Honnold Reaches for a Handhold

Famous rock climber scales the heights of Urby

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Photos courtesy of the National Geographic
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Photo of Urby by Ewout Huibers
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Alex Honnold free solo climbing on El Capitan's Freerider in Yosemite National Park.
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Photos courtesy of the National Geographic
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Photo of Urby by Ewout Huibers
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Alex Honnold free solo climbing on El Capitan's Freerider in Yosemite National Park.
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Alex Honnold is a world-renowned professional rock climber best known for free soloing the 3,000- foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Free soloing is climbing that is performed without ropes or a safety harness. During climbs like these, one wrong move or a crumbling bit of stone could potentially mean death, but Honnold has completed more than a thousand free solo climbs.

Not every ascent takes place in the vast wilderness. Urban free solo climbing can offer unique city views. In San Francisco, Honnold climbed the Palace of Fine Arts in the Financial District, but local governments and building owners often object to giving Honnold access because of the serious risks associated with free soloing.

One day, Honnold was complaining about this problem with an acquaintance while vacationing with a group in Montana. That acquaintance was Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.

“It came up in conversation,” says Fulop, who shares mutual friends with Honnold. “He said he sometimes struggles with getting permits and whatnot. We started talking about maybe facilitating introductions for him.”

When brainstorming potential buildings, one came to Fulop’s mind immediately; the Jersey City Urby. “It just is one of the more significant architectural buildings on the waterfront,” Fulop says.

Honnold was drawn to the building as well. “This is totally changing my opinion of New Jersey,” he told Charles Bethea of The New Yorker.

The Urby Aesthetic

The Jersey City Urby looks like a tower of staggered building blocks that jut out on one side and then the other. It gives the dizzying impression that it could topple over at any moment. Bethea compared it to “a rickety tower of Jenga blocks.”  Of course the 69-floor luxury building is stable and safe. Residents enjoy sweeping city views. The building went up two years ago.  “I mean, the architecture is great,” Fulop says. “That was really the first one I thought of and the one that he liked the most.”

Next, Fulop spoke to building developer David Barry to see what he thought of the idea. “He was receptive right away, so I connected them,” Fulop says. The pair didn’t hesitate to let Honnold make the climb. “Ultimately he is the best in the world, and he felt comfortable,” Fulop says. “If you look at other things that he climbed, this is not the hardest of the bunch. He knows his boundaries, and he’s obviously very in tune with that.”

Honnold visited Jersey City to inspect the building to see if it was suitable for climbing. Barry and Honnold worked out a legal agreement. A month later, Honnold came back to Jersey City a second time for the real thing, climbing at night with little fanfare besides some precautionary emergency services. “We were there with the police making sure that it would be safe,” Fulop says.

Honnold avoided climbing past units that still had their lights on so that he wouldn’t startle residents. It was just after midnight on a Thursday night, and plenty of folks were still awake. Honnold quickly scaled the first nine stories and paused on the building’s terrace. Next, despite recent rainfall, he ascended the rest of the building at a speed of just a few minutes per floor with nothing but hand chalk to help his grip.

No Biggie

Honnold has such a casual attitude toward dangerous climbs that his nickname is Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold. His adventures in climbing have won him sponsorships from The North Face, Black Diamond, and Stride Health. He has been profiled by The New York Times and 60 Minutes. He also starred in the Emmy- nominated documentary Alone on the Wall.

Honnold is currently busy with his newly released documentary film Free Solo. The National Geographic movie follows Honnold as he becomes the first person ever to perform a free solo climb of the over 3,000-foot El Capitan Wall in Yosemite National Park. The New York Times called the climb, which took Honnold under four hours, “one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever.” The film has fascinated audiences around the world.

“I thought it was good for Jersey City to have an athlete like that visit,” Fulop says. “It promoted Jersey City, the documentary, and the skyline so it was a win win.”—JCM