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Alex Honnold Seeks a Sustainable Future Through Solar

Editor's Note: Congratulations to Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Alex Honnold for winning the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary at the 2019 Oscars!

Alex Honnold has been up to a lot more than just rock climbing these days. Shawn Corrigan Photo.  

The stairwell of Jackson’s Center for the Arts becomes a makeshift set of monkey bars for Alex Honnold as we talk. Fully extended and swinging from side to side, Honnold is quiet while he articulates his thoughts. The auditorium lobby surrounding us is empty. It’s a stark contrast to the sea of buzzing people outside that eagerly waited to meet and greet the climber-turned-celebrity.

Even though the staff is breaking down chairs and tables around us, he’s keen to answer a few more questions. There’s just one stipulation for our interview: he’d like to stretch. That’s understandable. Chasing after local mountaineers Kit and Rob Deslauriers on the slopes of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort prior to speaking to a crowd of a 200, well, that would tire anyone out.

After answering his daily quota of questions relating to death, we focus our attention on more cheerful topics. At one point during the Q&A following his lecture, someone asks him what the film crew would have done with the footage had he fallen during his 3,000-foot ropeless ascent of El Capitan. Honnold obliges to the question explaining that no one, including himself, thought of that possibility. Moving on, he kindly suggests after the fact, “more lighthearted questions perhaps?” Despite the world’s fascination with Honnold’s dance with mortality, Honnold is rather concerned about life—particularly how his own life can leave a positive impact on both the earth and the people living on it. This became such a priority for Honnold that in 2012 he established the Honnold Foundation, his charity committed to addressing global inequality, and climate change.

Honnold climbing in Chad. Jimmy Chin Photo.  

“The Foundation was born from the general desire to do something positive for the world,” says Honnold while bobbing from to side to side. Seven years ago, the charity was likely overshadowed by two other noteworthy achievements: free soloing Zion’s Moonlight Buttress and Yosemite’s Half Dome. Both ascents riled up the climbing community.

But philanthropic work—particularly in the outdoors—had been on Honnold’s brain for a long time. He says:

I felt like I should be donating money to support environmental causes in some way

As a dirtbag climber who lived in his Ford Econoline van, Honnold’s overhead costs were minimal. When his paychecks from sponsors began to add up, he calculated that he was making much more than he needed to live comfortably. But exactly how or where he planned to funnel his money wouldn’t become apparent to him until 2010. That’s the year he traveled to the heart of Africa for a North Face expedition to explore unclimbed spires in Chad.

Doing something—but what?

At this point in his career, climbing had become a vehicle for Honnold to explore destinations all across the globe, yet his time spent in Africa was eye-opening. It’s one thing to read about a billion people living without access to electricity, but it’s another to see it firsthand.

Venturing out to climbing spots in the middle of nowhere, Honnold and his crew were often greeted by the local children. Cheerily they ran barefoot through the sand and sharp brambles around the team. Staring at their feet, Honnold realized that many of these kids will likely never walk on smooth pavement. Shoes weren’t the only thing they went without, they also lacked access to power. At night they utilized kerosene lanterns, a much costlier and dangerous alternative. For some families, the fuel costs are at least 25% of the household income, which makes simple tasks like studying for school an expense many families can’t afford. On top of the costs, these lanterns emit toxic fumes that equate to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

This time spent in Chad would serve as a springboard for Honnold’s approach to environmentalism. Honnold explains:

There’s no point supporting environmental causes that don’t support standards of living to help people

“Global communities don’t care about the environment if their own needs aren’t met.” In order to do something impactful, he needed a solution that could address both global inequality and climate change. For the next two years, he stewed on the idea, unsure how to proceed. Driving home from a climbing trip with a friend and fellow climber Maury Birdwell, the pieces fell into place. Birdwell, who was fresh out of law school, intently listened to Honnold’s charitable goals for the future. Keen on finding a meaningful project to become involved with, Birdwell suggested they should collaborate. From that car ride, the two joined forces, and voila —The Honnold Foundation was born.

Solar energy access is a social justice issue. These tools are instrumental in increasing tribal sovereignty, economic resiliency, and getting kids in school. Patrick Bentley Photo.  

Originally, they thought to create a small charitable organization of their own, but that didn’t play well to their strengths. With Honnold’s growing presence in the outdoor community and their ability to fundraise, they realized that their energy was better used supporting pre-existing work.

It’s best to think of the organization as an intermediary between donors and nonprofits all around the globe. “We want to fund work all over the world, particularly where people need it the most. We trust our nonprofit partners because they’re embedded in these communities,” explains Dory Trimble, the Foundation’s Executive Director. That’s the beauty of the Foundation. A donation can help both families in California and Malawi while fighting climate change.

Discovering Solar

Honnold is a bookworm, and his reading list is a testament to this. Most of his rest days from climbing or traveling are spent with a book in his hand. Because of this insatiable appetite for reading, he discovered that solar power was a natural bridge between global poverty and climate change.

The perception around solar is often limited to the stereotypical photovoltaic system fastened to rooftops, but it actually can take on many other forms. After seeing the work that Solar Aid was doing, Honnold realized that this same technology can be compacted and repurposed for places like Chad. Those pesky kerosene lanterns can be replaced by small solar lamps. It’s an effective solution for not just Chad, but other energy-deprived countries like Malawi, Uganda, and Zambia. Suddenly activities like studying late at night for exams are no longer luxuries, but normal parts of a family routine. As a result, Solar Aid became the first project the Honnold Foundation backed. The international charity, which works throughout Africa, touches over 10 million lives by providing clean alternatives to energy. Their goal is to distribute solar lamps to families in some of the most remote areas of the continent, and by doing so they start the process of electrification—while avoiding the harmful consumption of fossil fuels. “Right now there are a billion of people on earth who don’t have access to power at all. So if those billion people can skip straight to where they need to be by 2050 to meet the Paris Agreement. Well, that’s great for everybody,” Honnold says.

Honnold partnered with Elephant Energy in 2014 to expand solar entrepreneurship into the Kayenta region of the Navajo Nation. Cedar Wright Media.  

Now after five years of supporting solar-focused projects, the Foundation has made its mission explicit: using solar as an environmentally sound solution to address global poverty. In addition to Solar Aid, they also support GRID Alternatives and the Solar Energy Foundation. They also lent a huge helping hand to Arizona’s Northern Navajo Solar Entrepreneurs—you might remember this if you’ve seen the movie Sufferfest.

Solar is cheap, clean, and most importantly, can be applied in a variety of ways. Take GRID Alternatives, their goal is about more than just installing 9,500 solar systems for low-income families—even though that alone will offset 820,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Not only do people in need benefit from reduced utility bills, but the people who are assisting with the work have the chance for upward mobility. “Part of this is what I’m also personally inspired by—there’s a ton of other worthy causes like access to clean water or reforestation that can help the world. But for whatever reason, I think solar is the most compelling,” the climber explains.

That doesn’t come as a surprise coming from an individual who was once fully dependent on his own off-grid house.

“Anyone who spends time in the backcountry, you or one of your friends has a solar panel,” explains Trimble. From charging our equipment to using it as the power source for our tiny adventure homes, the outdoor community has steadily become well acquainted with the benefits of solar. Plus, as recreationists, caring for the outdoors goes hand and hand with spending time outside. “There’s a lot of space to think more broadly about environmental impact and the ways in which the decisions we make affect other people’s lives. Solar is a through the back door way to address all those questions at the same time,” says Trimble.

The Foundation is Growing, with Alex

The Art Center employees are far too polite . Sanni McCandless, Honnold’s girlfriend, comes to their rescue and notifies that we’re keeping them from going home. Honnold and I frantically grab our things and scurry outside. We exchange goodbyes and they’re off. Honnold will score one more powder-filled day on the mountain before resuming his worldwide tour for Free Solo that next evening. Still, despite the success, it’s a lot to juggle. Thankfully, the Foundation has grown too. It now encompasses a small but dedicated team. Put plainly, the whole crew—board members Maury Birdwell, Brittany Gibbons, and Trimble who’s the only full-time employee—is equivalent to a philanthropic Justice League. On top of saving the world, they’re also avid outdoor adventurers in their own right. Trimble says:

It’s also been crazy because we’re growing with Alex

 When she first started they didn’t even have an Instagram account, and now they’re up to 40,000 followers . Free Solo changed a lot. “We can provide our partners with access to our platform. A lot of people we work with don’t know anyone who has a million Instagram followers...but Alex does,” she says with a laugh. Honnold’s success has only amplified their capabilities, particularly in sharing the stories of their partners. It’s a powerful tool to have at their disposal since their mission is to help facilitate the work of their partners.

Trimble and Honnold talking logistics at the crag. The nice thing about not having a formal office is you can have your meetings anywhere. Shawn Corrigan Photo.  

Even with the Free Solo movie madness, the Foundation is much like the Econoline van that Honnold once called home. They don’t even have an office. Instead, their expenses are minimal, which streamlines everything so that the bulk of the money they take in goes straight to their partners. Moving forward they’re still looking for new partners. 

They’re particularly excited about finding cool projects in the Americas—especially looking at work with indigenous communities to help facilitate energy sovereignty. Equally, they’re hoping to connect with more like-minded individuals within the outdoor industry and potentially grow the Foundation into a kind of carbon offset program. For instance, if you flew somewhere for a climbing trip here’s a way to counteract that action.

As for Honnold, he still tries to be present where he can, even with his busy schedule. “People are surprised how involved Alex is and how excited he gets about the work. It’s really common for founders to be pretty hands-off, but Alex is passionate about this stuff,” Trimble says. There’s even a running joke amongst the crew that he wants to be Grid Alternatives. He’s not just all talk either, Honnold shows up to site visits and gets his hands dirty. “It shifts conversations in the outdoor industry away from just sending the gnar to something meaningful and that can make an impact,” Trimble explains. Whether it be installing solar panels in Sacramento, California or handing out solar lanterns in Malawi. It might not be as grandiose as scaling El Capitan—but it matters just as much.

Here’s how you can get involved:

1. Host the Honnold Foundation at your climbing gym or event

2. Volunteer with one of the  Honnold Foundation’s partners

3. Set up a  recurring donation of any amount—even as little as $1 dollar a month makes a difference. 

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