The Free Solo climber hosts a new three-part series on National Geographic
Alex Honnold is famous for approaching deadly challenges with great care and study. The 2018 documentary Free Solo captured the months of physical training and move-by-move analysis he undertook before his historic free climb of El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park. For the new National Geographic three-part series Arctic Ascent with Alex Honnold, he faced an even more daunting set of challenges—starting with pronouncing the name of his target, Ingmikortilaq.
“It’s Ing-mi-kor-till-ack,” Honnold enunciates, sounding out the Greenlandic name (meaning “the separate one”) of the 3,750-foot gneiss wall that he and a small crew of climbers and scientists set out to scale in 2022. “It took us just about the entire expedition to learn how to say it.”
As viewers will find, the expedition wasn’t only for Honnold’s personal glory; it was also for scientific research. “If you’re going to put a lot of effort into a first ascent, you may as well do it somewhere that really matters,” he explains. “Greenland is so important for climate change.”
The trip began with a dinghy ride to the base of the Pool Wall, which Honnold, climbers Hazel Findlay and Mikey Schaefer, French glaciologist Dr. Heïdi Sevestre, TV adventurer Aldo Kane, and Greenland-based guide Adam Kjeldsen ascended during a snowstorm. Then began a days-long trek over the Renland Ice Cap, dragging toboggans packed with provisions and equipment, as they made their way toward Ingmikortilaq, a trapezoidal spire of 3-million-year-old rock that rises from the icy waters of the Nordvestfjord. It’s one of the tallest walls ever climbed—three times the height of the Empire State Building—and possibly the most difficult. “As soon as we saw it, we knew it would be tough,” Honnold says. “The things that make it so beautiful and striking—the folding stripes of gneiss, the different-colored layers—are red flags for rock quality.” The ascent would take several days, in ferocious weather, on a crumbly face that turned every foothold into a crapshoot.
Of course, for Honnold, as for any climber, the fundamental appeal of the challenge was Ingmikortilaq’s size. “I mean, you just don’t find 4,000-foot cliffs jutting straight out of the ocean like that,” he says. “It’s really, really big. It’s just, like…” he laughs. “It’s just insanely big.”