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The spotlight was never part of the plan. With his June 3 free solo of Yosemite’s
El Capitan, Alex Honnold secured his place as the outdoor industry’s biggest celebrity—a height he never meant to ascend to. Even so, it’s a platform he’s learned to embrace. Over the past decade, he’s risen from a wide-eyed Valley hopeful to a vocal member of the outdoor industry, a philanthropist, and a public lands advocate—proof that when something important is on the line, even “No Big Deal” Honnold has a serious side.
You’ve done a lot of work overseas installing solar panels with the Honnold Foundation. Has your focus shifted as public lands have come under fire at home?
The work of the Foundation has gone on unchanged, but I have been using social media more often as a platform for public land here. It’s just the nature of public land issues that they require more of a public voice to really draw attention to them. I’ve spoken at events, posted on social media to raise awareness, signed petitions, sent letters, and even sent a message to [Secretary of the Interior Ryan] Zinke. And I voted, which is the biggest thing.
What direction would you like to see the outdoor industry go in terms of its role
I think in the last six months the outdoor community has mobilized in a positive direction.
I don’t know if it’s enough, but it’s more than was going on a year ago. I guess that’s the big question: What should people be doing other than voting and going to marches and public rallies? It’s hard to tell what will affect change the best.
Is there anyone you look up to as an example when it comes to advocacy?
I always think of Doug Tompkins and what he was doing in South America. He was a big inspiration in terms of how you can structure your life to maximize your benefit to the world. I’ve also seen Conrad Anker speak on a few occasions and also really admire the work he’s done.
How do you structure your life to maximize your benefit to the world?
The foundation is obviously the most public face to it, but privately, for me that means going vegetarian or vegan-ish, using solar on my home, and living as low impact a life as possible.
Have you found that living by example is a more effective way to inspire people?
I think it’s an all-of-the-above type of strategy. I think that living rightly is maybe the strongest way to make an impact. My sister lives in a much more ethical, thoughtful manner than I do, and seeing the way she’s lived has had a huge impact on me. But that’s a slower, deeper way of reaching people, and giving a speech can instantly inspire someone. Reaching out through public talks and posts is an easier way to have a bigger, more superficial impact, but living in line with your beliefs has the potential to change people around you in a more integral way.
At the OIA breakfast, [incoming OIA board chair] Travis Campbell said he’d like to see you become more famous for your foundation than for your climbing. Is that a sentiment you’d echo?
I would love it if that’s the way life worked out. I certainly hope that I can do more in the world through the foundation than through climbing, but that’s a longer-term goal, and we’ll see how the foundation shapes up and what we manage to do.
Tell us about attending “Climb the Hill” earlier this year. What did you take away from that experience in Washington?
That was my first experience with real advocacy and lobbying. The takeaway is that people should be more engaged at the local level. A lot of people don’t realize that representatives have local offices and you can interact with them in their hometowns, or how much of government is about building relationships and chatting with people who have the power to affect change.
I found it made me more optimistic—if you take the time to get to know someone, talk with them, and build some rapport, over time you can explain to them where you’re coming from and reach a point of mutual understanding. That’s how real change happens.
There’s a documentary coming out soon about your free solo of El Cap. What do you hope viewers take away from that?
I find El Cap to be the most inspiring objective in the world, and that’s what pushed me to try and do the most that I could with my life. Hopefully someone watching the film will find that same feeling.
It sounds cliché, but everybody draws their inspiration from somewhere. I drew it from photos of other soloists and climbing stories. To think I could be contributing to that body of work in some way is pretty cool.
If you could send a message to prospective advocates in the outdoor industry, what would it be?
When it comes to environmental protection, you should choose the thing you’re most inspired by, whether it’s lobbying in Washington, writing letters, doing marches, or leading participation trips to get people outside and experience the natural world for themselves.
When it comes to advocacy, there are a lot of paths you can take, and choosing the one you feel most strongly about is what will be the most effective. People do their best work when they’re passionate about what they’re doing.