The Phoenix solo – Alex Honnold interview and rare Ray Jardine insight

Interview with the American climbers Alex Honnold and Ray Jardine after Honnold's solo of The Phoenix (5.13a) in Yosemite Valley.
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El Capitan, the symbol of Yosemite Valley, USA

American climber Alex Honnold has soloed The Phoenix (5.13a) in Yosemite Valley. The news spread like wildfire across the climbing globe yesterday, and understandably so since The Phoenix is one of those cult routes which have left their mark on generations of climbers worldwide. First ascended by Ray Jardine and John Lakey in 1977, this fierce and extremely exposed crack climb high up at Upper Cascade Falls immediately became a highly sought-after goal as it was the first 5.13a in the States.

On-sighted for the first time by British climber Jerry Moffatt in 1984, in its 34 year history it has lost none of its aura. On the contrary, the Phoenix's draw is as strong as ever and on 11 June 2011 25-year-old Honnold succumbed to it once more, climbing the line in the purest of styles in just 8 minutes, filmed by friend Peter Mortimer. For the record, a day later Honnold soloed the Chouinard-Herbert on the Sentinel. Although at V.11+ significantly easier, this 15 pitch outing obviously leaves no room for error.

Our interview is published below and we are delighted to follow it up with some exclusive thoughts of first ascentionist Ray Jardine. The man who a year later invented the Friends camming devices which so revolutionised trad climbing offers precious insight into his route and the dangerous world of soloing.

Alex - why the Phoenix?
The Phoenix was important to me when I first came to the Valley because it's such a historic and iconic route. And it's a beautiful crack. It was nice to do it again in even better style, or at least to climb it again even better. To feel so solid on it.

How did this ascent come about?
I'd considered the Phoenix on and off all season. I'd worked on it for two days and thought about it a bit. I'd decided that if I did it I wanted one of my friends to shoot it. The first day I worked on the route there were TWO rainbows in the waterfall below us. It was amazing. I figured a route like that, especially one that you have to rap into and therefore already have a rope on just has to be shot. It's so beautiful. So after I rapped in and warmed up my friend pulled the rope and my harness back up and filmed the solo.

Tell us about the jams - how "secure" are they?
Pretty secure, though the initial corner climbing is a little too thin for me and then the upper tight hands are a little too tight. Basically my hands are a little big for the route, though that makes the crux moves easier for me. But I found it a pretty hard route. And it hurts the skin a lot.

The raging Cascade Falls are right behind you...
It's pretty amazing. In some respects I suppose the noise is annoying since you can't even yell to your partner. But it's such an awe inspiring power that it's hard not to enjoy the position. 

You've been taking your game progressively higher. Do you ever feel afterwards "wow, that was perhaps a step too far"?
Half Dome was maybe a little much for me, but both of these solos were nothing too crazy. They were both perfect. A little hard, enough to challenge me and push me a little, but mellow enough that I didn't feel like I'd gone too far.

You're making a name for yourself primarily for your solos. Presumably this isn't a representative picture nor what you intended?
Well I don't really intend to be "known" for anything, though I'm not really surprised that soloing is what people get excited about. I have my own climbing program and my own climbing goals, if people only end up hearing about the soloing I do that's fine with me, it doesn't change the fact that I spend most of my time sport climbing and travelling and doing fun things like that, I just don't do them very well so no one ever hears about it.

Can you give us some examples?
Well for me sport climbing an 8c or 8c+ is just as hard as doing this kind of soloing. It's just that those grades aren't so impressive to the rest of the world. But it doesn't change how satisfying the routes feel to me. Or doing big scary trad routes, like Southern Belle. Very exciting for me personally, even if no one else cares about it.

Repeats and audacious solo. But how about your own first ascents in Yosemite?
I'm getting closer... I'm running out of cragging routes to do! I've just never been super motivated to put in that kind of work, though I might start soon. I normally just prefer to go climbing.

Last question: what do you search for in your solos? Soloing is a very intimate affair...
Basically anything that excites me. It's hard to say why some routes capture the imagination and others don't. I don't know exactly why that is. But some routes just really appeal to me, and once I start thinking about them it's hard to stop.


What this evokes in me? My first thought was "WOW!" My second thought was more "WOW!" But then I was like "What took so long?" :) I discovered the route in 1977 and made the first free accent May 20, 1977. That was 34 years ago, and I'm admittedly gratified that that it has stood the text of time for all these years. It was a big part of my life, and one of the highlights of my climbing career.

My next thought went back to my good friend John Bachar, who thought he was in "total" control. His death saddened me greatly. And I think it reminded everyone how dangerous free soloing is. I once lost my grip while free soloing 1,100 feet above the ground, and started to fall but managed to grab a tiny (5.11) hold another foot down. I learned a big lesson from that - that I wasn't in "total" control. And that was my last free solo.

I seconded the Phoenix once, and I was surprised how much easier it was. When on the lead I always sewed it up, so it was much harder placing the pro on the lead. And in those days everyone wore EB's. I had developed a special treatment to make the soles of my shoes a bit more sticky, but nothing like today's shoes.

Everything we do has some element of risk. People die getting out of bed. In fact, most people die in bed. So I'm not one to say that free soloing is too dangerous. It's a personal thing, not subject to anyone's all-mighty judgment. The person doing the judging is not safe either.

The thing I hate to see is someone driven by the quest for fame. Trying to make a name for him or her self. On the other hand, I like to see people driven by more personal goals. And the stronger their drive, the better. Fame be dammed; they just like what they are doing. People like that are moving us ahead into the future, in whatever field of endeavor.

And let's not forget the people who developed the technology who made it possible in the first place. Climbing ropes, then carabiners were a major step, then climbing hardware, then Friends, then sticky shoes. They all paved the way to the first free solo of a route, and without them, it would never have happened, because they helped develop the person's climbing skills.

And finally, the technology is not about to stop here. It will continue to advance, and in a few years make today's feats seem old hat. For example, climbing with a free-soloing parachute like device. Or I envision an emergency anchor that will fire into a crack (or the rock itself) at the press of a button or a pull of a cord. These things could make much tougher routes the norm.

That's is why I never pushed hard free routes on the Apron. Because I knew that sticky shoes were coming, and would make hard Apron routes old hat - that is, not so hard or dangerous anymore. (At least those that were regarded so at the time.)

And that's why I don't particularly like free soloing, because in another few years it might be old hat as new inventions such as these come along and enable everyone to solo much more safely.

So back in my day, my secret was to use foresight, and head in the direction that I felt was more aligned with the future. And also to develop the technology that would help take me there.

Congratulations Alex, and stay safe everyone.

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