“Right now it’s daytime and I have my lights on in the kitchen because it feels nicer to sit here with light than with slight opaqueness, you know?” said Alex Honnold over the phone last week. “You take that stuff for granted.”
At heart, Honnold is a minimalist. It’s one reason why he finds free-soloing — no rope, no gear, no partner — irresistible. He avoids caffeine and alcohol. He eats a vegetarian diet. He wears his clothes until they’re so destroyed they’re no longer functional. And, for the record, all eight bulbs were LEDs powered by the solar system on his roof.
He’s also one of the highest paid climbers in history.
Even before the Academy Award-winning movie, Free Solo, thrust his fame higher than El Capitan, he had earned an international following through his outrageous ropeless ascents and new routes all over the world. But the 2018 film and subsequent tour are what made Alex Honnold a household name.
And, of course, with fame comes fortune. It’s a modest fortune, as far as professional athletes go (“I earn a lot less than even a bad football player,” he told me), but there’s still plenty for him to share. Since 2012 he has donated a full third of his income to environmental and humanitarian causes through the Honnold Foundation (HF).
Back then he lived in his Ford Econoline van and devoted himself wholly to climbing. He spent less than $15,000 a year despite earning 10 times that amount.
“By sheer luck I’ve been born into a place where my life is easy. I should try to share that good luck.”
So he launched the Honnold Foundation.
“It felt a little bit ridiculous to start a foundation when you live in a car, but I just kind of knew that on the 10-year timeframe it would make sense.”
Today, as outlined in its newly released Impact Report, HF is thriving. From their inaugural microgrid project in Puerto Rico and solar boats in the Amazon Rainforest to improving equity in the U.S. through solar installs for marginalized communities in polluted areas, HF is “going big,” as Honnold likes to say.
“This year we donated almost a million dollars,” he said. “That’s more than 20 times what I started with.”
Since we became friends in 2007, back when Honnold was a no-name kid without a single sponsor, his nose has always been buried in some non-fiction book on climate change, morality, or the environment. Before starting HF he would spend evenings and rest days in his van or in the desert studying energy policy, while the rest of us climbers partied and socialized.
“Even as a 24 year-old rock climber, when all I cared about was climbing, I knew that when I was older I’d want to work on things that matter more, you know? Because at a certain point, climbing is silly.”
Through his research he concluded that solar would be his mission.
“Enough energy strikes the earth in a single hour to power humanity for a year,” he explained. “My love of solar comes from a love of elegant solutions. Solar is just an obvious solution to humanity’s energy needs.”
He mentioned the Puerto Rico microgrid project that’s now 90 percent complete.
“Of all the projects we’ve worked on, this stands the chance of being the most transformative,” he said. “They have unreliable power that’s overly expensive. Switching to a community-owned system that doesn’t emit CO2 — it’s better in every way.”
Dory Trimble, HF’s Executive Director, said, “There’s a self-sufficiency and community resilience piece that can happen when folks go solar, that I think is really powerful. It’s not often you run into things that are just good for everybody, and a lot of these solar projects really are.”
By now, Honnold has climbed in 50 different countries and has pioneered first ascents on all seven continents.
“Climbing travel makes you realize humans are just humans. We’re all just trying to live a decent life and sort of get by,” he said. “And when you’re basically comfortable your whole life, aren’t you sort of obligated to do something useful?”
Contact Chris Weidner at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @cweidner8.