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The ascent of Alex Honnold

The ascent of Alex Honnold 13:18

If scaling a 1,600-foot rock face seems terrifying, imagine scaling it without ropes or a harness. That's what Alex Honnold recently attempted in Yosemite National Park, using nothing more than his hands and feet. "60 Minutes" cameras were strategically placed along the climb, capturing every harrowing move. Correspondent Lara Logan interviews the man now being hailed as the best climber alive.

The following script is from "Alone on the Wall" which aired on Oct. 2, 2011.

From time to time, we come across someone who can do something so remarkable that it defies belief, and in this case, seems to defy gravity. It's the story of Alex Honnold.

He's a 26-year-old rock climber from Sacramento, California, but not just any rock climber. He scales walls higher than the Empire State building, and he does it without any ropes or protection.

Filming mountain climber Alex Honnold
Fourteen cameras were rolling the day Alex tackled the sheer mountain face of Sentinel in Yosemite

It's a kind of climbing called free-soloing and the penalty for error is certain death.

We first heard about him in a movie called "Alone on the Wall," a harrowing account of one of his most extraordinary feats: the first free-solo climb up the northwest face of Half Dome, a towering 2,000-ft. wall in Yosemite National Park.

This past summer we met up with Alex at Yosemite to watch what he does first hand.

What you're about to see is someone holding onto a wall, thousands of feet above the ground, with nothing to stop him if he falls.

Dude: The quirky world of Alex Honnold
"60 Minutes Overtime" takes a fun look at Alex-speak - from the "heinous" to the "mellow."

Here, Alex Honnold is 2,600 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor, trying to haul himself up the slippery granite wall of Sentinel.

He's so high, he disappears into the mountain.

Alex moves seamlessly across a section of flaky, unstable rock, pausing to dry a sweaty hand in his bag of chalk.

There's nothing but him, the wall and the wind.

He is up here without ropes or a safety harness. All he has is a pair of rubber climbing shoes.

This is what climbers call free-soloing, and it's so dangerous, that less than one percent of people who climb attempt it.

Lara Logan: Do you feel the adrenaline at all?

Alex Honnold: There is no adrenaline rush, you know? Like if I get a rush, it means that something has gone horribly wrong, you know? Because the whole thing should be pretty slow and controlled and like-- I mean, it's mellow.

Logan: Does the challenge appeal to you?

Honnold: Yeah, for sure. Or like, always being able to push yourself. Like always having something bigger to do or harder to do. Anytime you finish a climb there's always the next thing you can try.

This is Alex in the film "Alone on the Wall." He's done more than a thousand free-solo climbs, but none were tougher than this one:

Here he is, just a speck on the northwest face of Half Dome.

You can barely make out the Yosemite Valley Floor below, as he pauses to rest.

He's the only person known to have free-soloed the northwest face of Half Dome.

Logan: What do you consider Alex's greatest achievements to date?

John Long: That he's still alive. If you look at the past, people who have made a real habit of soloing, you know, at least half of them are dead.

In the 70s, John Long was one of the best rock climbers in the world. Today, he's an elder statesman in the climbing community.

Long: It's indescribable what it's like to be up real high, because you know. But, you can get some kind of idea about it just by walking to the edge of a cliff or edge of a building. You look over and your body has, you have a visceral sort of effect. You know you can dial it off with a lot of experience, not all the way off--

Logan: Well, you just lose your stomach.

Long: Yeah. And the, the real challenge about climbing without rope is the fact is that feeling can come up full bore in a split second.

Logan: And you have to control that?

Produced by Jeff Newton.

Long: Yeah, you're gonna have, you're gonna have to dial that one back really quickly.

Logan: Or else?

Long: Your diaphragm is gonna close, you're not gonna be able to breath. You have no chance. You're gonna die.

Alex learned how to control his fear at this climbing gym near his home in Sacramento, California, when he was just a boy.

[Honnold at gym: It's kinda funny coming back, I remember it being like a big cave.]

For seven years, this is where he came three hours a day, six days a week. He would climb until he was exhausted, then read old climbing magazines.

Honnold: That's all I was ever interested in really.

Logan: Your whole life?

Honnold: Yea. From when I started climbing, from when I was maybe ten or eleven, I don't even remember when it was so long ago, but, I mean that's all I ever was into, really.

Back then he was a shy, skinny kid with big ears.

Today, he's still skinny, but his five-foot, eleven-inch frame is 160 pounds of muscle. For someone his size, he has big hands...they have to carry his whole body weight when he's hanging off the rock.

Honnold: Yeah, I have pretty big fingers. So, it's hard to get it into a thin crack.

Logan: Show me.

Honnold: Well--

Logan: Were they like this before you started climbing?

Honnold: I don't think they were quite this big before I started climbing. I honestly think my connective tissue and stuff is like, gone.

Logan: Bigger?

Honnold: Like they just all gotten beefier, ya know? I think it's all the crack climbing, like torquing your finger in different ways.

He's acquired something akin to rock star status in the climbing world...

[Fan: Can I have your autograph?]

...where he always draws a crowd. This year he made the cover of "National Geographic." He's also in a nationwide ad campaign for the company "The North Face."

But the kid who dropped out of college and stole the family mini-van to go climbing has been slow to cash in on his success.

Logan: So, this is really your home?

Honnold: Yeah, this is. When I'm in the U.S. this is mostly my, my home. You know, it's pretty comfortable. It's pretty cozy. You know, it's easy to move around.

Logan: Do you just park on the side of the road?

Honnold: Yeah.

Almost everything Alex owns is in this van. He survives on less than a thousand dollars a month.

Honnold: You can go anywhere. You know tomorrow morning, I could wake up and drive to the east coast and then climb for the next two months.

He doesn't like to admit he's any good - which is why he's known to his friends as "Alex No Big Deal."

Honnold: I'm not a very powerful climber. I'm more of an endurance climber, like I climb these big long routes.

Logan: Is there anyone else in the world, right now, who can do what Alex Honnold can do?

Long: I think there's probably a handful of people who possibly could get close to what he's doing but he's probably unquestionably, the best guy alive today.

To capture Alex free-soloing Sentinel, we assembled a six-man team of experienced climbers who would film at different positions along the route. We attached four more cameras to the wall and two "60 Minutes" teams set up on the valley floor.

But as the climb got closer, Alex got restless.

So the day before, he snuck off with his friend Peter Mortimer - an adventure filmmaker - to do something that would calm his nerves.

He climbed an impossible vertical wall called the Phoenix.

Honnold: I never would have agreed to go out there with like a bunch of people. It just would be craziness. And honestly, you guys wouldn't want to see it. Like it would be weird.

Logan: Why? What about it would be weird?

Honnold: I don't know. I think it would blow your mind. It'd be weird. Like just the position is outrageous.

This is what he means by "weird"...look at the angle of this wall. It's more than 90 degrees, and covered with mist from a nearby waterfall.

The route itself is only 115-ft. long, but the cracks are so thin his fingertips could barely fit inside them.

Towards the top of the climb, the angle of the wall pushed him backwards.

It only took him eight minutes, but when Alex reached the top, he was the first to free-solo this route in the 34 years since it was established.

Long: There's only a handful of people that can actually do that with a rope. And, the idea that he's doing that without a rope, you know, that's, that's an amazing thing to consider.

The next day, he was ready to tackle Sentinel's 1,600-ft. face and showed us his plan for the route. Over the past few weeks, he'd climbed Sentinel with ropes and climbing gear twice, to prepare, scouting out the best places for his hands and feet.

Then he hiked for nearly two hours, just to reach the base of the climb. We watched him on a video monitor from half a mile away.

Logan: How tough is this as a climb?

Long: Very. Nobody's ever soloed the north face of Sentinel before. Nobody's ever thought about doin' it before.

[Honnold, taking first step: I'm going climbing]

Long: So, he's on.

Logan: Look at that, he's, he's started.

Long: Now, he's off!

Long: Spectacular.

Logan: So you almost have to, like, just stop and remind yourself. I mean, he is up there with nothing.

Long: Yeah, no rope.

Logan: Nothing.

Long: Nothin'.

Long: Right when he pulls into that crack, that's like the point of no return. It becomes world class right there. And he's-- he's in it now.

Logan: I don't even like the sound of that, the point of no return.

Long: Well you don't-- you're not gonna reverse it. It's too hard. That's-- that's the-- that's the one thing you gotta understand on these things. Once it gets to this level, the only way off is up. You're not-- you're not going back down. It's just too difficult.

Honnold: I like to think that I know what I can and can't do.

Logan: Sometimes when other climbers hear what you've been doing they say it's unsustainable, which really is their code for, you know, you can't keep doing this and keep pushing yourself and-- and keep pushing the limits and-- and stay alive.

Honnold: I mean, cause it's all case by case, it's not like I'm just pushing and pushing and pushing until-- until something terrible happens, I mean. I don't know, I just, I don't look at it, like, without perspective. But maybe that's why it's dangerous for me. You know, maybe I'm, like, too close to it and I can't tell that I'm, like, speeding towards a cliff. But I don't think that I'll continue to do this forever. But I don't think that I'll stop because of all the risk, an all that, I think I'll stop because I'll just lose the love for it.

As he approached one of our fixed cameras, Alex grabbed a tiny piece of rock and pulled himself up, in this position, most of his weight is on just four fingers.

Long: Here's another one of the really difficult parts right here. You can see him-- like, the-- his fingertips are only goin' into the first digit. Like, the line on your hand.

Logan: Literally that's what he's clinging, with, his fingertips?

Long: Only-- only-- to there.

One thing every free-solo climber fears is water. It seeps out of cracks in the mountain and that's what he ran into, half way up Sentinel.

Long: Yeah, see how he's wiping his feet off like that? On his legs?

Logan: Yes.

Long: It's wet.

Logan: That's not good at all.

Long: That's the worst of all thing-- possible things

Logan: It looked like your shoes did get wet.

Honnold: Yeah, my shoes did get wet. So the big fear would be that, like, you step on--or you, like climb through wet rock and then without knowing it, you put your foot on to something, you know, and then you just slip right off it. That would be like the worst-case scenario, like thinking that you're going to step onto some foothold and then just having your foot blow off.

His wet shoes didn't seem to bother him. Take a look at him as he climbed up to another one of our fixed cameras.

He's so relaxed, even at this height.

From up here, 80-ft. pine trees below look like grass and yes, he is whistling.

Then came the toughest 50 feet on Sentinel and the hardest sequence of moves he had to make.

If he moved too slowly, his arms would give out. But if he rushed, he could slip and fall -it's a position Alex says he lives for.

Long: Where he's right now, that--this is--this is--the crux of the biscuit, as they say, the hardest part. And--

Logan: Because, look at what he's holding onto.

Long: Yeah, well there isn't anything. It's also really steep right there. You can't--nobody--even--Alex ha--Honnold can't--can't hang indefinitely on his arms. They're gonna give out.

Logan: And then he's got to have the strength to pull himself up.

Long: Yeah. And he's gotta have, the footholds aren't that good. So he's got to basically paste his feet on, you know, over the ceiling and hope they stick.

Alex somehow clings to the wall. As the camera moves away, you can see the river half a mile below him.

He's through the worst of it and, from here, it's 400 feet of what he calls "easy climbing."

[Honnold: Should I go to the tippy top?]

All the way to the top, in just an hour and a half.

The first thing he did before talking to us was take off his shoes.

Logan: Hey, Alex.

Honnold: Yes?

Logan: How's the view up there?

Honnold: The view is awesome, actually, I'm way psyched about the view. And the light right now is awesome, and all of these other--

Alex Honnold had just set another record but for him, there'd be no celebration - just a two-hour hike down the easy side of the mountain.

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