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El Capitan conquered by rock climber Alex Honnold without safety gear

ABC News logo ABC News 6/06/2017

Honnold is the first person to free solo the granite monolith. © AP/National Geographic: Jimmy Chin Honnold is the first person to free solo the granite monolith. Alex Honnold had dreamed about climbing the mighty El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without any safety gear for eight years, but every time he looked up the massive granite wall he found it too daunting.

That was the case until last weekend, when the elite rock climber reached the summit in about four hours without a rope.

The 31-year-old on Sunday (AEST) became the first to climb the 914-metre granite wall alone without a safety harness or ropes to catch him if he fell.

"I was pretty much elated. I was probably the happiest I've ever been," Honnold said of reaching the top.

"It's something that I thought about for so long and dreamed about and worked so hard for. I mean, it's pretty satisfying."

Honnold, who grew up in Northern California, began preparing for his historic climb two years ago.

He scaled the route countless times, rehearsing it while climbing with protective gear and memorising each hole he had to grab and the way he had to position his body until he felt comfortable enough to attempt the "free solo" climb.

Alex Honnold had nothing to catch him but the ground if he had fallen. © Instagram/Jimmy Chin Alex Honnold had nothing to catch him but the ground if he had fallen.

The most difficult part of the route is about 700 metres off the ground, where there are very small holds where only a thumb can fit. But even more challenging was overcoming the mental hurdle.

"Each year I would show up and it would seem just much too daunting," said Honnold, who has been climbing for 20 years.

"To walk up to the base of the climb without rope and harness, it just feels a little outrageous. Getting over that side of it was the hardest part." Observers said his climb pushed the limits in a sport that requires a high level of athleticism, risk-taking and mental focus.

"This has never been done before ... and it's hard to imagine anybody ever coming close to what he's done," said Daniel Duane, author of El Capitan: Historic Feats And Radical Routes.

"He is totally alone at the top of his game."

Honnold grew up in the suburbs of Sacramento where he began practising indoor rock climbing at age 11.

He dropped out of the University of California Berkeley to conquer major summits around the world.

He was among several elite rock climbers whose endorsements were dropped by energy food company Clif Bar in 2014 following the release of a documentary about climbers who were risking their lives by forgoing safety gear.

Honnold brushed off criticism by those who say he was being reckless by not wearing protective gear.

"I could see how for a non-climber it might seem completely insane," he said.

"But I've devoted 20 years to climbing and probably six or seven to this particular project.

"It's not like I'm just some crazy kid who in the spur of the moment decided to do this crazy thing. It took years of effort."

Climbing El Capitan used to take days to complete with the aid of ropes, safety gear and a partner.

In the past few decades, speed climbers working in tandem and using ropes have set records in reaching the top of the steep cliff.

In January 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson became the first to "free climb" the Dawn Wall — a particularly steep route to the top of El Capitan — by grabbing just the rock and using ropes only to catch them if they fell. They did it in 19 days.

Honnold is first to climb the iconic rock alone without protection and did so in mere hours.

@alexhonnold composed and casual free soloing (sans cord) 2000ft above the deck on the Enduro Pitch of Freerider yesterday. Alex's process to prepare for his dream of free soloing El Cap has been an incredible, and sometimes stressful, journey to witness and be a part of over the last two years while filming him for a feature documentary (co-directed by @mochinyc). In some ways I expected (and prayed for) nothing less on his big day but it was still mind bending to see how relaxed he was in the final days leading up to the climb and of course during the climb - as seen here locked off reaching full extension with mere finger tips in contact to granite, feet smeared on nothing. What I've learned over the last 10 years about Alex is he isn't the kid that shows up to do well on the exam. If it counts, he's there to ace it, knock out the extra credit questions and finish early. I'd say he aced his final exam yesterday with extra credit for style and composure. When he got to the top, he looked at me and said "I'm pretty sure I could go back to the bottom and do it again right now." Congrats bud. You crushed. It was historic, it was brilliant, it was moving beyond words. Thanks to all of Alex's climbing partners who supported along the way and especially to one helluva film crew for staying committed through thick and thin doing some of the best work I've ever seen. So so proud of everyone. See the @natgeo link in my bio for more.

A post shared by Jimmy Chin (@jimmy_chin) on

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