What Alex Honnold Can Teach Us About Living

Okay, if you bothered to open this post after seeing the title you probably fall in one of two camps.

The first camp are people who follow the world of outdoor sports and who are possibly climbers or know something about climbing. 

The second camp are people who are wondering who the hell Alex Honnold is, what he could teach us about living, and why they should care. 

Alex Honnold is one of the best and likely the most famous rock climber in the world.  And he’s about to be launched to further stardom when a major feature film premiers next week about his free solo climb up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

You can view the trailer here.

If you’ve never been to Yosemite National Park and seen El Capitan up close, you may not realize how big it is.  It’s a 3000 foot sheer granite wall. 

The first time you see it, if your jaw doesn’t drop, you might not have emotions. 

Honnold has become famous for climbing in the style called “free soloing”.  This means he often climbs without any protection.  No rope, no protective gear.  Nothing. 

It’s extremely dangerous, to state the obvious. 

But no one, absolutely no one, thought free soloing El Cap was possible.  Last year, Honnold did it. 

The New York Times has called it “one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind, ever”.  I tend to agree, mainly because of the mental aspect of what he did. 

Even though it was a steady 4 hours of extremely hard and dangerous climbing, physically he wasn’t taxed all that much.  The guy is ripped and a physical freak. 

But mentally, well that’s a whole ‘nother game.  His ability to block out fear and give full concentration to the difficult task at hand is unfathomable, otherworldly. 

 

Sorry Cal, He Followed His Passion

So what can Honnold teach us about life?  Well, he became the climber he is today largely because he dedicated his life to it.  He lived his passion. 

I’m a fan of Cal Newport, and Cal has some great commentary about why following your passion is a bad idea.

His main beef with the concept is this, as he says in the video:  

“Follow your passion presupposes that you have a preexsting passion that you can follow”. 

Newport isn’t opposed to you following your passion, he’s opposed to the societal pressure to do so, for people who largely may not really have one. 

Honnold is clear proof that if you do have a preexisting passion, you should damn well follow it.  And good things will happen. 

Honnold spent over a decade living in a van.  The term “dirtbag” arose out of climbing lingo, and Honnold was a classic dirtbag.  Sleep (in a car or van), eat, climb.  Repeat.  That’s how you get good. 

Check out Honnold’s pimped out van.  This was his third iteration, after he started making over six figures as a climber from product sponsorships.  

 

Here’s a key quote in that video:

“I don’t think vanlife is particularity appealing, You know it’s not like I love living in a car. But I love living in these places, I love being in Yosemite, I love being basically wherever the weather is good. I love being able to follow good conditions all over, and be relatively comfortable as I do it. And that basically necessitates living in a car. Or in this case a really nice van.” 

You could sum that passage up in one word – sacrifice

For things you really want, for your true passion, you have to sacrifice.  He obviously doesn’t think too much of living in a van, but he does it. 

I’ve heard other interviews with him where he admitted being self-conscious about it, especially when it came to girls. 

But he did it, because that’s what it takes.  And before he made over 100 grand a year to climb rocks, his vanlife sure helped when he had little money: 

“Living in a car, totally cool, everyone should do it. Very low overhead. It’s funny because when you think how much people spend on rent, and then how much less it is to live in a car, you’re like, it’s not a bad way to live.”

And did you catch the end of that video?  Here’s Honnold on stuff:

“It’s cleansing in a way, you realize how much less stuff you need….. It reminds you that you don’t really need that much to be totally content, to live a fulfilling life, and to be happy.”

 

Financial Dirtbag

Honnold is now worth about 2 million dollars.  If you told people even just 20 years ago that a rock climber could become a multi-millionaire by doing nothing but climbing – never having another job – they would never have believed you. 

Honnold’s perspective on money and finances is revealed in an article he wrote for the website WealthSimple.

About his childhood:

“I never felt like we wanted for anything, but I never really wanted much, either.”

His guiding principal:

“The guiding principle I try to live by is: don’t spend money I don’t have. I’ve never been in debt and I’ve never bought extravagant stuff.”

And oh yeah, he might as well be a FIRE blogger, because he ends the article with this gold nugget:

“I think I define success as just being able to do the things I want to when I want to. Being able to fund the lifestyle. There’s no number that makes that possible. A lot of it has to do with how happy I am with what I’m doing.”

You can read Alex’s article here, it’s a quick read and I highly recommend it. 

And be sure to check out Free Solo in theaters, even though you know he doesn’t fall, I promise it will make you sweat.  I haven’t seen a movie in a theater for something like 8 years, but I will go see this.

Bravo Alex.  But now that you’re successful and have a nice house in the suburbs, I think you should use a rope more often.

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Dave @ Accidental FIRE

I reached financial independence and semi-retired in my mid-40's through hard work, smart living, and investing. This blog chronicles my tips and advice to help you do the same.

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25 Responses

  1. Xrayvsn says:

    I fell into the second camp and glad I still clicked on the title (I would regardless since I like how you write) and learned more about this remarkable climber.

    He definitely has the makings of a great FIRE blogger with quotes like that. Sacrifice definitely has paid off and living in a van although not ideal has allowed him to make his net worth climb into 7 figures and allow him to pursue his passion.

    The fact that he already is doing something he loves means that he doesn’t need a number to shoot for financially because he is already doing it now (similar to the Mexican fisherman parable I have heard).

  2. i got distracted reading about cal newport. ironic, eh? i gave up a spot in the boarding house and slept in a car in a mass pike rest area, but only for a week. it was great. you ever climb the face of poke o moonshine? i always see it from I-87 and it looks kinda daunting.

    • Fye @ Accidental FIRE says:

      Cal’s stuff is great. But I also agree that the “stress” to follow your passion could be very detrimental if you haven’t developed one yet.

      I’ve not climbed Poke-O. That requires lead trad-climbing and when it comes to rock climbing I’m just not at that level yet for stuff that’s 5.7 and higher. I’m a much better ice-climber and can lead ice route’s now, but I’d need to improve in rock climbing to do Poke-O, although it might have some 5.6 routes.

      Now I’ll be dreaming of the daks all day again, thx man 😉

  3. My roommate in grad school looked up to this guy. I’d routinely catch him watching YouTube videos of his climbing ventures. So I suppose that puts me in the first camp?

    I hadn’t heard anything about his outlook on life however. That was a pleasant thing to hear easing into a Friday morning.

    He knew his passion early on and pursued it for the sake of personal enjoyment, not for money. He found great success along the way and let the money come as an ancillary benefit. That’s a great lesson anyone should follow if they’re following a passion (that they should follow per Cal). Now that he has something to lose, you’re right: he might consider using the rope.

  4. My favorite part is the big water bottle as his bathroom. Convenient, accessible, reusable. Believe it or not, my Mom bought me one of those Pez for women funnels and I still haven’t tried it. Now I have a new inspiration!

    Seriously, this guy is amazing and I find that people out on the trails have often found FI to follow their passion. And then figured out the numbers to make that work. Maybe that’s better than our way of FI first, passion later.

    • Fye @ Accidental FIRE says:

      When I was in Antarctica pee bottles were absolutely essential! There was no way you were going to wake up from sleeping and put on your 6lb boots and go out in the -40 degree temps and high winds to pee. Wasn’t gonna happen. So like Alex I started getting used to them and now use them on all camping trips 🙂

  5. GenX FIRE says:

    I’m definitely someone in the second camp. I love climbing. I love watching people climb, but I’m also major klutz. I actually broke a foot this year tripping over hard packed gravel while I was doing a multi mile run. I have often said being a distance runner my whole life that those sports tend to pare down everything and when I run a lot it really helps me see the world more clearly especially whatever is troubling me. You can consider me a new fan of his and somebody I’ll be reading a lot more about, so thank you for this posting.

    • Fye @ Accidental FIRE says:

      I’ve gone down while trail running numerous times. Usually happens near the end of runs when my legs are tired and I lazily don’t clear a root or rock. It’s just part of the game.

      Definitely check out the movie, it’s gonna be epic!

      • GenX FIRE says:

        I wish I could say it was the end of my run. It was the start. At least I can brag on my toughness and say I ran another 2 miles after I fell. Probably not the best idea, but adrenaline and all.

        This is why I was nervous when my wife and I climbed Skellig Michel off the Ring of Kerry in Ireland. If you say the place where Luke was in the new Star Wars movies, then you have seen Skellig Michel.

  6. Aaron says:

    Big fan of Hannold’s too and there’s definitely a lot of us can learn from him. Like you say, he’s certainly put his passion first above living “well” in terms of a nice home / lots of things. He’s had laser focus. Guess you have to when you are hanging on to the edge of a cliff wall by your toes!

  7. Wow living the dream! The more I read about van/rv life the more I want to do it. What’s remarkable is that he’s worth as much as he is and still lives in the van and goes out and climbs. That’s truly following your passion and making a life around it! Still figuring out a way that I could make something like this work…

    • Fye @ Accidental FIRE says:

      He’s by far the richest rock-climber ever whose made a living from climbing only, And he’s risked a lot to get there.

  8. Was just at the NYC premiere yesterday and it was amazing (you can see pics on the insta)! Definitely go see it in theaters. Super funny and inspiring at the same time. They (Alex/Tommy/Jimmy/Chai) are all so down to earth.

    He talks about dirtbagging, donating 1/3 of his income to charity, and how he’s good financially while never really chasing money. Great financial independence + rock climbing story.

    • Fye @ Accidental FIRE says:

      Cool that you went to the preview, I saw pics on Honnolds FB account! He looked soooooo uncomfortable in a sport coat posing for pics. He was actually wearing sneakers, probably because he doesn’t own any dress shoes!

  9. Captain DIY says:

    He seems like such a humble, down to earth kind of dude as well, which really helps his appeal. Most world-class athletes tend to have a hefty does of ego along with their talent and skill, and he seems to be able to avoid that.
    His climb up El Cap is definitely a great metaphor for the FI pursuit: You need to be able to focus, overcome fear and doubt, and, most importantly, grab that first hold and start climbing.

    • Fye @ Accidental FIRE says:

      I find that most top athletes in mountain-type sports are waaaay more chill and have way less ego than in other sports. Probably because they’re not on TV all the time and having people point fingers at them in public

  10. I never felt like we wanted for anything, but I never really wanted much, either.”
    Greatly describes me on multiple levels. He should be a fire blogger lol!!!

  11. The first time I went to Yosemite I took pictures of El Cap. When I got home, I blew them up and found climbers all over it, none of which I saw from the ground. An incredible place. I’ve done the East Buttress and been 6 or 8 pitches up FreeBlast and done a few other climbs at the base.

    All that said, I’ll be surprised if Alex Honnold is alive at 50. You only get one mistake free soloing.

    • Fye @ Accidental FIRE says:

      Wow, didn’t realize you’v done big-wall stuff Jim, very cool! I just got done summiting Whitney in August by a 5.7/5.8 rock route with massive exposure. It was amazing!

      And as for Alex, I hope he stops the high-risk stuff. He keep saying he wants to start a family, and those two things do not mix…

  12. “It’s cleansing in a way, you realize how much less stuff you need….. It reminds you that you don’t really need that much to be totally content, to live a fulfilling life, and to be happy.”

    Some climbers, like some FIRE folks, have gone overboard on this. When you think you don’t need a rope (or health insurance, or term life insurance for your spouse/kids, or healthy food) you’ve cut too much out of your life.

    • Fye @ Accidental FIRE says:

      Yeah, for climbers at least the rope thing (and helmet too) is kinda necessary. Too many climbers do not wear helmets, especially on sketchy trad stuff and stuff with notorious rockfall.

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