-foot walls. It’s amazing for climbing.
What is the biggest misperception about Californians? A lot of people just think about Hollywood, surf culture and the beach. Obviously, that is California, but for me it’s 100 percent mountain-focused.
What is the stereotype that most holds true? That there’s crazy traffic, especially in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
What is your favorite Golden State splurge? There’s so much great food and fresh produce in California. The Mexican and Asian food is so good.
Time for a road trip—where are you going? I’d go up north on the coast. There’s a lot of rock up there I haven’t seen.
If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would it be? I would decree Asian noodles. I love eating them. L.A. and the Bay Area are amazing for food and have the best options.
Best California song? "Californication" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
How would your California dream day unfold? I live my dream day. Wake up in Yosemite, pedal my bicycle down to El Capitan (which is the biggest rock wall in the world), and go climb it. Afterwards, I hang out with my friends in the Valley and socialize.