Impact in the 21st Century, Episode 1: Alex Honnold

Welcome to Impact in the 21st Century, from Simbi Foundation. This episode, Alex Honnold discusses the power of focus, the Honnold Foundation, and why he values reading and travelling.

Photo by Jimmy Chin.

A podcast sharing stories of positive impact from the world’s leading innovators

In our first episode, host Aaron Friedland talks with free solo climber and founder Alex Honnold about his groundbreaking El Capitan free solo climb, Honnold Foundation’s impactful solar energy initiatives, and how to find focus in a world that just can’t stop scrolling.

Alex Honnold is a professional rock climber, best known for his ropeless ascents of some of the world’s biggest rock walls. His 2017 free solo ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan is often called one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time, and is the subject of the 2018 BAFTA and Academy Award-winning documentary Free Solo. In 2012, Alex founded the Honnold Foundation, devoted to promoting solar as a proven, environmentally sound solution to global energy poverty.

Impact in the 21st Century is now streaming on all major podcast platforms. Subscribe for email updates on upcoming episodes, or recommend an impactful individual to become a future guest.

From Simbi Foundation, it’s impact in the 21st century, a show about innovators, activists, entrepreneurs, authors, and the positive impact they make. I’m Aaron Friedland, and on the show today, how climber and social innovator Alex Honnold changed humanity’s perceptions around climbing — and now with the Honnold Foundation, is mainstreaming solar installations to improve access to education and electricity. Thank you to RBC for sponsoring this episode.

Aaron: Alex, it is such a pleasure to be speaking with you today. And thank you so much for taking the time to make this happen.

Alex: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

Right now you’re in Lake Tahoe. And, you know, we live in a COVID world. So what does your day look like? How has COVID impacted you? And how are you doing?

Well, I’m actually doing great, almost embarrassingly so, in a way, because, you know, because we’re in sort of the COVID world, and because it has had such a hard impact for so many people, you know, I feel slightly passing like I’m having a great time. But basically, because there are restrictions on travel, I’m not doing any work. I’m not doing any appearances. I’m not traveling for anything. So that means I just got to stay home train, go mountain biking, go climbing.

So my day to day is actually not really affected at all, you know, kind of loving it. But I think the main challenge of COVID for me is having no plans in the foreseeable future, like no expeditions to train for no big projects to train for no film projects, you know, like having nothing on the horizon. But I’m kind of loving the day to day training, honestly.

Glad to hear it. And for those who are wondering what kind of mountain biking do you do? And what kind of bike do you ride?

I’m riding a Specialized, like a stunt jumper, like kind of a nice bike, they sent it to me. And you know, I’m not a great biker, but it sure makes it pretty fun.

But yeah, I mostly write cross country-type things, just like traveling in the mountains. I mean, I kind of, you know, like to bike the same way I climb, just going out and having adventures.

And I assume that you don’t bike with ropes either?

No, typically no. But actually, I do bike incredibly conservatively, because I’m not a great biker. And I don’t want to get hurt for climbing. So I am pretty careful. That’s why I don’t really like down hilling and things where you have to just go super fast and go for it. Because ultimately, everybody winds up hurt. And, you know, I want to stay healthy for climbing.

So one thing I actually just want to touch on—you mentioned that Specialized sent you the bike. So I guess, you know, since 2017, and since the release of your film with which we’ll chat about, how has your day-to-day changed from, you know, someone who’s just deeply passionate about their work, and who falls in love with the work that they do—and suddenly, you’re internationally recognized, you have people lining up to see you, and you’re getting The North Face sending you gear, and companies sending you bicycles. Like, does that change who you are at all?

Um, I don’t know. I mean, you know, I like to hope that it doesn’t change too much. But, um, but no, definitely, it has been a huge change. I mean,
it’s funny hearing you say, someone who’s in love with their work, because for me, I’ve never even considered at work, you know, I just love going climbing, I’ve always loved climbing. And I’m able to put a tremendous amount of effort into my climbing. And, so I will say that in the year post the release of free solo, so 2018 into 2019, I was doing a tremendous amount of travel around the film, the film tour, you know, the whole Academy Award circuit, and then go into like the Emmy Awards, basically, all these Television Awards in the US. And in the UK, actually.

And just, you know, I mean, it’s just so much, and then tons of corporate speaking events, and just like public appearances and things around the film. And so it’s just kind of interesting that as you get more successful as a climber, you do less climbing, you know. But then, in a way, COVID has been a major reset, because all of that is canceled. I mean, partially, the film has already run its course, and I was already sort of transitioning back to normal life. And then, of course, COVID is just such a big transition.

And so now in a way, I’m like, ‘Oh, just back to normal.’ I just go climbing all the time, I train as hard as I can I, you know, focus on finding projects. And that’s it.

I don’t know what kind of see maybe over the next year, what happens to the world and what that does for my lifestyle. But you know, I certainly feel about the same as I did 10/15 years ago. You know, I just want to be as good of a climber as I can.

That’s amazing. That’s really beautiful to hear. I think it’s interesting that you don’t see what you do is ‘work’. To be completely honest, I don’t see what I do as work either. And then I’ll have people say, you know, ‘you’re working really hard’ and I’m like, ‘I’m either working really hard or I’m not working at all.’

That’s it. I always used to joke that I live on vacation because the climbing lifestyle is so close to a vacation. You travel to the most beautiful places to go climbing, and then you climb all day. The thing is, if you didn’t love climbing it would be hell because you’re basically just having physical toil for 8/10 hours a day. But when you love climbing, you’re just like, ‘Oh, I’m on vacation.’ You’re out, that’s incredible.

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Well, keep it up. So before we get any further, you do have quite an impressive list of accomplishments. And I do feel compelled to list a few off just to provide the conversation with a little more context. So, your 2017 free solo of El Capitan is essentially regarded as one of the greatest athletic achievements of human history, which is pretty sweet.

I mean, when you put it like that, it does sound impressive, but you know.
Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, that’s, that’s the other side.

Absolutely. And, and then, so the documentary free solo was made during that process, and I will tell you just rewatching some of the footage, the boulder problem, specifically, my hands got clammy, just watching it.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, it is an incredible film. I mean, that’s, it’s like such a rare life experience for everything to come together, you know, when you have this incredible objective, and this incredible desire to do it, you know, basically, it’s like a peak of my life, you know, it’s like everything kind of built to this moment that I really want to do this thing that’s incredibly hard to do. But then there also happens to be this incredibly talented team of filmmakers that are also really at the top of their game trying to create and it just all coalesces into this amazing film. And then you’re like, ‘wow, whoever would have thought that that would come together?’ But, you know, sometimes things just work out? And you’re like, sweet.

Absolutely. And so then in addition to that, you’re an author of the book Alone on the Wall? I believe you have a co-author with that as well?

Yeah, co-authored with David Roberts. And then I actually added to the book after I free-solo-ed El Cap, because I felt like that was such a big thing in my life that I should sort of amend the autobiography. So anyway, it’s been republished now.

Awesome. And then among many other impressive accomplishments, you’re the founder of the Honnold Foundation. And if I may, I’ll just give a brief intro to it, and then I’d love for you to expand on that later on. The Honnold Foundation, which envisions a world where all people have equal access to opportunity, and live in balance with the environment. We believe in solar as a proven environmentally sound solution to global energy poverty. And we award grants to community organizations whose projects are innovative, equity-focused, and have the potential to shift the narrative on what’s possible for energy access worldwide. I’m sure you’ve got more that you’d like to expand on there.

Well, actually, in some ways, that is the expanded version. And you know, the sort of simpler version is just that I started the foundation because I wanted to do something useful in the world. And over the years, it just turned out that all the projects that seemed the most meaningful to me gravitated towards solar. And so then, after many years of supporting solar projects, we just explicitly made it the focus of the foundation, because that’s what we had a lot of experience working on, and what we thought best solved many of the energy problems in the world. And so yeah, now we explicitly support solar.

Fantastic. I love hearing that. And I love the focus. And quite often when you look at NGOs, they do everything under the sun, but they do nothing under the sun, because you can’t do everything well, and it’s just really beautiful to see that.

No, that’s exactly I mean, that was the exact conversation we had. It’s like, well, we have a bunch of experience working in one field and one field does solve important problems. But, you know, we routinely get asked, like, ‘do you work with wind? Do you work with water projects?’ And you know, I think it’s important that people do those types of projects, and that people work in those fields. But that’s not what we do. Because that’s- those weren’t the projects that spoke to me the most, you know, they weren’t the most inspiring to me. At a certain point, you’ve kind of got to work with what you know — and do it well.

Absolutely. And then on top of everything else, what I’m actually most impressed by personally, is your damn impressive reading list. It’s just so beautiful to see how passionate you are as a reader. And I’m really excited to discuss more of that with you. And we’ll also be linking your reading list so that other folks can check it out.

Cool. Thanks. Um, I mean, to be fair, that reading list is the product of 10 or 12 years of expeditions and, you know, a lot of time spent in tents, a lot of time stuck in airports. You know, I mean, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to read.

True. To be fair, a lot of people have a lot of opportunities to read and don’t take it.

Yeah, that’s true. Yeah, it’s funny when you’re sitting on a plane and you’re reading a book, and then you look over and the guy next to you is like playing Candy Crush for six hours straight. You’re sort of like, Huh, but I try not to judge that kind of stuff too much, because sometimes you do need to just decompress. And, you know, I don’t know. I mean, you know, I’m not I’m not going to judge. But reading definitely can be a great way to learn about the world.

Yeah, and decompress, hey?

Yeah, well, sometimes it depends, because I pretty much only read nonfiction. And it’s all pretty heavy. You know, when you’re only reading climate change and environmental nonfiction stuff all the time. It’s like, it does wear you down a little bit. And sometimes you’re like, you just need a little candy crush or something.

Absolutely. I’ll tell you personally. So I’m dyslexic. And it took me ages to learn how to read. And I learned later on in life by reading books and simultaneously listening to that audio, which actually inspired me to create Simbi, the reading technology company that I run.

That’s interesting, because I read about the company. And I was like, I don’t totally get the combination of reading with audio. And then when you say dyslexia, I’m like, Oh, I get that. That makes way more sense now.

So the thing that’s interesting about it is, if you think about the way we read, and I’m sorry to diverge on this, but I’ll just, I’ll just share with you, that we’ve been reading for 5000 years. Our eyes are not optimized as readers. And we’ve been listening for 100,000 years. And if you think about that, the earliest text is only 5000 years old, it’s cuneiform. And so, what happens quite often is that when we’re just reading, that’s one part of our nervous system, one part of our lobe system that’s engaged. When you listen and read simultaneously, your temporal and your occipital lobes are both engaged. So the neural pathways and connections that are strengthened and engaged are twofold.

And what’s really interesting about it is that then you’re able to listen to it significantly faster speeds where a highlighter is running along for you. And when someone taps on your shoulder and says, ‘Hey, Alex, what’s going on,’ and you look at them, you still have the audio running. So when you look back, the highlight is moving for you. And you just reengage as opposed to being like, ‘Where the hell was I? How do I get back to where I was?’

Interesting. But that’s sort of requires that platform, right? Where you have the highlighter going, you have it, basically, you have to have your audio and visual synced?

Well, actually no. So quite often, what I’ll do is I’ll take a book to the park, like I’m reading one of Aldous Huxley’s books at the moment. And I’ll put in the audible. And I’ll just read the book and listen to the audible at the same time.

So and that doesn’t, and you like that, you find that better?

It’s fully it’s a very immersive experience. And what I see right now is, society isn’t reading and the top paid engineers at Google and Facebook are essentially paid to just keep you scrolling and searching aimlessly for five more minutes. And if we can find these activities, and these ways to essentially motivate people to spend more time doing core activities for society to remain a literate, relevant species, I think it’s kind of important.

That’s so interesting, I just had that conversation with somebody, I was like, oh, all the top minds in the world right now are basically spending their energy to distract you, you know, just suck your attention away. And it’s like, it’s tough, because it does feel like you’re fighting a war for your attention, when everything around you is designed to just suck you in and just like, make you feel like a zombie. Like, man, it doesn’t make it really hard to just focus on reading or, you know, I just erased Instagram off my phone, like, basically erase the apps. And it’s kind of tough because as a professional athlete, I can’t really just erase all my social media because, you know, I have such a platform, while I have you know, I have this- a tremendous opportunity to use my platform in meaningful ways.

But, um, but I basically erase it all off my day to day phone, and then I just have it all on like a pad, basically, that I just have to sit on a shelf that I turn on, you know, once a week to, like, do specific things. And I gotta say, it’s been my life a lot better. Because that way, you know, I just- it precludes the opportunity of me just getting sucked into something by an accident.

I was like, I don’t know how serious your podcast is. But do you want the real story of what precipitated the change? Instagram started a new reels feature, which was basically their attack on Tick tock, you know, just like an even more fast, catchy thing. And in classic style, I went to like, go to the bathroom. I’m sitting on the toilet. I’m like, what’s this new thing? And then I get sucked in and like, 45 minutes later, I’m like, Oh, my God, my legs are numb, where have I been? What’s happened? And then I got up and was like, oh, and then erase Instagram and was like, I’m over it.

You know? It’s like, sometimes you just need the one really bad experience where you’re like, what have I just done? You know, because you’re like, Man in that 45 minutes, there’s so many things I could do there that actually matter for my life. But instead, it’s like this non stop stream of crazy videos and people dancing and like, you know, over-sexualized, weird, you know, you’re like, ‘Oh, I feel bad about this.’ And so that’s, that’s what led me to be like, ‘Okay, this is too much like,’ even though I’m sort of required to post to the platforms, you know, I’m just going to set it up so that I only engage with that, like, once a week, let’s say.

That sounds like a really healthy way of doing it. Because obviously, you’ve got what, 2.1 or so million followers on Instagram, so, so you do need to maintain that audience, which I understand, but I love how you’re how you’re saying that. And I actually think that’s a lesson to a lot of us just like, if you need to use it, treat it as like your work Instagram thing, on my work computer. Go about it that way.

Yeah, it’s like, it’s like people having a work phone, you know, where they only look at their work phone. And I think it is good to have a little bit of separation there. Because it’s like, otherwise you do just get sucked into it. And then you sort of, you know, months later, you realize you haven’t done anything meaningful in your life, because your day to day is just sucked into like little games and like scrolling and pictures and like crazy advertising. You know.

It’s exactly it, I’ll tell you with me as well, I am- So I do have Instagram on my phone, but I really use it very infrequently. And I remember realizing- I started the practice of gratitude journaling about five years ago, and I won’t, I won’t look at an email, I won’t check anything, until I’ve got five to 10 items on my list done. And that’s essentially the first thing I do in the morning. And my partner at the time and I were discussing it, she- she would sometimes spend more time like on Instagram in the morning. And she also commented that not using Instagram in the morning and just going straight to some level of gratitude journaling made this profound difference in her day. And it’s continued to in mine. And I don’t think there’s a better service that we can do for ourselves than not going to Instagram in the morning or Tick Tock and just recognizing that you’ve got two legs that can work for you. You’ve got a back that can you know, in your case can climb you 3000 feet, like — we’re pretty exceptional if we appreciate it.

And if we actually use it. We can also just lay in our bed order food delivered right to our mouth and just scroll indefinitely. You know, it’s like totally insane.

Yeah, didn’t see the conversation going this way. But yeah, exactly.

Well, you know, you just never know when you start talking about life where it’s gonna take you.

Yeah, it’s true. So, where are we?

Oh, that’s the problem is scrolling, even thinking about scrolling just makes you turn to mush.

Yeah, there you go. While we’re on it, have you read any, like George Orwell or Aldous Huxley?

I had to for school. So I mean, I’ve read 1984 and brave new world and for whatever reason, my high school was way into dystopian sort of sci-fi-ish, like, it was all kind of dark. But, but now I’ve never really read it for pleasure.

Okay. The reason I ask is because like, just what we’re talking about right now, you look at the news, you look at what presidents around the world are saying, you look at their alternative facts. And then you’ll have individuals say, you know, we’re living in a- you know, Orwellian society. And the more I think about it, the more that I think we’re actually living in a Huxlian society.

And the reason I say this is because and this is a quote from Neil postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. But he says, you know, what, what Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there’d be no reason to ban a book for there’d be no one who wanted to read one, or both feared the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. And when you look right now, it’s not really truth being concealed from us, it seems to be that it’s literally just drowned and that we find these echo-chambers and we’re not even able to, we don’t even have the memory or the willingness to search for real truth.

Like that’s, that’s deeply depressing, but it does ring very true. Oh,
heavy.

So on that note, is there is there what like if you had to recommend just one book, from your expensive reading list that you think kind of provides some truth? Is there any that come to mind?

Jeez, one book that provides truth- I’m like, I don’t know. I mean, I would need to be, I would need narrower constraints. You know, because… the thing is, is that they’re the books that I think about the most, you know, and they’re some of the books that I found, like most personally interesting and meaningful, but they aren’t necessarily the most important books for somebody to read. You know, like, like, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, or whatever. You know, that’s like a great climate change focus book. I mean, it’s a great book, it’s very educational. But the reality is, like, kind of dark, it’s kind of heavy read. And, you know, I don’t know if I remember that much from it.

Um, there was this other book, the World Without Us. It poses a thought experiment of what happens to the world if humans just disappear. And I think about that all the time, because I just found it so interesting, because like, he lays out what happens to cities and farms and like the different human impact of ecosystems, like how they revert back to nature. And so now, as I wander through our made world, I constantly think about what it would be like as it as it returns to nature, you know, like, what happens first? Like, which windows break? Like, I mean, he has a really interesting thing with new york city with all the buildings eventually falling down. And the last thing standing being the Brooklyn Bridge, because it was built pre-computing, like pre-engineering knowledge. So they just built a big and built it strong. And so it’s just like, this way overbuilt structure. And so it’d be like, the last thing still standing there, it’s like the pyramids or something, you know, that’ll just stay forever. I’m just I don’t know, it’s just interesting. You know, it’s like, his books are all the time you’re like, Oh, this changed my worldview.

Or, um, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of A People’s History of the US by Howard Zinn. But it’s basically like a history of America, told, sort of by normal folks, as opposed to sort of by the ruling class, it’s kind of like a classicist, I don’t know, I don’t know what the technical terms are. But it definitely changed, fundamentally changed the way that I look at history. You know, having learned one thing in school and then reading it all flipped the other way. Like, it’s kind of an interesting, interesting way to relearn your history. I don’t know, random books that off the top of my head.

Those all sound fantastic. I’ve definitely heard of the World Without Us. And I’ve read Naomi Klien, but well appreciate the recommendations. This is awesome.

Yeah, I mean, honestly, though, if anyone’s interested, they should go to HonnoldFoundation.org/books and it has my whole book list. And I have little comments for most of them about where I read it, or how I read it, or, you know, what I was doing at the time. Because a lot of them all I remember now is, is like which expedition I was on, when I read it, I don’t remember anything about the contents of the book. But I do think even though I forget the specific contents of a book, I think the sum total of all those books does help shape your worldview, and sort of fill out your knowledge in a broad way. So you may not remember, you know, a certain fact. But you know it came from one of those books, and it really does color your world.

Absolutely, yeah, that’s really well put. We talk about this idea in literacy quite often that every word you read goes into what’s called your lexicon of essentially all of the words that you have, just in your mind. And I think that same idea applies to what you’re saying, right? You read these big ideas that that change your mind forever in a way that your mind can never change back. You don’t necessarily know where they exactly came from, but it’s part of that whole, it makes up your thoughts.

That’s- I mean, it’s interesting talking about the power of reading and things and changing ideas. Do you know, Ayn Rand? Yeah, objectivism—all that stuff. So I read all her books when I was in high school, and I was totally into it. And, you know, in some ways, like, I was pretty right-wing in high school, you know, I was like, really kind of hardcore, and saw everything in black and white, which I think is kind of a classic thing for a young person. You know, I was like, ‘Oh, if people are poor, they should just work harder.’ You know, things like that, where you’re like, you know, it makes a lot of sense when you’re 16 or 17. You’re like, I have all the answers, this is genius.

And then, over 10 years of traveling and expeditions, reading tons more books, you start to realize that nothing is black and white, that the issues are much more complex. That the whole world is basically, you know, inhabiting this gray area in between things. And, you know, I was like, man- it’s just interesting, though, to look back and just see how wildly different my worldview is now than it was as a teenager, let’s say. That is the product of quite a bit of travel, but also quite a bit of reading.

Out of curiosity, these expeditions you’re talking about, Are any of these NatGeo expeditions?

A lot of them are joint National Geographic North Face expeditions. Because The North Face has a whole expedition thing, and The North Face is my main sponsor. And I’ve been on tons of North Face expeditions, but they’re often in partnership with NatGeo.

Awesome. All right.

We went to Oman. Yeah, I mean, a handful and NatGeo trips.

So I’m, yeah, I’m actually in the NatGeo community as well. And, one of my supervisors is a guy named Wade Davis, who’s- he’s like one of the explorers in residence. And it’s actually- when I was searching through the list of the explorers, and then I saw you there, and I didn’t realize that you had that level of NatGeo involvement.

Yeah, when you know, NatGeo also produced the film Free Solo. So like NatGeo TV, which is kind of a separate branch from the magazine, but it’s still all National Geographic. I mean, basically, I’ve done quite a bit of work with National Geographic.

That’s awesome. So, something that I find really interesting about you, is when I think about how someone does anything, quite often, that’s how they do everything. And, what I mean by that is, the way that you approach anything that you do know, you carry the same biases with you the same blind spots. And so quite often, you really can extrapolate the macro from the micro.

And so when you think about someone like yourself, who is so hyper-focused in climbing and the way that you are, and then you think about how you are also doing work in development, how you’re doing work with Honnold Foundation, you assume, or you can extrapolate that you’re going to carry with you that same level of hyperfocus that you apply to climbing. And it was so- and then that’s just further validated by the fact that Honnold Foundation has such a specific way of working. And I’d love for you to just share a little bit more about your approach, you know, to training and how it is, you’re focused in that area, and your approach to the Honnold Foundation and how you’re focused in that area and what you think comes across?

Yes, I mean, as soon as you said that, how you do one thing is how you do everything that instantly resonated, because I am all-in on things, you know, actually- even before I get to the work with a foundation, like I recently started doing crossword puzzles, and I’ve done way too many crossword puzzles in the last week. I was sort of like, ‘Oh, like, all things in my life, I just, I’m just bad at moderation,’ you know, it’s like, if I’m into something, then I want more of it. And I mean, then honestly, that’s part of the reason that I’ve never done drugs or alcohol or anything, because sort of, like, I don’t think I’d be very good at keeping it chill, you know, because when I’m into something, I go big. And so that’s definitely been the case with climbing. And thankfully, that’s a very healthy outlet for my energy, you know, it’s like, I love doing it, and it’s good for me to do it. So so I can just allow myself to go as hard as I can.

You know, with the foundation, I mean, to be honest, it’s like I haven’t, you know, obviously, I haven’t gone as hard with the foundation as I have with climbing just because it’s always sort of second to me, it’s like, always what I work on, when I’m already pooped from climbing, you know, um. That said, You know, I mean, it is, it is a tremendous outpouring of energy into the foundation, as well as like, and more and more ao as I get older, I think, and that’s kind of why I started. You know, knowing that, as my life went on, I would want to put more and more energy into things that actually mattered. You know, because at a certain point, like, I’m not going to be able to put as many hours into climbing, just because I’m getting older, you know, things hurt more I, like I haven’t slowed down much yet, but I will, you know, I just turned 35. And, by most sporting standards, I mean, that’s like old for a professional athlete.

Climbing has a much longer lifespan than a sport like the NFL or something like football in the US. But, um, you know, still, like, I won’t be climbing at an elite level for for more than another decade. And, and I think I’m just steadily transitioning into more work through the foundation and, and just trying to do something more useful in the world. You know, it’s like, it is nice to work on projects that matter to people other than me, you know, because with climbing projects is strictly like, for my own pleasure. But through the foundation, at least you’re doing things that actually positively impact other human communities.

Absolutely. I was watching, it must have been one of your older videos. You and a buddy whose name I apologize, I can’t remember. But you were on a backpacking trip where you were cycle touring, hitting all the major peaks in the desert-

That was, I don’t know, maybe 2013 or 14?

And it was just so beautiful to I think they were interviewing him and
the camera pans to you like nailing in a small kind of photovoltaic panel on a little shed or a little house more accurately. But what he was saying about you is that he, he found it deeply inspiring that you recognized what that your climbing activity is selfish in the sense that it’s focused on self. And that this added energy that you have goes to helping other people. And it’s just like, such a beautiful way to hear it put.

No, yeah, totally. I mean, it’s like one of those things, you don’t want to toot your own horn, you don’t want to overstate it. But, you know, I’m kind of like, you miss, if you’re going to do something, it may as well be useful. And I think for me, having traveled quite a bit on climbing expeditions, and then also just reading quite a bit about the world, that you just realized that there’s such tremendous need in the world. And then, and then you further realize that you can have a pretty substantial impact, with a relatively small contribution.

You know, like a small amount of money, a small amount of effort can go a pretty long way in other people’s lives. And I feel like, when you balance those, those two things, you’re kind of left with his obligation to, to go out and actually do that useful thing. You’re kind of like, man, if you’re able to, and you know, that it will help quite a bit. It’s like, you’re kind of required to go do that.

Yeah, I mean, that’s also speaking of books. I mean, also read, like the Life you Can Save by Peter Singer, you know, books like that, that do sort of speak towards that moral obligation. And, you know, you read enough books like that, and you are sort of like, ‘Oh, geez, you know, like, like, I better go do something.’ So, yeah.

Something else that I remember- It must have been like in 2013 conversation. But so just for clarity sake, I don’t frequently just binge out on Alex Honnold do YouTube videos. But over the last week, I definitely have, and it’s, it’s been wonderful. But the one thing that I really loved apart from like, just what you’re able to do physically, and you were talking about, yeah, that that moral obligation. But the other thing that you were talking about is what we call at Simbi Foundation return on impact. And so how dollars can just go a longer way, for example, in a refugee settlement in Uganda than they can in some North American economies.

And so balancing that return on the dollar that return on impact, and making sure that you’re creating a positive impact, but recognizing just the purchasing power of parity, and how you can help more people abroad. And it was beautiful to hear you talking about that?

No, that’s, that’s Yeah, I’ve always thought about that. And actually, when I started the foundation, I was sort of splitting my money between domestic projects and projects abroad, because I knew that the projects abroad had a bigger human impact for the money. But the projects domestically had a bigger environmental impact for the money, because you’re basically putting grid type systems on a home and they’re just bigger systems. It’s basically offsetting more carbon by doing something domestically, then doing really small systems abroad. And so I felt like between by doing the two different sets of projects, you know, I was kind of hitting both the environmental side and the human side in a way that felt meaningful to me.

Yeah, that’s, that’s really great. So on that note, what would you say- If you think about just where the Honnold Foundation is today? What are you most proud of with it?

I think what I’m most proud of is that, when I started it, it was just me giving 50 grand a year away to $25,000 grants to two different organizations. And I was like, ‘Oh, this feels like a big contribution on my part.’ And at the time, that was like a third of my income. But you know, I lived in a car and it didn’t matter. And I was like, yeah, this seems like an appropriate level of giving.
You know, this year, we’re giving away a million dollars in grants. So we’re having 20 times the impact that when I then when I started, and now we have a full team, you know, having an executive director with a staff, I mean, it’s a team of three and a half kind of four people. But uh, but still, it’s basically for people working full time to find the best ideas, the best projects, implement those projects in a, you know, in a way that works, you know, basically, like, make sure that the projects do run the way they’re supposed to.

I don’t know, I’m just like, man, we’re having 20 times the impact with a better team. And it’s been seven, eight years. It was like, it’s, it’s cool to see an organization sort of learning and grow like that.

Absolutely. And I’m sure you’re growing as well, as you’re challenged on, like, what are my- you know, mission vision values, setting those objectives and key results, the key performance indicators that you work on with the team?

Yeah, it’s funny. I’ve read books about each of those OKRs KPIs. I’m like, Oh, it’s all about your little business acronyms. Actually. I don’t know if we really said any of those because I think each time I read a business book that
about, you know, objectives and key results. I’m like, that sounds so interesting, I should apply that to my life. And then I try to and I’m just like, Ah, you know, at a certain point, especially with climbing and with like athletic achievement it kind of makes sense to just like train in the way that I always have. And not quantify it too much with the with the objectives and key results and things you know, I don’t know. Anyway, yeah.

Well, on that note, so, you know, you bring up like, okay, it’s a business acumen or its business lingo. But quite often we do talk in business about like, ‘Okay, well, how are we going to get this team to climb that mountain?; Right? And like, ‘if that mountain is our objective, what are the key results along the way that we need to accomplish to get the team safely and securely up?’

Just so you think of like, when you, from your perspective, are they comparable, like building an organization and scaling a mountain and the training that takes place?

Yeah, I mean, you know, yeah, it’s like the cliche to talk about it that way. But yeah, they are sort of comparable in that, you know, building a team.
Establish good milestones along the way, working your way to the summit, you’re basically taking a really big challenge and breaking it into smaller pieces, and then working on those pieces systematically and sequentially.

Yeah, I mean, that definitely applies to business the same as it applies to climbing. But, uh, you know, I’ve actually read quite a few business books. And, you know, actually, do you know, Jim Collins, the best business author of all time, you know, chunky books? Yeah. So he’s like an elite rock climber. Like, he was actually cutting edge rock climber when he was in his 20s. And he still climbs at a very high level. Like, he’s climbed with a lot of my friends.

Anyway. So I’ve like, read all his books, because, you know, you’re like, oh, that guy’s badass. And he’s a rock climber. But, you know, you read the books, and you’re like, Oh, it’s all it’s like, you know, a little bit hokey? Like, I don’t know, it’s like, but no, but I guess the lessons are true. You know, it just feels like a little cliche to compare things to climbing. You know, it’s like, everyone who’s ever climbed Everest then goes on the corporate speaking tour, comparing, you know, getting to camp three, as like, hitting their quarterly sales goals. Kind of like, come on, you know?

Yeah, that’s fair.

It’s like, you haven’t climbed Everest? I’m not making fun.

No, I haven’t. I just, I haven’t hit haven’t hit our core three sales months either.

Yeah, well, it’s COVID. Those numbers are all out the window.

So do you have from from a personal climbing perspective? Do you have another El Cap in mind? Like, do you have the next?

No, there’s nothing. There’s nothing quite at that scale, just because there doesn’t really exist anything else at that scale? I mean, El Cap is a unique, like, because it’s not just the rock face, which is amazing. It’s also the history in the, in the climbing history, you know, it’s like, there’s just so much drama written on that wall. You know, there are so many classic climbing stories. I don’t know. So there’s nothing quite like that. Nothing else quite like that in the world.

You know, we have a bunch of climbing goals, you know, things that I want to do. I don’t know, I actually I was planning on doing another separate faster cedar, like you just talked about with the bike tour, we’re gonna do another thing like that this spring, but obviously, because of COVID. You know, we cancelled any travel plans. But so there are a bunch of like fun climbing projects like that, that are in the future. And then you never really know how those come together to inspire you for bigger challenges. You know, I mean, I just haven’t really gotten to that point yet. I guess.

So my follow up to that is when you think about, you know, the years of training that took place for El Cap, you know, you looked at it, you train for it for years. What is the Honnold foundation’s El Cap? What What is that mountain?

I guess if you were really looking, you know, at the far far, like fantasy future. I mean, the El Cap would be humanity transitioning to 100% renewable energy, and fossil fuels being a thing of the past and, and humanity avoiding the worst of catastrophic climate change. You know, obviously, those are all things that the Honnold Foundation will have a tiny, tiny piece in contributing to hopefully, but they are problems that are so big and so global and scale that no one organization is going to really, you know, push the needle on those issues. But, you know, I hope that we can at least contribute in some small way.

Absolutely. I feel like we need to get you an Elon Musk hanging out and then you’re working on green and solar together and then you could possibly
The first guy to be the first guy to climb a mountain on Mars.

I’m pretty sure it’s really low gravity. So it wouldn’t be that challenging.

We’d weigh you down.

Yeah. Okay, then it would be challenging. Take away my oxygen…

…Aaron and Alex’s conversation continues in the podcast. Listen here.

Education means a brighter future. simbifoundation.org.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store