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The night sky from a cliff face: Q&A with legendary climber Alex Honnold

Climber Alex Honnold helped lead a first ascent of a tepui in Guyana, a project chronicled in the new documentary "Explorer: The Last Tepui."
Climber Alex Honnold helped lead a first ascent of a tepui in Guyana, a project chronicled in the new documentary "Explorer: The Last Tepui." (Image credit: National Geographic/Renan Ozturk)

Alex Honnold is one of the greatest climbers who ever lived, and probably the most daring.

Honnold is famous for scaling some of the world's biggest and sheerest rock faces without the help of ropes, including El Capitan in California's Yosemite National Park. His epic, unaided ascent of that 3,000-foot-tall (900 meters) monolith's "Freerider Route" was chronicled by the Oscar-winning 2018 documentary "Free Solo."

Honnold is back onscreen as a key player in a new documentary, "Explorer: The Last Tepui," which premieres on Disney+ this Friday (April 22). The one-hour film — the latest in National Geographic's "Explorer" series — follows the efforts of Honnold, Mark Synott and other climbers to make a first ascent of an unexplored tepui, or tabletop mountain, in Guyana whose cliffs rise 1,000 feet (300 m) above the surrounding rainforest. 

The team's goal is to help 80-year-old biologist Bruce Means get to the top of this rugged and exotic sky island, so he can search it for undiscovered species. The conservation implications of the expedition are highlighted by the new documentary's release date, which is Earth Day.

Space.com caught up with Honnold recently to discuss "The Last Tepui," his relationship with exploration and the night sky and how the recent expedition has changed his outlook on climbing. (The following conversation has been edited for length.)

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Climber Alex Honnold trekked through the Amazon jungle for days in order to make a first ascent up a tepui in western Guyana.

Climber Alex Honnold trekked through the Amazon jungle for days in order to make a first ascent up the tepui face of Mount Weiassipu in western Guyana. (Image credit: National Geographic/Renan Ozturk)

Space.com: What's your relationship with the night sky? What's it like looking up at the stars from those cliff walls?

Alex Honnold: I've spent a lot of nights out, and I've slept out in the open in some of the most remote parts of Earth. I like the night sky. I like the vastness of it, and I've always sort of loved space. I think that part of the appeal of big mountains is the vastness and the grandeur, and I think that can definitely be most exemplified in space. And when you think of the infinite abyss — that's kind of what some of these big mountain landscapes feel like. 

It's funny; I live in Las Vegas now, and it's probably one of the most light-polluted places on Earth. I live on the edge of town, right by the mountains, so it's an interesting combination of mountains and vastness but also, like, the freaking light at the Luxor shooting straight at the moon. [Laughs.]

From Telescope [Peak, the highest point in California's Death Valley], you can see Vegas shimmering in the distance. It's like 100 miles away, but you can see this giant glow on the horizon. What a crazy scene; the night sky is incredible here in the middle of nowhere — you can really see stars — but then you can also see this crazy city 100 miles away because there's nothing else in between.

Space.com: When did that love of space start? Can you trace it to anything in particular? 

Honnold: My mom was a huge "Star Trek: The Next Generation" fan. So I've seen like every episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," which is slightly hokey or whatever, but I don't know — I've just always seen space as the next frontier sort of thing. At some point, humans will almost certainly go beyond where we live now. I just think that's exciting, in the same way that folks 500 years ago looked at the blank ocean to the west and were like, "I wonder where that goes."

Space.com: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, you're an explorer yourself — you pioneer routes up mountains, and that's what space exploration is doing, pioneering routes to new places.

Honnold: On a very different scale, and it's slightly embarrassing to even make that comparison. [Laughs.] But I would say, actually, maybe it's just curiosity. I like climbing new walls. I like experiencing new climbs; I'm just curious about new things. And I think that that same kind of curiosity on the human scale will eventually lead to exploring space.

Space.com: Do you ever look at some of these vistas coming back from the Mars rovers, see those big red rock walls on Mars, and think what it would be like to climb them?  

Honnold: You're kind of like, "Wow, what a nice, shapely mountain." But with less gravity and no oxygen, everything about it — it would not really be a great climbing experience. [Laughs.]

I feel like it's not that unrealistic that, in my lifetime, I probably will be able to go to space and experience it — go to the moon or something. I would love to, if given the opportunity, but not for the climbing experience, because it just won't be the same thing.

Space.com: You would have to be in a spacesuit, first of all, so I don't see you getting onto ledges and getting into cracks with spacesuit gloves and boots on — that would be pretty difficult.

Honnold: And with [lower] gravity, you're just bouncing away anyway. And also, the scales are so different — there are just these giant, giant mountains on Mars.

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The climbing team settled into their wall camp at night on a tepui face deep in the Amazon.

The climbing team settled into their wall camp at night on a tepui face deep in the Amazon.  (Image credit: National Geographic/Renan Ozturk)

Space.com: Yeah. Olympus Mons is so wide — it's as big as the whole state of Arizona, basically, if you go all the way up from the base. But going back to the night sky stuff — do you have any favorite climbing spots where the night sky is just amazing? Many of the places you go are pretty out of the way, so lots of them must have great night skies. Do any of them stand out?

Honnold: The most remote places that I've gone to have probably been in the middle of nowhere in Alaska and in Antarctica. You go on expeditions there during their summers, so there's no night sky. That in itself is sort of a fun experience, to see the sun just tracking in a circle around you all day, seeing it never even dip. 

I think my biggest experience with the night sky actually comes from Yosemite. I've probably spent the most time reflecting on the night sky on the side of El Cap[itan] — quite a few nights camping on El Cap climbing routes. And that's not a particularly beautiful night sky; you see the light from the Central Valley. But when you climb on El Cap, you're always just so tired when you get in your portaledge, and then there's a real flow to watching the light of the traffic on the road below slowly die down as the night gets later. And the stars get brighter, and as you're relaxing in your camp and trying to cook dinner, you can really feel the pace of life kind of slow down. And the sky darkens and the stars really come out. 

So I feel like that's probably where I've had my most reflective night sky experiences — camping on the side of El Cap, slowly decompressing after a hard day of climbing.

Space.com: Do you draw any kind of inspiration from what you see up there?

Honnold: Not in an immediate sense, because I'm up there for the climbing and I'm thinking about the climbing. But in the grand sort of cosmic sense of being inspired by vast landscapes — yeah, the open night sky can be just as inspiring as big mountain ranges or big waterfalls or other natural features that remind you of your small place in the cosmos.

Space.com: And speaking of vast landscapes and big waterfalls — I'm really looking forward to seeing this new documentary. Could you talk a little bit about what it was like to make "The Last Tepui?" Were you actually looking for new species with Dr. Means, or just helping him get up the cliffs?

Honnold: It was a pretty incredible experience. We were there to help Dr. Means look for these new species to complete his elevational transect of this river basin, and the tepui marks the top of that transect. And we were physically helping them look for these new species. We weren't particularly good at it [laughs]. But, all told, he came back from the trip with five or six species new to science. 

It was a pretty incredible expedition. I don't know what's expected from an expedition like that, or if it's normal to find so many things. But I didn't realize that there was so much discovery yet to be done. I didn't realize that, just by looking, you could actually find tons of new things that nobody's ever found before.

Space.com: Yeah, and it's a reminder that, even though our planet is under siege from our activities in so many different ways — habitat destruction, climate change and so on — there's still a lot out there that we need to discover and catalog.

Honnold: And I think the hope — and particularly the hope for this project — is that by cataloging the diversity of life a little bit, you can help prevent the destruction. I think Dr. Bruce is hoping that, by showing the richness of life in that region, it will perhaps receive more protection through the government or through whatever else, to prevent some of the logging and mining that could put those species at risk. 

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Space.com: Yeah, and just showing how amazing these landscapes are — that has to help. I mean, there are a lot of people who aren't going to realize that much of the [2009 Pixar] movie "Up" was based on these beautiful tepui vistas that actually exist.

Honnold: Yeah. It's funny how so many seemingly fictional landscapes are real; you just have to travel to go find them.

Space.com: How does this expedition compare to others that you've done? 

Honnold: It's a lot more meaningful in a lot of ways. On most expeditions, you're judging success on if you climb the wall, if you get to the top. In this case, we did that, so it's as good as any other climbing trip. But then we also contributed to the discovery of five new species and whatever that winds up doing down the road; hopefully that contributes to the conservation of the area, or the protection of it in some way. 

Honestly, it's changed the whole way I look at climbing trips, because I'm kind of like, "I should do every trip like this in the future." It made me realize that, for scientists, the challenge is getting the funding just to go to the places to begin with, whereas for an adventurer — a climber or whatever — it's not that hard. I mean, it's still not easy to get the trips funded. But once you can make the expedition happen, you really almost have an obligation to bring somebody scientifically minded with you, because there's just so much that they can discover while they're there. You almost have an obligation to help further that knowledge.

Space.com: Do you think that's something that's been sort of gradually dawning on you as you've done more climbs and gotten a little older and your priorities have shifted a little bit? Or is that something that just jumped out at you after this expedition?

Honnold: Maybe a little bit. Part of that might be aging and realizing that I should be doing something slightly more useful, contributing to something slightly more meaningful. But I do think a big part of it is just from this trip; it was just so eye-opening. Having Dr. Bruce there, it was basically one extra mouth to feed on a climbing expedition, and you discover all these new species. That's incredible. It really does make me think that, moving forward, if I'm going to remote places on Earth, I'm going to make an effort to have somebody like Dr. Bruce with us. Why not?

I think my big takeaway was just the realization that we have so much to learn about these areas, and that there's so much opportunity to learn. It was just a pleasure to be involved in the trip and contribute in a helpful way.

Space.com: And we're coming up on Earth Day, which is a good opportunity to remind us all that we have so much to protect, and we don't have a lot of time to do it.

Honnold: And maybe a good opportunity to remind people that there are always things that you can do to help in some way. I'm just a rock climber, and yet we still helped Bruce find all these species. I never would have thought that I'd be contributing to biology in that way. There's a lot to be done, and it's just about finding the spot where you can be helpful.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.  

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Mike Wall
Mike Wall

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.