Alex Honnold is driving to Yosemite in the van that has doubled as his home for the past seven years. “Honestly, it’s pretty common for climbing,” he tells me over the phone. Considering that many of his fellow climbers live out of trucks or small cars, “having a van is kind of luxurious by those standards. Living out of a sedan kind of sucks.”
The van is practically the only thing the man owns. Surprising, considering that Alex Honnold is one of the most recognizable rock climbers in the world, sponsored by The North Face, Black Diamond, La Sportiva and Maxim Ropes. He has been profiled on 60 Minutes, featured in National Geographic and the subject of the Emmy-nominated documentary, “Alone on the Wall.” For all of that, Honnold still lives on roughly $1,000 a month.
“The thing with climbing is that you’re basically just following good conditions year round,” he says. “You climb in an area until the weather starts to go bad and then you move further south or change styles. There’s no time of year that isn’t good for climbing.”
For Honnold, there is no “off-time.” And though he is, by definition, a nomad, he is hardly a hermit. His lifestyle is shared by his fellow climbers in a relentless search for sheer rock faces to conquer, and his passion for the climb has put him into contact with men and women in over 30 countries.
It was during a 2010 journey to Chad that the seed for the Honnold Foundation was planted. Honnold and another climber were passing through the country seeking virgin towers, massive formations that had never been scaled before.
“Just seeing that whole country and seeing how everybody lives was pretty eye opening for me,” he said. “The word poverty doesn’t even really describe it. To me, thinking of being poor implies that there’s something to purchase. Like, you’re poor because you lack funds. The thing is, they didn’t even have access – there weren’t stores or infrastructure of any kind. Having currency wouldn’t even have helped them in any way because they’re so isolated, without access to power or really to water.”
Located in the heart of Africa, Chad is landlocked by seven countries and composed mainly of desert, semidesert and savannah. Among its seven million inhabitants, the life expectancy is approximately 48 years, and somewhere between 95 and 97 percent of them survive without direct access to electricity. Many use kerosene to light lamps and stoves, and when the kerosene runs dry, so does the power. It is a kind of stripped-down life that Honnold recognized as leagues beyond his own simplified existence.
He realized that “some people are born out in the middle of the desert and then will spend their entire lives there. The kids that we were seeing had never walked on pavement. They had never walked on anything but sand and rock.”
That realization led to the formation of the Honnold Foundation.
Bringing Solar Power to Africa
In 2012, Alex was driving back from a cragging session in Colorado’s Eldorado Canyon with fellow climber Maury Birdwell. Maury had briefly left the climbing world to earn his law degree at Georgetown University, but the two had been friends since facing off in a climbing competition in Arkansas.
Leaving Eldorado, they struck up a conversation about using climbing to focus on issues that they cared about. With his background in law, Maury had acquaintances and friends that knew how to set up philanthropic projects – if Alex was serious, that is. Today, Maury is the Executive Director of the Honnold Foundation.
He explained to me how the Foundation took shape while on his way to The North Face’s Sufferfest 2 presentation, where Alex would be speaking alongside professional climber Cedar Wright.
“It was this really organic thing that just started with a conversation and I helped Alex start looking into it,” he said, “and it went deeper and deeper, becoming more real, and at one point he said, ‘Do you just want to run with this?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I mean, I’m an attorney, I have my own law practice, but getting to do work like this, it’s such a cool dynamic to add in there.”
He and Alex initially looked into creating some sort of sustainable organization of their own, but later realized that there were many small, important projects already in the field, ones that had the methods to do good, but lacked the means.
“We realized our lane was fundraising and funding and notoriety,” said Maury. “That’s really the biggest commodity that we have to offer any partners, and there were a lot of great people out there doing things that we believed in and wanted to help support.”
Today, the Honnold Foundation offers grants to organizations that offer “simple, sustainable ways to improve lives worldwide.”
Solar Aid was the first such project. With the backing of the Honnold Foundation, the organization now distributes solar lamps throughout Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, England and beyond. The lamps provide an alternative to kerosene, which is costly and hazardous to both the environment and human health. According to Honnold, not having to buy kerosene can save some African families up to 25 percent of their income, giving them better opportunities for food and higher education.
Solar Aid’s ultimate goal is to eradicate kerosene lamps from Africa by 2020.
“Solar Aid was one of those programs very early on that we discovered that was such an amazing fit,” said Maury. “It was really a no brainer.”
By Honnold’s admission, it has been the most successful of the Foundation’s projects so far and the one that has had the most impact – on his own life as well.
“Speaking as somebody who’s lived in my car for a long time without a steady source of light, and then sort of in the last year [getting] solar panels put on it and now having a battery and LEDs on the inside,” he said, “it’s so much nicer having lights inside your house.”
Bringing Solar Back Home
GRID Alternatives offers the same renewable convenience to low-income communities in California and Colorado. Since 2009, the non-profit has installed over 550 photovoltaic (PV) solar systems in just the Central Valley, which will save residents over $18 million in energy bills over the next 30 years.
Born and raised in Sacramento, Honnold was happy to bring the values championed by Solar Aid closer to home. “GRID Alternatives seemed to me like the First World equivalent,” he said, “to help the least fortunate in a way that’s also good to the environment. In general I feel like everybody should – and in a decade everybody will – have home PV systems, and this is just a way to speed that process along and also help the least fortunate among us.”
In the spring of 2014, the Honnold Foundation partnered with Elephant Energy for the Northern Navajo Solar Entrepreneurs project, installing solar modules in the Kayenta region of the Navajo Nation.
In the Kayenta region, many residents live off the grid and must turn to fossil fueled generators and other less healthy sources for power. Sponsored in part by GoalZero, The North Face and Clif Bar, the Solar Entrepreneurs project not only installed modules but also educated locals on the benefits and long-term uses of renewables.
This was the first project that Honnold was able to get on the ground and participate in directly, as the region intersected with a sponsored expedition Honnold and others were taking at the time. Moving forward, Honnold hopes to pursue such direct interaction with Foundation projects on a yearly basis.
He admits, however, that smaller sustainable projects have thus far had a greater impact in Africa than back home. It’s all due to the recipients’ frame of reference.
“When you’re putting in a 30-watt panel with a small battery and it charges a lightbulb and charges a phone, that’s pretty small,” said Honnold. “For someone in Africa it’s changing their life for the better, by far. But somebody who’s used to driving into town and used to normal levels of electrification, it’s kind of a bummer.”
In the future, he says, the Honnold Foundation may pursue larger-scale projects. At just two years into its lifetime, the sky’s the limit. “Stay tuned,” added Maury.
Why start a Foundation at all? Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold sums it up as nonchalantly as his nickname. “Basically [it’s] just a way for me to try to do something useful for the world,” he said, “to find a way to contribute.”
On the surface, rock climbing and philanthropy seem peculiar bedfellows. Honnold is a climber who has achieved notable fame outside of his extreme sport, appearing in a Citibank commercial and on the cover of National Geographic. He has made his name as a free-solo climber (climbing without ropes or partner), though he readily admits that free-soloing is “maybe five percent of my climbing. I mean, it’s all you see online because that’s what the cool sort of videos all are, but as a percentage of my total climbing it’s pretty small. But it’s important to me, obviously, and it’s very meaningful.”
In his 60 Minutes interview with Lara Logan, he explains that his free-solo climbs, when done right, are pretty much adrenaline-free. What he feels in the moment is a calmness, a mellowness. The adrenaline only kicks in if something goes wrong.
In January of this year, his free climb to the summit of El Sendero Luminoso took him three hours and 2,500 feet above the ground. Knowing that Honnold does not identify as religious, I asked him what it is like when he reaches the peak of these vertical journeys
“I would classify it as deeply satisfying and moving,” he said. “It is the type of experience that people characterize as spiritual. I’ve definitely had moments where I’m admiring beautiful sunsets over the snowy high country or something, and you definitely experience that sense of awe that religious people call spirituality. I just don’t like to use the term spiritual because it identifies so much with religion and I just don’t really support that. But appreciating nature around you and appreciating your surroundings, that’s just part of the human experience.”
This captures the essence of what Alex Honnold is about, and such a belief transcends the fame and the “extreme” nature of what he does. Honnold’s fame is a result of his ability to pare down his life to what he truly values.
“To me it seems really easy to strip away the things that don’t matter,” he says. “Climbing is the thing that matters, and that’s what I want to do, and so I’m willing to live in a car, not have a shower, not have heat, let’s say, not have all these other things that a lot of people take for granted. But I don’t really see that as a sacrifice because I made a decision that climbing is the important thing to me. It’s my goal and I’m willing to pursue that whatever it takes.”
The same goes for the Foundation’s focus on sustainable, renewable power. To those who say a simpler, greener lifestyle is beyond their grasp, Honnold respectfully disagrees.
“Saying like, ‘Oh it’s too hard to be more organic or be more green,’ maybe it is a little bit hard – but maybe you just have to care about it enough that you just make those hard choices.”
In creating the Honnold Foundation, Honnold is making the consistent choice to put his fame into the service of his values.”Part of my goal with the Foundation is to leverage my relationship with my sponsors and drive some of that corporate money towards the environmental stuff that I care about,” he said.
It’s kind of like the long-term version of “sending it,” climber lingo for completing a journey safely and soundly.
“Honestly, a big part of why I started the Foundation was to be able to have interviews like this,” Honnold told me before hanging up, “as opposed to interviews about death and fear and all the risk-taking or whatever. I’d much rather spend my time talking about cool issues that are actually important to the world.”
To learn more about the Honnold Foundation, you can visit their website and see what other projects they’re working on. You can also make a donation by clicking on their Take Action link.