INTERVIEW: Alex Honnold in the UK - Grit & Great British Weather

Unless you somehow managed to avoid the excitement and social media frenzy, you'll know that US climber and renowned soloist Alex Honnold was recently in the UK. We knew a bit about what he got up to - a solo of The Complete Scream E8 6b, a flash of The Dark Side​ E8 6c - both at Fair Head, Northern Ireland, as well as soloing some easier classics on the Cromlech in North Wales: Left Wall, Right Wall, Memory Lane, down-climbing Cenotaph Corner and Cemetery Gates, before roping-up on Lord of the Flies.

Alex Honnold soloing on the lofty heights of Stanage last year, 250 kb
Alex Honnold soloing on the lofty heights of Stanage last year
© Jan Masny

But what did Alex think of the UK and of his experience as a whole? I asked Alex some questions about his solo exploits, the gritstone, UK ethics and of course, about his thoughts on our Great British weather...

"I got one afternoon at Stanage. It felt like revisiting an old friend. Albeit in terrible, warm conditions."

When was your first trip to the UK?

I'd been to the UK before as a tourist, but my first climbing trip was with Matt Segal and Kevin Jorgeson in 2008 (check this UKC News Report for a ticklist). I've been back once very briefly since.

Did you have much knowledge about British climbing history and culture before you came?

I had a little, I'd certainly seen some of the classics like Hard Grit. I'd read some of the books, certainly knew a lot of the characters' names. I probably didn't really appreciate the depth of the climbing culture or all the crazy ethics and history, but I certainly knew that the UK had a serious climbing community.

What were your first impressions of the UK in general? (be honest!) Did it live up to what you expected?

Actually, it's kind of funny. On my first trip to the Grit I hadn't had the opportunity to travel much and I thought of the UK as a good example of what climbing in the rest of the world was like. It was so exotic and interesting and exciting.
Coming back to the UK now after another 8 years of nonstop climbing trips I see it more like a small, tight knit community that kind of operates at the fringe. When I first visited I assumed that Brits were doing things the right way because they were so serious about their ethics and rules. Now I see that the whole rest of the world is doing it a different way and Brits have just decided to play by their own rules. [Obviously a vast over simplification, since there are a lot of places in the world that have their own eccentric rules, but that kind of sums it up.]

Alex Honnold on a solo of Flying Buttress Direct, 219 kb
Alex Honnold on a solo of Flying Buttress Direct
© Jan Masny

What did you make of our climbing scene?

I'd kind of forgotten how everyone knows everyone. It's as if the US climbing community was restricted to only California. It makes it all feel a lot more family like. Which also means inbred a bit :)
But it's great that there's such a strong community.

Moving forward to this most recent trip - what was the motivation for coming back?

I've always wanted to climb on the Slate. It seems like one of the more unique places to climb in the world. And I was invited to do a speaking tour for the BMC and appear at the Fair Head meet so it just made sense to put it all together into one fun trip.

Alex faces the harsh reality of British weather..., 65 kb
Alex faces the harsh reality of British weather...

You seemed to be very lucky with the weather, despite an early complaint about rain in the first few days. Surely you don't believe that it rains here all the time now?

Haha, I think I just got super lucky. The weather in Switzerland has been nonstop rain. Literally rain every day for months I think. Europe in general is just so rainy. I love the desert.
Jonathan Siegrist explained it: "The reason Europe is so lovely and green is because the weather is terrible."

...all is forgiven., 157 kb
...all is forgiven.

You visited the slate quarries of Llanberis. What did you make of the unique style of the slate there and the setting? Which routes did you climb?

I liked the surreal setting and I enjoyed the unique style. It was everything I hoped for. I didn't climb anything too crazy. One of my hands is hurt and I wasn't really going to the death on anything. We didn't get to try the Quarryman because it was too sunny [!!] the day we went. Basically I just sport climbed a bunch and had a good time. Super fun.

Alex Honnold on Right Wall, 181 kb
Alex Honnold on Right Wall
© Richardlake, May 2016

You then travelled to the Fair Head meet in Ireland. Had you climbed in Ireland before, and what did you make of the scene there?

I'd never been to Ireland at all, which was a big part of the appeal in going to the meet. The scene there reminded me a lot of the general UK climbing scene. A super wholesome community. Fair Head is a pretty amazing crag!

Your solo ascent of The Complete Scream got people talking and attracted a crowd of onlookers from the festival. Do you normally have so many people watching you when soloing? Does it give the ascent a different feel?

There are tons of folks around during the festival, it makes sense that people would gather to watch something interesting. Didn't change the experience much for me, I only really looked up once, noticed all the folks, and decided not to look around any more. I just focussed on what I was doing. But it wasn't a particularly difficult solo physically. If I was actually pushing my limits I wouldn't want so many people around. It'd be weird.

Alex Honnold enjoying the evening sun at Fair Head, 155 kb
Alex Honnold enjoying the evening sun at Fair Head
© Martin McKenna

Also, just for the record, soloing a route like Complete Scream isn't really any harder than leading it. If there was any gear on the route I probably would have used a rope. . .

If you could pick a favourite UK route, and favourite UK crag, what would they be and why?

I like the Grit. I really like the rock. I think my favourite route might be Harder Faster, though I never actually did it. I think it's a super proud line though. It was too scary to climb. . .

Did you get out on the grit this time round? What do you think of "God's own rock" and its climbing?
I got one afternoon at Stanage. It felt like revisiting an old friend. Albeit in terrible, warm conditions. But I really like the Grit.

Alex Honnold "I really like the grit.", 228 kb
Alex Honnold "I really like the grit."
© Jan Masny

Have you ever climbed in Scotland? (if not, you should!)

I haven't. I'm deterred by the weather's reputation. . .

Have you learned much about the ethics over here - if so, what did you discover?

I think I have a pretty decent feel for UK climbing ethics and the grading scale and all that. I just don't fully appreciate it I guess. I don't see what's wrong with tasteful bolting. I love climbing and dislike all the faffing about that pure trad climbing requires. I'd rather spend all that faffing time just climbing.
But obviously I respect the history of climbing in the UK and can certainly play by the imposed rules. I just don't totally agree with them.

Did you meet any of the famous figures in the UK climbing scene - Dawes, Moon, Moffat etc?

Actually I met all three, which was a big honour for me. I read Jerry's book last summer and found it super inspiring [and Johnny's too, for that matter]. And Johnny came and climbed with me on the Slate for a week or so, which was amazing. He has such incredible footwork, it made me feel like a beginner.

Are there any routes you would like to come back for?

I'd still love to do The Quarryman someday. And maybe The Very Big and the Very Small. If I ever have hard enough skin for it.

Foreign visitors usually complain about our food! What was your UK crag and dinner diet like? I know you visited Pete's Eats…
I actually didn't eat at Pete's Eats, I was only meeting Johnny there in the mornings to climb. I ate very well on my whole trip, though that's mostly because I ate in people's homes. I have to extend a big thank you to everyone who hosted me and shuttled me around and climbed with me. I had a great time!

Alex is sponsored by: Black Diamond, Goal Zero, La Sportiva, Maxim Dynamic Ropes, Stride Health and The North Face

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