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The pros next door: Las Vegas has become home base for rock climbing’s new wave

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Alex Honnold and Sanni McCandless
Photo: Wade Vandervort

The greatest rock climber of our generation lives in an anonymous house in west Las Vegas. If that’s a surprise to you, it’s even more of a surprise to Alex Honnold, the 32-year-old adventurer who has spent the past decade sleeping in a van and jetting off to distant locales.

“I never thought I’d live in suburbia,” Honnold muses. But this one has been pretty perfect for him—and for a growing group of climbers who are choosing Las Vegas for its nearby mountains and international airport, low cost-of-living and year-round outdoor access.

Polite and unassuming, Honnold stands in his front yard and points out his favorite peaks on the horizon. “That’s the one I climbed when I was so angsty,” he says, motioning to Red Rock Canyon’s 1,200-foot Rainbow Wall, which he ascended “free solo”—that’s sans ropes or safety equipment—on a whim while going through a breakup. (He detailed the experience in his 2015 memoir Alone on the Wall.)

If you’ve spotted his compact frame at the grocery store or the mall, you might not guess that Honnold is the only person ever to free solo El Capitan, a daunting 3,000-foot rock face at California’s Yosemite National Park. Beyond his calloused hands, the only giveaway is the tricked-out 2016 Dodge Ram ProMaster cargo van parked in the driveway.

During the past year, Honnold and his climber girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, spent months living the #vanlife and traveling through California, Wyoming and the Pacific Northwest. Most recently, Honnold returned from a six-week climbing adventure in Antarctica. For her part, McCandless runs her own business as “transition coach for outdoor-focused individuals who want to create more tailored, intentional lifestyles.” It allows her to live the life she teaches.

While the couple still keep up their itinerant “dirtbag” adventurer lifestyle, they purchased a house last March near Red Rock and some of the best climbing in the nation. According to Honnold, the neighbors were surprised to learn that those mountains could even be climbed. A housemate waters the plants while the two are gone, but today, the famous white van is parked in the driveway.

‘The cliffs of ill repute’

“It was a really small climbing community when I moved here, an intimate scene where everybody was friends,” says climber Stephanie Forte, who came to Las Vegas in the late ’90s for the “quality and abundance” of the rocks. “You had the crag to yourself. It was a place to go to find solitude.”

Until about 10 years ago, Southern Nevada remained that hidden gem. In true Vegas fashion, the seclusion was born of scorn. Blame it on a sense of tribalism (the cool kids preferred Colorado); a tiff about the creation of rock holds (ours were too fake); and perhaps the Sin City stigma (headlamps and sequins don’t mix), but we were the outcasts.

“Las Vegas was sort of the ‘cliffs of ill-repute’ in the collective consciousness of American climbing,” says climber and UNLV philosophy professor Bill Ramsey. He moved here from Notre Dame in 2007, in large part to shave nearly 400 miles off his commute to the crag. “Anyhow, that’s all in the past,” Ramsey says. “People from Colorado climb here all the time and love it; people from here go there, and we are all good friends. … Now people realize [Vegas] is the No. 1 large city in North America for varied, year-round, world-class climbing.”

While Las Vegas was gaining acceptance, the activity was going mainstream. Climbing gyms breed new climbers, and they’ve been popping up everywhere, even in low-lying areas, like Houston. Honnold compares it to the proliferation of skateboarding. “It started super-fringey, and then every little kid has their own skateboard,” Honnold says. He hopes to attend the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as a commentator. It will be the first time climbing will be included.

‘Climb like a girl’

Though camaraderie is a big part of climbing culture, Stephanie Forte met resistance when she first joined the male-dominated sport. “It was brutal in the ’90s,” Forte says. “There weren’t a lot of women climbing, and there was this idea when you’d show up at the crag of, ‘Where’s your boyfriend?’”

The famous female climbers, like Lynn Hill, were in a league of their own, Forte recalls. But as a self-described regular girl with hoop earrings, Forte encountered a mind-set of, “maybe the route is not that hard, because she did it.”

Forte encountered such prejudice when she ascended a particularly challenging route at Mount Charleston called Soul Train. Previously featured on the cover of climbing magazines, it was rated a 5.14a (5.0 is a ladder, 5.15 an overhanging cliff). She climbed the route on Thanksgiving Day 1999; it got “downrated” to 5.13d in early 2000.

“Most people could get one finger in the holds; I could get three,” Forte says, explaining how she would turn her small size into an advantage through determination, ingenuity and persistence. “‘Climb like a girl’ means use good technique,” Forte says, so it stung when her accomplishment was devalued. “I was not famous, and I am female, so those two factors brought the grade into question.”

To cope, Forte and the few other female climbers formed a sisterhood. She still remembers how they offered moral support, while the men would automatically discount her ability. “I always felt it was us against the guys,” says Forte, often underestimated due to her diminutive 5-foot stature.

One such “sister” is climber Roxanna Brock. Then living in Las Vegas, she was featured, along with Forte, in the 2001 documentary A Day in the Life: Five Women Who Climb.

“It’s become so important for me to climb with other women,” a then-33-year-old Brock says in the film. “We really have so much to offer each other. The guys, they can’t offer it to us. We can help each other, and we can all be really good rock climbers.”

Nearly two decades later, the two women are still good friends and climb together when they can.

Since he started climbing 42 years ago, Bill Ramsey says he has seen attitudes toward women improve. “Rock climbing has always been an unusually congenial sport with regard to women—even when my father was climbing in the ’50s,” he says. “Why? Because there have always been these kick-ass women in the sport who regularly outperform and out-tough the vast majority of men.”

Alex Honnold agrees. “Climbing is fundamentally more equal than most sports since so much of it is skill-based rather than purely physical,” he says.

Vegas’ next generation

Brea Chipman (left) and Molly Mitchell at the Refuge Climbing and Fitness.

During her early 20s, pro climber Molly Mitchell went for the death-defying stuff. The forced focus of, say, making sure she didn’t hit the ground from a 40-foot height, calmed her anxiety. Now, at the ripe age of 24 and with Adidas as a sponsor, she’s learning how to become “completely present” without the “fear factor.”

Her goals for the new year are to climb more 5.14-rated routes and do more first-female ascents. She also coaches a kids competition team at The Refuge Climbing & Fitness, which she says is the best power-up for her own climbing. “When I’m watching the kids get so motivated to train, I realize that can give it more, give it my hardest. To see those ‘ah-ha’ moments is super-inspiring.”

Like many others, Mitchell moved from Colorado to Las Vegas after falling in love with the desert during a visit. “Not many pro climbers are born and raised in Vegas,” she says. “But now we have a shot at that. The kids I coach … people should watch out for them.”

One is 14-year-old Brea Chipman, a Las Vegas native who started climbing at age 7. The high school freshman balances student council and a love of math with a serious rock climbing training schedule (two hours, four times a week). On weekends, she goes outdoors with her family, bouldering at Red Rock or even ice climbing with her dad.

Chipman has a dance background, and her flexibility—including the ability to do an over-extended split—is one of her strengths as a climber. She’s training for sport-climbing competitions, with the goals of getting sponsorships, possibly going pro and coaching when she’s older. If that trajectory seems familiar, it’s because Chipman sees Mitchell as a mentor and role model.

“She’s basically like my older sister,” Chipman says about her sometime coach. “Molly has had so much experience and training. We’ve gone through a lot of the same things. Whenever I’m climbing, she’s somebody I want to make proud.”

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