The Complete Cream.



“Are you setting a rappel rope?”

I turned and looked into a familiar face. Alex Honnold stood looking at me with those large dark eyes that were set in a tanned complexion. Of course I knew he was at Fair Head, Alex Honnold coming to Ireland has been the talk of the climbing scene for months and he looked exactly the same as he does in the pictures and films he stars.

I was stood at the top of the crag at Fair Head having just returned from the nearly deserted and adventurous climbing on Owey Island off the Donegal coast in the South. Wrapping my white static rope around a large dolerite boulder, while looking over the calm Atlantic toward Rathlin Island, I answered that yes, I was setting up an abseil line.

“Would you mind if we use your rope.”

Chris Weidner was climbing with Honnold. Chris approached me, smiled, introduced himself and immediately I warmed. On first meeting, Chris appeared somewhat less intense than Alex, more approachable, happy to chew the cud, take in the surroundings.

“Of course you can use the rope.”

The Atlantic was relaxed. The sun was bright. Seagulls cruised on wings set. I lowered my rope the length of the wall, almost down the line of a climb called The Complete Scream, the climb that was top of my to do list for this week. The Complete Scream was a climb I had become interested in the previous year when John Orr and I threw down a top rope and climbed it twice. This wall was close to being unlike anything I had encountered in the British Isles, an almost unbroken sixty, just off vertical, metres of positive edges and technical climbing. The bottom half of the wall was sparsely protected, in-fact, once on your way, from about the ten metre mark, the only protection, apart from one difficult to place wire, are skyhooks over edges. The wall had only seen one on-sight from Pete Whittaker last year even though the first ascent by Ricky Bell had been in 2005. Both Pete and Ricky’s ascents had included placing skyhooks secured in place with gaffer tape and, or blue tack. Even on my first visit to Fair Head four years earlier, this wall, in its complete form, shouted to be climbed, it was such a draw to me, but on that first visit with arms not yet fit for the summer, I was content and happy to climb Primal Scream, the top half of this wall.

Chris and Alex abseiled down my rope heading toward the E4, Promised Land, while Sarah, Zylo, Zylinski and I headed toward Blind Pew, an E2 running the length of the corner to the right of the wall where the abseil rope ran.

After completing our respective climbs, the four of us once again stood on top of the crag. The sun warmed and for almost my first time at Fair Head there was hardly a breeze.

Alex came over,

“Does anything come up the wall where the abseil rope runs?”

“Yes, the top of the wall is an E5 called Primal Scream, but you can climb the whole of the wall, that’s called The Complete Scream, it’s an E7 with great technical climbing and very little protection in the bottom half apart from skyhooks over the edge of flakes.”

“My partner is a bit bummed, he says he needs a rest; do you mind if I micro traction the route on your rope for something to do while waiting?”

“Feel free.” I said while getting the idea to climb with Honnold, as reasonable and polite and interesting a person as he appeared, would possibly my idea of a nightmare. I would certainly struggle with what appeared to be an almost incessant drive to be constantly moving and climbing, especially if the climbs meant little to him other than something to do to fill time.

Maybe I was also once like this, maybe at one time it didn’t matter what the climb was or where it was, maybe … and maybe I would also be his worst nightmare to climb alongside, an old, slow punter who had reached a point where absolute quality over quantity and being aware of the environment in which the climbing I became involved took place mattered more?

Alex abseiled and as he did I shouted directions of which features the line followed, finding it amusing that my dream route for this year’s visit to Fair Head was being reduced to a filler in, something to do while Chris rested and relaxed.

I will admit to not being sure about the whole climbing superstar celebrity thing and the following it receives, especially where Fair Head and this meet is concerned.

My first visit to Fair Head had been four years before when I was invited by Paul Swail to come over and give a talk. On that occasion my travel expenses were covered by Mountaineering Ireland and I was very grateful with that arrangement because with the expensive ferry covered, after my talk, I could stay and climb for the week.

Fair Head lived up to all of my expectations. The climbing, the place, the atmosphere. Sean McBride, the farmer who owns the crag and his family were welcoming and friendly, the whole meet was down to earth and grass roots and full of people enjoying the climbing. It was a welcome relief to find that this iconic, big bad cliff, a cliff I had heard so much about was being treated with respect and the people who climbed on it obviously loved the place and because of this I have returned every year since, staying for the meet and the week after.

When Paul contacted me this year asking if I wanted a ticket, explaining that Alex Honnold was coming and the event was to be ticketed to keep control of the number of people attending, I replied, a little tongue in cheek, but also with a small amount of seriousness, that he should give my ticket to someone who really wanted to see Alex talk, I would be there to enjoy the place and climb. I continued, saying I was a little concerned by how this down to earth celebration of climbing, at this very special place, was being turned into some form of media climbing circus. I felt sad in a way that a person and his celebrity status appeared to be taking over from the real star which of course is Fair Head.

Paul replied that the BMC were paying Alex’s costs to bring him over to the UK and make a film and his coming to Fair Head was something that appeared to good an opportunity to miss, which of course he is correct, who can blame him, not me, but a big part of me wanted to say, the Fair Head meet does not need this, it does not need superstars, the climbing at The Head does not need hundreds of people, it does not need multiple film crews and climbing reporters and photographers, it doesn’t need people coming purely to watch a slide show, it doesn’t need some kind of climbing celebrity hysteria.

Zylo and I returned from climbing Hell’s Kitchen and once again Alex was standing on top of the crag. I asked him what he thought of the Complete Scream and he replied it was enjoyable and easy, before dragging Chris away to climb Above and Beyond, another absolutely classic route first climbed by Pat Littlejohn that I feared would be quaffed like some vin rouge that comes in a brown plastic hexagonal five litre demijohn, but who am I to say how people should experience their climbs and what they should take from them, or what in-fact they are taking from them?

Alex said he may solo The Complete Scream and continued by saying soloing it with such poor gear in the lower half made sense. I really didn’t understand this thought process because actually it didn’t make sense at all. He had a willing partner, the gear on the very start of the climb was good, protecting the first quarter of the route where some of the flakes moved, and the gear higher on the wall, in Primal Scream, was actually very good where the climbing was still UK 6b and a little balancy.

For a man who has soloed all of the things we have seen him solo and being filmed soloing them, I know 6b is not very difficult, but I could not understand why… why did he need to solo this route, a route he didn’t know existed until an hour earlier in the day, it meant nothing to him, he hadn’t dreamed of soloing this climb, he had no real connection or desire and why solo it at this time, in front of a load of people and film crews and photographers?

I am a great supporter of the BMC and I have been an individual member for years and I have very gratefully received much in the way of grant funding from them for my expeditions. I think they really do a valuable job for climbers and they should support all aspects of climbing and walking, which they do, and in this day and age, climbers really do need a body that has a voice, but I thought it amusing that Alex Honnold, a person who has hit the celebrity big time by climbing stuff without a rope, was in the UK on an expenses paid trip from the BMC, The BMC, our governing body who frequently published articles and films about wearing helmets and being able to navigate in winter and being safe, it was almost belly achingly funny and really appealed to my dark humour. Frankie Boyle could not have thought up a better punch line that this one.

Later in the day, Zylo and myself sat leaning against the big boulder that the abseil rope was still wrapped around and down the line of the Complete Scream. A large crowd of people stood on the piece of land jutting from the cliff edge where a view of the wall below could be seen. Calvin Torrans walked past in the opposite direction to the crowd and turned to me, “Don’t pull your rope Nick, your man is soloing the Complete Scream and for a second I imagined the scenario of me tugging up the rope, causing Alex to fall to his death, and all of the cameras turning in my direction and snapping away at me standing, giving the double thumbs unaware.

“What’s all that about then Calvin?” I asked to someone who in my mind really was climbing history and inspiration and someone I would pay money to watch give a talk about his development and routes at Fair Head.

“I’ve no idea Nick,” meaning Calvin didn’t understand the motivation either, “I’d rather not watch it.”

I explained to Calvin I was of the same opinion. Afterwards I spoke to people who had watched the ‘performance,’ they said they had been drawn to witness something that was of course an incredible example of strength of mind and confidence and something they will no-doubt never see again (?) but they also admitted to feeling voyeuristic although voyeurism implies the person being watched is uncomfortable and their privacy is being invaded (!)

I wonder how people would have felt if he had fallen and died and I wondered if in some way they would have felt a little responsible? I also wonder about all of the comments I have read since this solo of The Complete Scream, the comments calling this feat inspirational. I’m really not sure I find soloing the likes of what Alex does as inspirational, it certainly doesn’t inspire me to do the same. The Fitz Traverse he completed with Tommy Caldwell, now that in my mind was truly inspirational.

Personally I’m convinced I don’t need to watch this kind of show. I truly believe the individual should have choice, choice to climb what and however and in whatever style they prefer. I am a great believer in not introducing rules and regulations and for years I have spoken out against how climbing appears to be becoming more regulated, main-stream and dumbed down, so I had no problem with Alex soloing The Complete Scream, why should I? But I find it difficult to understand why he needed to climb this climb and at this exact time and why people felt drawn to watch, but maybe this is my problem and I’m the odd one in this ever increasing world of show and tell?

As he pulled over the top of the climb he looked up toward me.

“Good to see you are still alive. How was that?”

He replied it was OK. Outwardly Alex appeared to be showing very little emotion about this quite extraordinary thing he had just done. I know people show emotions in different ways and inside he may possibly have been buzzing, but it didn’t look that way and I still did not understand why he had felt the need to solo this climb in front of all those people unless he was climbing to perform because this is how his life has moved and this is what on occasion he has to do?

“You certainly had a crowd.” I said gesturing toward the dissipating throng.

“Yeah, I looked up once and saw all the people and had to have a word with myself to try and forget about them.”

Alex’s admission to being affected by the number of people watching confused me even more. If this was the case, if he really didn’t like being watched, it really made no sense at all, especially as he was staying around next week and could easily have chosen a quiet time, was this really just a performance.

In the past I have soloed, both in summer and winter. My winter soloing was brought about more from the need to be out and climbing and not having a partner, so I would get up very early and go out climbing by myself. More often than not there would be no one else around and this was how I preferred it. There is also something really fulfilling about winter soloing with the lack of faff and heavy gear and being able to keep moving and not get wet and cold and be in the mountains, moving competently about by yourself.

My rock solos have generally been the same – on deserted crags – not all the time, but more often than not. The first time I soloed Left Wall on Dinas Cromlech was on a Sunday evening after it had rained for most of the day and I was waiting for my friend, Bruce French to arrive in Wales. I arrived at the base of Left Wall as the evening sun broke from between the clouds. There wasn’t another person in the Pass, or that was how it felt and after I had climbed Left Wall, a climb with history which meant so much personally, the feeling of lightness and fulfilment that I had soloed a climb, a climb that at one time I could not imagine myself lead, was an exceptional leap which gave me tremendous confidence and happiness.

Several years later, again I walked to the foot of the Cromlech walls and once again the Pass was almost deserted. This time it was in the middle of the day and sunny and the route I intended to solo was Right Wall. I had climbed Right Wall about seven times already that summer, I had it dialled, and with each ascent earlier in the summer I knew at some point I would walk to these walls to do what I was now about to do. The internal build-up was what it was about as much as the actual climb and the personal pleasure I would receive having completed the climb.

Right Wall had been the second E5 I ever climbed, I think the first time I climbed it was in 1995 by default when my partner backed off leaving some of my gear in the route. Right Wall is about as iconic as it gets for a British climber and years down the line, the experience of climbing it solo is still an intense and fulfilling feeling.

On that day, in the Pass, I sat beneath the route for a while squeeking my shoes and relaxing while looking down at my green Berlingo parked by the boulders until the time felt correct and then I set off. I knew each hold intimately. I climbed, passing familiar edges, making familiar moves and with those moves my mind settled and the climbing became less mechanical, more fluent, enjoyable.

I reached the large ledge beneath the crux and sat down carefully removing my climbing shoes. Two people appeared beneath me on the large ledge and timidly looked up. I waved and said hello. They said hello back and quickly moved around the corner to climb Cemetery Gates.

Once again I was by myself and after a while I replaced my shoes, being careful not to drop them, and entered into the crux section of the climb. To this day I still don’t remember much about climbing this section of the route, except how it flowed and how confident I felt moving over the rock and for these brief seconds in my life, I suppose, in some way, I felt on a higher level of appreciation.

Seeing and speaking to Alex after he soloed The Complete Scream I’m not sure he shared this type of relationship with the climb, but like I say, we all show emotions differently so what do I know and my God, can that bloke climb rock!

Not that I ever really needed any more conformation, but what I do know now, what I am more convinced than ever before, especially with some of the hyped and factually incorrect reporting I have read about this performance is this, climbing has definitely become more Dan Brown than Cormac McCarthy, more Daily Mail than Guardian, more circus than majestic animals on the plain.


As ever, and I know I speak for everyone when I say a huge and massive thanks to Sean and The McBride Family. Fair Head and its climbing is made so much better because of this family who own the crag and the land and their hospitality and generosity.

Finally thanks to Paul Swail who has worked so very hard to organise this meet and highlight the great climbing that is Fair Head.  

Dan, who takes us across to Owey Island. Cool guy. Cool hat. Cool dogs.

Dan, who takes us across to Owey Island. Cool guy. Cool hat. Cool dogs.

Two of my ship and island mates. John Orr and Kris McCoey.

Two of my ship and island mates. John Orr and Kris McCoey.

The other team member staying in the luxurious barn/ship like accommodation on Owey, Tim, Albatross, Neill.

The other team member staying in the luxurious barn/ship like accommodation on Owey, Tim, Albatross, Neill.

Tim Neill climbing pitch one of Immaculata, Holy Jaysus Wall, Owey.

Tim Neill climbing pitch one of Immaculata, Holy Jaysus Wall, Owey.

John Orr leading the second pitch of the adjective inspiring Immaculata on the Holy Jaysus Wall, Owey.

John Orr leading the second pitch of the adjective inspiring Immaculata on the Holy Jaysus Wall, Owey.

Paul Swail. All round nice guy who has developed and highlighted Ireland's fantastic and adventurous climbing over the years and who was on the first ascent of one of the two reasons I particularly wanted to visit Owey, the routes on the Holy Jaysus Wall, Immaculata and The Second Coming.

Paul Swail. All round good guy who has developed and highlighted Ireland’s fantastic and adventurous climbing over the years and who was on the first ascent of one of the two reasons I particularly wanted to visit Owey, the routes on the Holy Jaysus Wall, Immaculata and The Second Coming.

John McCune. Irish new routing phenomenon, its getting boring but just another really friendly Irish guy, adventure hunter and author of both Immaculata and The Second Coming

John McCune. Irish new routing phenomenon, its getting boring, but just another really friendly Irish guy, adventure hunter and author of both Immaculata and The Second Coming among many other new routes in Ireland.

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Kris McCoey who is no slouch when it comes to new routing and climbing on the cliffs of Ireland, seconding the first pitch of Immaculata. Kris and I came to an agreement that on Immaculata, I would take the first pitch while he would climb the long crux pitch and the roles would be reversed on The Second Coming.

Another day on the Holy Jaysus Wall. Myself leading the top pitch of The Second Coming. Pic Tim Neill.

Another day on the Holy Jaysus Wall. Myself leading the top pitch of The Second Coming. Pic Tim Neill.

A gathering before going climbing. Paul Swail, Kris McCoey, Tim Neill, John Orr, John McCune.

A gathering before going climbing. Paul Swail,  Eamon Quinn (out of sight) Kris McCoey, Tim Neill, John Orr, John McCune.

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myself on Lumpy Space, another John McCune three star classic on Owey.

Hanging out with one of the Owey locals. Pic Tim Neill.

Hanging out with one of the Owey locals. Pic Tim Neill.

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Paul Swail and John McCune return to the Holy Jaysus Wall to climb Immaculata.

f h meet sign

After four days of Owey the team headed North.

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Sarah, Zylo, Zylinski leads her first ever E2, Equinox.

Changing the all terrain footwear for the technical approach footwear on a warm up of The Complete Scream.

Changing the all terrain footwear for the technical approach footwear on a warm up of The Complete Scream.

Myself leading The Complete Scream in good sticky damp conditions. The ropes were well attached but i'm glad to say were not tested. Thanks to Zylo for the belay and to Uisdean Hawthorn for the picture.

Myself leading The Complete Scream in good sticky damp conditions. The ropes were well attached but I’m glad to say were not tested. Thanks to Zylo for the belay and to Uisdean Hawthorn for the picture.

The weather eventually breaks. Zylo sorts the gear in Sean McBride's cow shed.

The weather eventually breaks. Zylo sorts the gear in Sean McBride’s cow shed. Trip over.

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16 Responses to The Complete Cream.

  1. D.Anderson says:

    Reminds me of last week, when a 13 year old gym climber (second time climbing outside) on-sighted my 2 year project as his warm up. He didn’t even stick clip the first bolt as most people do. Afterwards he said the climb was “fun” and ask me the name of the climb. I imagined and judged the reasons why he climbed, but the answers only pointed out my own biases and insecurities.

    • Nick Bullock says:

      Hi Mr Anderson,

      Sorry I would address you by your first name but you didn’t supply it.

      Thanks for this thought. I obviously do have biases and insecurities, I’m just not sure they affect my thoughts in this piece in the way you think or hint at, but maybe I’m reading what you have written wrong.

      My insecurities are more about the media and the hype and the ever growing commercialism of climbing and what motivates people. I do not have the slightest insecurity about someone climbing harder, better, quicker, bolder, better than me – this really isn’t that hard a thing to do, I’m a very average and relatively old climber. I stopped comparing myself against other climbers long ago, its a downward spiral, to compare is to despair. I try and I think I’m being honest when I say, I climb totally for own happiness and try not to be negatively affected by what others do, each to their own and I think my piece opens up and is concerned with much more than what I think you are trying to make a point of, which I think I have answered anyway in the reply.

      All the best and thanks for making me think,


      • David Anderson says:

        Dear Nick,

        I have been reading your blog for several years and enjoy your perspective on climbing and life. As a climber of 30+ years, I struggle with the changes in the “sport” now that climbing is much more popular. My wife calls me crowd phobic and she is right, as usual. Although, I have benefited as a guide and expedition climber from the $$$ the popularity of climbing has brought my way, I still struggle with it. I discovered the joy of being outside at an early age which led me to climbing. As result, I often negatively judge people who treat climbing as a purely athletic event. But then I remember all the pairs of lycra I owned, my Mohawk hair style and the boom box we brought to the crag had in the mid 80’s. All of which I am sure alienated (rightly so) other climbers. Once when I complained about the “crowded” Chalten scene Rolo G. reminded me, “Imagine how horrified Kolliker could have been to see the over crowding in your time. He was here 100 years ago exactly.” Also, my comment was not intended to imply you were insecure about your climbing ability (wish I could say the same for me :). But I am glad my comment made you think, like your blog does for me.


        Dave Anderson

        • Nick Bullock says:

          Hi Dave,

          Love that, especially the Mohawk, not so much the boom box 😉

          You are of course correct. As long as no one is being hurt or showing lack of consideration for others, who am I to say what folk should and shouldn’t do, each to their own. But having an opinion is something at times I find difficult to forgo and if it stimulates thought, discussion and debate, all the better.

          Thanks for reading and replying with consideration, intelligence and humility and for once again getting me to think.

          All the best and keep avoiding the crowds, crowds are overrated!


  2. mike hutton says:

    A great read Nick and words with substance.
    I have to agree with much of what you say.
    Even from me as a photographer, quietly enjoying my passion. I think it would be a great shame if something like this got any bigger. Its special

  3. Bren says:

    Great piece. Enjoyable read and will follow your blog because of it. But…

    I wasn’t there, I wasn’t particularly motivated by his presence one way or another and had i been there I doubt that I would have watched but I am in two minds about your angle. To a great extent I agree with you and you express a viewpoint that I would typically identify with. On the other hand, I can envisage a few scenarios that sees Honold solo that climb at that time and fail to exhibit any emotion upon completion.

    However, maybe to him the complete scream was not an event, it was just (as he said) a filler. Neither was his soloing of it an event, it was just (to his mind) the logical way of dealing with the circumstances of the moment. People who climb something that is miles below their technical limit rarely get as invested in that climb as those who have projected it and it can be painful when someone just breezes up a climb you are emotionally invested in (and everyone has one of those climbs, it’s just that there is no one that can dick all over Honolds project). However, we’ve all had it done to us and we’ve all done it to others even if we were not aware of it and didn’t mean to. Your warmups are someone else’s raison d’etre and you cannot be expected to get excited about every warmup you do.

    As for the timing, well, a couple of things. Should he let the crowd change his mind? If he would solo without the crowd, should he have to postpone because of the crowd? Should he have sat and admired the view while waiting for his partner to recover? I suspect being AH you have to get somewhat used to crowds appearing at crags. Secondly, as this was a filler, a nothing climb (as hard as that maybe to hear) maybe he hadn’t considered that a crowd would be interested?

    Anyway, as I said, in general you have expressed an opinion that I would normally row behind but I am a bit of a contrarian so I can’t help push back a bit on this. It seems like if he had come over the top beaming and psyched you’d have been less put out about it and it seems like if all the voyeurs had gone about their business you’d be less suspicious of his motives. As someone who expresses little emotion myself I will certainly forgive him the first and I’am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on the second point as he is unable to control the actions of others and shouldn’t have to alter his actions/approach because of them.

    Thanks for the good read.

    • Nick Bullock says:

      Hi Bren,

      Great reply and some very good points.

      The one thing that I would like to make clear is I really did not feel in anyway aggrieved or angry or put out or jealous by Alex climbing The Complete Scream, like you say, one persons warm up is another persons project. I learnt this fact years ago and like I said to Dave in a previous reply, I climb for myself, I don’t compare myself with anyone else and I don’t get worked up when someone climbs something I want to climb. Honest!

      You are spot on I think with your other points. Its an opinion piece and its written from my view, and I certainly would not climb in front of all those people, I most definitely would sit around and take in the view in preference to being a spectacle in this situation.Maybe Alex has become a symptom of his own success, maybe not, maybe it doesn’t make a difference to him?

      I disagree a little about not being affected by others, life is often about making choices and decisions because of others and their actions. But Alex just going ahead and soloing the route in front of a load of folk is my problem to work out and try to understand, like I have already said, each to their own which I fully support, although it doesn’t take away the fact that it didn’t need to happen, what the difference does one route make and I do wonder about the motivations, but again this is me and my view, my problem, if it is a problem, which it isn’t really, I like to write and express and hopefully make folk think by looking at things a little differently.

      Anyway, thanks again, appreciated,


  4. Patrick Roman says:

    Nick, I held back from saying anything a few days ago when I initially read this piece, because I thought it was maybe one of those posts people write when they haven’t given their words due consideration. However, you seem to be holding firm with your opinion. Which, of course, you’re entitled to do. That said, I don’t think it’s fair to judge someone whose climbing life is so very different to your own, and if I understand correctly, you’d never met before.

    While on the one hand you point out that you don’t make comparisons, you’re also keen to point out how you would have approached the same situation. There’s nothing wrong with explaining how you would tackle a route given a certain set of circumstances, but I think it’s dangerous to suggest what someone so personally unfamiliar to you may be feeling or thinking in that same scenario. This is especially true when your suggestions have negative connotations. Patrick.

    • Nick Bullock says:

      Hi Patrick,

      Thanks for your reply. I think I’m correct in saying almost every piece I write is considered. At times I write to see what comes back and then I can reconsider and muse about how other people see and reflect on the same situation. Its a great way for me to learn and expand and to encourage debate.

      You are correct when you say I am entitled to my opinion, I am, but I am open minded enough to change that opinion if people convince me other wise or I see something differently through the debate. I do think its fair to experience, interact, see, hear, witness and then come to a personal opinion and then air that opinion, its the way of a world with free speech. I think it is something people do, they draw opinion and talk and debate and to say its unfair is possibly a little unfair and maybe a little naive?

      I’m not sure its actually dangerous to reflect on what a person may or may not be receiving from an experience, but like I think I have said frequently, this is something I need to deal with, I’m not sure I can be any more open and honest than this and I have also said each to their own, this is an ongoing understanding and development I have reached since writing the piece which I think does show my understanding and position has broadened.

      It is easy to read what I have written and concentrate on a single issue, but there are many points raised which are interesting to me anyway, possibly the biggest one for me is the change in climbing and its relationship with commerce and what comes about because of this such as what possibly motivates some climbers and their actions.

      You are right, maybe not comparing myself to others and their climbing experience is something I still need to work on, but I don’t think I write from a position of jealousy and a feeling of physically comparing and I hope I now have enough skill in my writing to get across what I’m trying to say without making it sound like a personal attack, I have failed if it does sound like an attack on individual because this is the last thing I want and I apologise now to Alex if this is how this piece comes across. I hope I write to broaden my understanding and the understanding of others and to make me and others think.

      Thanks and all the best

  5. Tom Rollo says:

    Hey Nick, another great article which got me thinking for sure. I kinda feel sorry for Honnold, super talented in a pretty stupid sport and making more money from it than he knew what to do with, until he started up his foundation. It’s funny to me when you say that you are an old and pretty standard grade climber because of the things you have done, and the beautiful way you write about your adventures. For a true bumbly like me, one E1 in my life and yes it was Three Pebble Slab, the effort and work Honnold has put into his climbing and where it has taken him is quite incredible. He seems sorta lost in some ways, which maybe a good thing as this is a f***ed up place to live, but he also seems to be trying his best to make his own way, like you are. To me, you have more in common with him than you do with the people watching him solo.

    Soloing hard stuff like Honnold does, or you on left and right wall, is difficult for me to understand. A friend and I were doing Pluto on Raven Crag and a skinny guy rocked up and soloed a route through the big roof. I was furious with him for spoiling my vibe, and fearful that I’d have to take avoiding action if he fell off. I lost my mojo and abbed back off, wanting to get out of there before anything horrible happened. The skinny guy disappeared over the roof and I’ve never seen him again.

    This climbing is a strange old game.

  6. john yates says:

    An interesting piece of psychological speculation. Maybe there was a much simpler explanation. Alex is invited to a new crag and a new country and finds himself abseiling down a face that looks immaculate – as you say, something that begged to be climbed. Not wanting to make a big deal of it, he casually asks whether a route does follow that line. Having explored it on a rope and finding it comfortably easy, why should he wait any longer than a day to do it – heaven knows how fickle our weather can be. One thing Alex is not, is a celebrity seeker. It has sought him out, not the other way round. All the evidence is that he finds it rather uncomfortable but he has learned how to handle it and to turn it to advantage to others through his Foundation. As for this climb at this time, it is more than likely than he was unaware of the audience until it intruded upon him, and then he sought ‘privacy’ by pulling down the mental shutters. For me and others. Alex is the real deal. And surely more Cormac than Dan Brown. He is definitely one of the ardent hearted – ‘All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardenhearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise.”

    • Nick Bullock says:


      A very well presented and thought out reply. Its great that on this occasion you haven’t gone out of your way to make it a personal attack, I really appreciate this, thank you.

      Because of the replies, which have all focused mainly on the one subject, which is of course Alex’s motivations, even though the post covers many topics that are of interest to me, I have certainly given the subject of motivation much thought and I suppose become even more open to the old adage, each to their own.

      You are correct, my post was speculation, which of course, is yours. Neither you, nor I, are in Alex Honnold’s head, so we speculate with what we see and experience and witness. To say he was unaware of an audience or that an audience would build is very difficult to comprehend given the situation and the climb and the amount of people and journalists that were there to follow Alex and his climbing, but its not impossible I suppose.

      I also agree that Alex is the real deal, although I’m not sure what is, or is not a real deal. I’m probably of the opinion all people are ‘real deals’ some are just more open and honest about what they aim to achieve from life and how they intend to get it. I do find it very difficult to agree with you when you surmise that Alex is not a celebrity seeker, which in itself is not his problem, well not unless he completely denies this, its mine.

      I find the celebrity climber thing with the involvement of big media companies and PR and big business very difficult to understand. There are times where a person and their integrity appear to be compromised and at times they appear to be doing things that are not completely true to their beliefs and they appear to be working toward some other, bigger and dare I say, less worthy cause.

      But like I say, its my problem to sort out, well, unless the person doing headline grabbing stuff kills themselves doing something that is purely an attention grabbing performance, then I feel it would be a great shame.

      I also wonder at what point a person begins to dislike what they are doing and looks forward to the day when they can leave it all behind and get back to what it once was all about and become truly happy once more? I’m not specifically meaning Alex here. Alex is possibly having a blast while he very admirably improves the lives of others through his foundation, but not forgetting he is probably also filling his personal bank account, and if he is, if gaining a load of cash is one of the things he has set out to do and secure his later life, well great, good on him, but if its true, like you say, and he does not like the attention, this suggests he may not be enjoying himself as much as it appears and he may possibly be doing things he would prefer not to if the situation was different?

      A fascinating subject. Loads of speculation. No personal attack, just me attempting to come to grips with what the future of top end, commercial climbing appears to be becoming and things I don’t quite understand.

      Thanks again for the balanced and thoughtful reply.

      All the best

  7. john yates says:

    Cheers Nick for taking the time to reply and your comments. I have always found Alex to be someone who is not motivated by fame or money. He recently contributed a piece for the Climbers’ Club Journal about a slower, simpler life – if you haven’t read it, it is worth a look. There was never a hint of wanting money for it, he thought it was important for him to ‘put things back into climbing’ and ‘the community.’ I think he is someone who finds the attention he gets somewhat overwhelming and has developed mechanisms for dealing with it in his own way. What is most remarkable is that he has used his celebrity and the money it brings not to feather his own nest, or put cash aside for his personal future, but is investing it in the Foundation. My understanding – based on conversations with friends who know him well – is that the bulk of what he earns goes in to the Foundation and that he lives off a very small amount indeed – the slower, simpler, low impact ethic. He would agree with you that one of the challenges he faces is not to let sponsorship and commercial interests warp or twist what it is that he does – and that the motivation has to come from within.
    Just looking at his recent reading list, I would say his ethical position runs counter to modern consumerism and commercialism. But he is sufficiently realistic to recognise that this is the world he (and most of us) lives in and the the small changes he can make are his way of getting a balance. His work with the Navaho is interesting – it is very small steps, breaks a big problem down into smaller, achievable goals and then gets on with it. A process he likens to his approach to big wall climbing and other longer routes.
    Best wishes

    • Nick Bullock says:

      Hi John,

      Thanks once again for your insightful and measured response. I have come to the conclusion I am being cynical and on this occasion, after what you have written, I should stop being cynical and just believe and be happy there are still people out there in the ‘pro climbing world’ who are selflessly doing things for others and climbing for honest and non-commercial personal reasons.

      I suppose what always sets alarms ringing is when folk partner up with PR and advertising businesses, this I think is their choice and its not a choice I could ever see myself taking because I can not get beyond the fact these people are out for one thing and that is to make money and become bigger and in doing so they appear to push ignorance, hype and untruths and they do this in someone else’s name. But like you say, maybe Alex just accepts this is the way of the modern world and its a necessary evil and I’m being unrealistic. I’m glad to say I will never be in the position where I have to decide whether to deal with this kind of business and people and even if I were, I would like to think I would choose not to, but I could still benefit the people who deserve support.

      Cheers and thanks,

  8. John yates says:

    Really appreciate you taking time to reply. Look forward to the new book. And keep on writing. Also. The photographs you take are really good but few people seem to comment on that. The ice climbing images especially capture the wildness and rawness of the environment and the stuff you do.

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