SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Alex Honnold had dreamed about climbing the mighty El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without any safety gear for eight years. But every time he looked up the massive granite wall, he found it too daunting.
That was the case until this weekend, when the elite rock climber reached the summit in about four hours using only his hands and feet. The 31-year-old on Saturday became the first to climb the 3,000-foot (914-meter) granite wall alone without a safety harness or ropes to catch him if he fell.
“I was pretty much elated,” Honnold said of reaching the top in a telephone interview Sunday with The Associated Press. “I was probably the happiest I’ve ever been. It’s something that I thought about for so long and dreamed about and worked so hard for. I mean, it’s pretty satisfying.”
Honnold, who grew up in Northern California, began preparing for his historic climb two years ago. He scaled the route countless times, rehearsing it while climbing with protective gear and memorizing each hole he had to grab and the way he had to position his body until he felt comfortable enough to attempt the “free solo” climb.
The most difficult part of the route is about 2,300 feet off the ground, where there are very small holds where only a thumb can fit.
But even more challenging was overcoming the mental hurdle, he said.
“Each year I would show up and it would seem just much too daunting,” said Honnold, who has been climbing for 20 years. “To walk up to the base of the climb without rope and harness, it just feels a little outrageous. Getting over that side of it was the hardest part.”
Observers said his climb has pushed the limits in a sport that requires a high level of athleticism, risk-taking and mental focus.
“This has never been done before … and it’s hard to imagine anybody ever coming close to what he’s done,” said Daniel Duane, author of “El Capitan: Historic Feats and Radical Routes.”
“He is totally alone at the top of his game,” he added.
Honnold grew up in the suburbs of Sacramento where he began practicing indoor rock climbing at age 11. He dropped out of the University of California Berkeley to conquer major summits around the world.
He was among several elite rock climbers whose endorsements were dropped by energy food company Clif Bar in 2014 following the release of a documentary about climbers who were risking their lives by forgoing safety gear.
Honnold, who spoke calmly as he recounted his achievement, brushed off criticism by those who say he’s being reckless by not wearing protective gear.
“I could see how for a non-climber it might seem completely insane. But I’ve devoted 20 years to climbing and probably six or seven to this particular project so, it’s not like I’m just some crazy kid who in the spur of the moment decided to do this crazy thing. It took years of effort,” he said.
The climb up 3,000-foot (914-meter) El Capitan used to take days to complete with the aid of ropes, safety gear and a partner. In the past few decades, speed climbers working in tandem and using ropes have set records in reaching the top of the steep cliff.
In January 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson became the first to “free climb” the Dawn Wall — a particularly steep route to the top of El Capitan — by grabbing just the rock and using ropes only to catch them if they fell. They did it in 19 days.
Honnold is first to climb the iconic rock alone without protection in mere hours.
“To climb without ropes where the slightest slip is literally fatal in that arena requires enormous self-control and focus,” Duane said. “It requires this intense cognitive effort to keep fear at bay and focus on the task in front of you.”
He said Honnold has a rare ability to control fear and his body for a long period of time.
“He’s shown awesome grace under pressure,” said Hans Florine, a fellow climber who with Honnold holds the speed record for climbing the Nose route of El Capitan in about two hours and 23 minutes.
The historic ascent will be featured in a National Geographic documentary .