Alex Honnold Is Living With Less and Giving Back More — and He's Never Been Happier (Exclusive)

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Dec. 21 2023, Published 12:10 p.m. ET

Alex Honnold wears an orange helmet and red jacket with snowy mountains in the distance
Source: National Geographic/Matt Pycroft

Alex Honnold on a glacier during filming for 'Arctic Ascent With Alex Honnold.'

“I've always wanted to do something useful … to contribute something positive to the world,” Alex Honnold tells us.

And Honnold, a world famous rock climber best known for starring in the Academy Award-winning documentary Free Solo, is dedicating his life to doing just that.

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After all, he has already achieved his life’s greatest dream, when he free soloed El Capitan. So with that pressure behind him, Honnold is using his influence for good.

In 2012, he founded the climate solutions-focused Honnold Foundation, which helps further access to solar energy in communities worldwide. Since then, he has been giving one-third of his income to the organization.

Alex Honnold in an orange helmet and red jacket, climbing a mountain.
Source: National Geographic/Pablo Durana

Alex Honnold drops down into a moulin.

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And next up for the athlete and father is Arctic Ascent With Alex Honnold, a new docuseries coming to National Geographic, Disney Plus, and Hulu.

The show documents a climbing expedition Honnold led in 2022 in Greenland, along with scientists from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program. During the journey, the scientists gathered glacier data relative to climate change.

We’ll be sharing more about Arctic Ascent — and Honnold’s musings about how the series expertly blends climate science and adventure — on Green Matters as the show's Feb. 4, 2023 premiere approaches. But for now, read on for Alex Honnold’s Green Routine, where he tells us about his passion for fighting climate change, sharing the outdoors with his daughter, and living with less — as well as how he feels about all that media attention surrounding his hands.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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Alex Honnold and Hazel Findlay wear climbing gear and hold a bundle of ropes on the sea cliff Ingmikortilaq.
Source: National Geographic/Pablo Durana

Alex Honnold and fellow climber Hazel Findlay on Iceland's rock formation Ingmikortilaq.

GREEN MATTERS: What inspires you to use your platform to amplify climate issues?

ALEX HONNOLD: I climb all the time for myself. Realistically, nothing I do climbing-wise is going to top the documentary Free Solo. So it really gives me a lot of freedom to try to do something more useful.

Climbing is ultimately a personal pursuit, whereas the scientific side of this expedition, the work that I do through the foundation, those are all things that hopefully can contribute to humanity more broadly.

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GM: You lived the vanlife for a while. What are the greatest lessons you learned from vanlife about living sustainably?

AH: My biggest takeaway from vanlife is: If you're doing the thing that you want to do every day, you don't need that much stuff.

You're living in a van not because you love living in a van, but because you love going rock climbing all the time. So you basically only need whatever you need to rock climb.

That's a big part of why I started the Honnold Foundation. I had everything I needed. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do every day. I thought, may as well give away the rest.

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GM: You’ve shared some Instagram posts which show you and your wife (Sanni McCandless Honnold) sharing your love of the outdoors with your daughter (June J. Honnold, born in February 2022). Do you hope that she gets into climbing one day?

AH: I'm trying to refrain from having any real aspirations for her, because obviously, we'll have to wait and see what she's into.

She’s for sure going to at least know how to do all these things. Of course she's going to know how to repel, and she's already pretty comfortable hiking.

In front of a black background, Alex Honnold smiles at the camera, holding up his hands.
Source: Michael Buckner/Variety/Penske Media via Getty Images

Alex Honnold photographed by Michael Buckner on Feb 4, 2018 during the 91st Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon, Los Angeles, Calif.

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GM: You get a lot of media attention about your hands. How do you feel about that?

AH: It's not that surprising. I've been climbing for 28 years. If you found an old quarryman, I'm sure that he would have giant mitts. If you work with your hands for your whole life, you're gonna have kind of big hands.

I just think that's one of those random things. It's something interesting about somebody that does something different.

GM: So the “Alex Honnold hands” discussion doesn’t drive you crazy?

AH: I'm sure NBA players get comments about how tall they are their entire lives, and I'm sure that's slightly annoying. But on the other hand, they're in the NBA and they're making multimillion dollar contracts. They're laughing their way to the bank. They're not stressed. I got big hands, who cares?

Alex Honnold has a bloody nose, and wears an orange helmet and red jacket, holding ropes on mountain, smiling at the camera.
Source: National Geographic/Pablo Durana

Alex Honnold displays a bloody nose after being hit by icefall while ascending Pool Wall in Eastern Greenland.

GM: It seems like you've found what you love, and now you're using your platform for good. It's very inspirational.

AH: What I found, what I love, is sufficient. I'm content with doing the thing that I love. I think a lot of people have passions in their life, but they are constantly eaten at by the idea of “Should there be something more? Should I be looking for more?”

I think the problem for sustainability, and for global health, is that feeling of “But should I be doing something more?” That sense of sufficiency is, maybe, the key sustainability thing.

It's important to make an effort to lead the life that you want to lead, and do the things that you love to do. And then, be confident in the fact that “I don't need to try other things. I don't need to buy more things.”

So much of sustainability is just doing less. Don't buy the new thing. Just read your book, chill, enjoy time with your loved ones, and be like, “This is a good life.”

"Green Routine" is a series from Green Matters that invites notable people in the environmental space to share the efforts they make to live more sustainably.

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