When Alex Honnold made it to the top of Yosemite's imperious Half Dome two years ago – rope-less but serene up to the last slab – tourists gathered to ask him if he was crazy.
Even the most hard-core climbers wonder how the 24-year-old Sacramento native can make it to the top without the protection of ropes and still manage to keep calm.
But June 24, the news was not about Honnold's insane gearless solo climbs but rather that he broke speed-climbing records on two notorious Yosemite rock formations. He climbed Half Dome in two hours and nine minutes, shaving 41 minutes off the old record, and then finished the day off with a six-hour climb of the majestic El Capitan with Swiss climber Ueli Steck.
Honnold also broke the record for the linkup (the combination of the two rocks) – eight hours in total. He brought equipment with him but used it only when it was absolutely necessary – and by that time he had already reached the 2,000-foot mark.
"The people that do this use the rope a lot more than him," said Chris Weidner, who has climbed with Honnold in such diverse locations as Siberia, France and Spain, as well as Honnold's declared home turf, Yosemite.
Honnold has made his name through his rope-less or "free solo" climbs of the Moonlight Buttress in Utah in 2008 and repeatedly on Half Dome, which are considered more daunting endeavors than speed climbing.
Despite the kudos that landed him the lead role in "First Ascent: Alone on the Wall," a 2009 documentary co-produced by National Geographic and Sender Films, Honnold is nonchalant and unassuming.
Even after the story of his latest feat spread on Web threads like Supertopo.com, he's still in doubt as to whether he broke the record for solo climbing Half Dome.
"I'm not sure if 2:50 is really the record," he said. "With a partner, the record is one hour, 50 minutes, so I was kind of hoping to break that one."
He brings the no-fuss attitude up with him up the rocks.
"When you free solo, you just don't fall off," he said casually. "That's kind of the point."
Many describe Honnold as fearless, but he begs to differ: "I sometimes have that long, slow dread, when I think, 'This is not what I bargained for.' "
He remembers that dread when he was climbing the Needles, a rock formation in Utah, following a poorly documented route. When he was already high up on the rocks, his heart started beating fast.
"It was heinous," he said. "I remember thinking I was on the wrong route. It may never even have been climbed. The rope was dragging and I had no protection."
Being scared when free soloing is not an option, he said. "When you get scared, you get sweaty. Your fingers get moist and you lose your grip."
And things get worse when people are watching him. "You want to crush the rock. Also, if you decide you're not into it after all, and everyone expects you to do it … you don't want that pressure. If you're not feeling it, you're not feeling it."
Honnold's parents first took him to the climbing gym when he was 11 years old, and he often went on outdoor excursions. Some of his first memories of these trips have his father hiding behind whatever obstacle he could find so Honnold could pretend he wasn't there.
"It's a silly thought," he said, "but I think people are judging me."
Maybe it was that need to climb alone that led him to become one of the most renowned solo climbers. When he turned 19, he appropriated the family van and began the nomadic life of a rock climber.
Half the time he climbed – roped – with people he met on the way, and the other half he left ropes and newfound friends behind to tackle the rock on his own.
His mother Dierdre Wolownick, who spoke while climbing a rock in New York state (she started climbing only a year ago), said she understands the allure of tackling the rock on one's own.
"It's the purest way to climb, free and clean," she said. "It slows you down when you have to wait for others."
Honnold often gets asked "what his mother thinks" of his free solos, and he often replies that she's surprisingly OK with them. The truth is, she only finds out when he's already completed the climb.
"We both benefit from that," she said. "He doesn't want me to worry, and he thinks that would distract him."
Like his father, she'd rather Honnold not have her worries on his mind when fear is his worst enemy.
When all is over and done with, she can be happy he survived. "And if anything happens, I know he would have gone completely happy."