November 13, 2015

Expedition Honnold

Founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, says “Adventure starts when things go wrong”. Leading up to my interview with Alex Honnold, perhaps the most well-known guest I will ever have on MtnMeister, I wanted anything but an adventure. Yet, you don’t always get to choose when adventure strikes.

Expedition Honnold

Itinerary

10:30pm (night before interview): Arrive in NYC at my base camp on the lower east side
7:00am – 10:00am: Finalize notes for interview on laptop
10:30am – 11:30am: Explore base camp and run around to release nerves
11:30am – 12:30pm: Pack, prepare for summit bid (500 5th Ave in Midtown Manhattan)

Gear List

Osprey Stratos 24L Pack (10 lbs)

MtnMeister album artwork blown up on a 30×30 canvas

27-inch iMac and all other recording equipment in the iMac’s box (36x30x12, 70lbs)

12:45pm (1.25 hours until turnaround time, 2.5 miles to summit)

There are a few ways that one can travel from the lower east side to the summit of midtown Manhattan. Typically I prefer to travel light and fast – biking would take around 15 to 20 minutes and trekking around 45. However, because this was a commercial expedition I was forced to hire an Uber-porter to help me transport my gear.

The Uber-porter meets me on the lower east side at my basecamp, and we work together to fit the 70lb gear box in the back seat of his Toyota Camry. We planned to access the summit via FDR Drive North route and negotiating the 42nd St. ridge. If you follow that ridge, eventually you reach the Grand Central Terminal. If conditions are clear, you can proceed through the 42nd St ridge. Otherwise you can use various other routes to avoid congestion. Many trekkers choose to go directly through the Grand Central Terminal, but that exposes you to additional risk and technical terrain – not part of our agenda. After that, you cross 5th Ave, enter #500, and there’s one final push to the 6th floor summit. In this case, our commercial expedition would access it via freight elevator.

The FDR Drive North route went as planned, but trouble struck almost immediately at the 42nd St ridge. On the topo maps I had studied the days before, 1pm mid-town traffic on the eastern side was not supposed to be this bad. The beta I received from others who attempted this route also said that it should be smooth sailing. I looked at Google Maps and was shocked to see something that resembled this:

Expedition Honnold

1:15pm (45 minutes until turnaround time, 0.6 miles to summit)

We had barely made our way through two pitches on the 42 St ridge over the course of 15 minutes. What was going on? Is this the storm of the century? Where is the epicenter? I ask the Uber-porter what is going on:

Me: What’s all of this traffic?
Uber-porter: Veteran’s Day Parade
Me: Oh. (thinking ARE YOU KIDDING ME? DID YOU KNOW ABOUT THIS?)

After 15 seconds of stand-still traffic…

Me: Where is it?
Uber-porter: 5th Ave
Me: That’s where I’m going. (thinking SHOULDN’T YOU HAVE TOLD ME THAT WHEN I TOLD YOU “500 5TH AVE?”)
Uber-porter: Yeah, that’s going to take us a long time.
Me: Is there another route?
Uber-porter: We could try to go up to 45th and go around Grand Central.
Me: Yeah, let’s do that.

We attempt the alternate route, but it’s more of the same. We make it to 44th and 3rd before it’s bumper to bumper again.

1:20 (40 minutes until turnaround time, 0.5 miles to summit)

Me: Should I get out?
Uber-porter: Probably, but how are you going to carry all of that stuff?
Me: No idea.

I get out of the car and deadlift the 70lb gear box out of the back seat, put it on the side of the road, and go back to the Uber to get the Osprey pack and blown up MtnMeister album artwork. I would normally be worried about leaving a huge iMac box on the side of the street in NYC, but with the other recording equipment filling up the extra space in the box, it’s way too heavy for anyone to steal. In fact, the box is so heavy that I have to reinforce the weaker points with duct tape to keep it together. I carry around the roll of duct tape in the Osprey pack just in case.

Up until this point, I hadn’t been forced to carry all of the gear at once. When I arrived at base camp the night before, I was able to shuttle the Osprey pack, album artwork, and 70lb gear box in separate trips. Same deal in getting the gear from the base camp to the Uber. Now I was stuck in mid-town having to figure out a way to carry them all at once. There’s a handle on the top of the 70lb gear box which is meant to hold the normal weight of the iMac. When I have all of the extra gear in it, I try to avoid putting stress on the handle (and the duct tape reinforcements) so I carry it in my arms, similar to how a firefighter would carry someone out of a burning building. That wasn’t an option here because I had chosen to take the blown up MtnMeister artwork along for the ride. My only choice was to use the handle on the gear box with one arm, awkwardly hold the MtnMeister artwork with my other arm, and carry the Osprey pack on my back.

1:23 (37 minutes until turnaround time, 0.5 miles to summit)

Have you ever carried something so heavy and awkward that the weight of the item seems to pull you forward and you take a bunch of small steps until you have to take a break? Not sure if this happens to other people, but my upper lip tends to rise and I make a snarling face. That’s what was happening here. I’d move forward about 20 meters, snarl, drop both items, and switch the iMac box to the arm that was previously carrying the album artwork (and vice versa).

1:30 (30 minutes until turnaround time, 0.45 miles to summit)

I realize there is no way that I’m going to manage this by myself. I need to find another porter. I ask the bellhop at the “Grand Central Hotel”. He laughs. I see a man with who is shuttling supplies out of a truck on a dolly into…THE GRAND CENTRAL TERMINAL. I chase after this guy, thinking that if I could catch him he might let me use the dolly. Worst case, I can try to cut through the Grand Central Terminal – it’s risky but also a more direct route to the summit.

The smooth marble floor of the Grand Central Terminal was delightful. I was able to put the heavy box on the ground and push it, similar to this:

I catch up to the man with the dolly and tell him I will pay him $20 to either let me use the dolly or come with me to 42nd and 5th. He says he can’t, he has to deliver more things.

1:35 (25 minutes until turnaround time, 0.35 miles to summit)

I continue to bull-rush the iMac through the Grand Central Terminal past all of the trekkers. A man stops me:

Man: “Can I have a dollar for my bus ticket?”
Me: (Dripping sweat) No, but you can have $20 if you help me carry this box.

All of a sudden the bus ticket becomes much less important to the man. He looks at the box and turns to me with an expression of someone ready to go to battle. This man will help me achieve my summit.

Man: “Where we goin’?”
Me: 42nd and 5th. We need to hurry.

I show him the strategy of pushing the box and he goes to work. I carry his rolling suitcase, the album artwork, and the Osprey pack. We make our way through Grand Central which is even more packed than usual. Conditions continue to deteriorate and the man starts to slow down. We alternate jobs of bull rushing the box until we reach the exit. The man’s expression has changed from determination to defeat.

Man: I’m 50 years old, I can’t do this.
Me: You’re quitting on me? You aren’t getting paid.
Man: You can’t do that! Give me my money!
Me: I’ll give you $5 or you help me finish the expedition.

1:40 (20 minutes until turnaround time, 0.2 miles to summit)

I knew I had cash in my wallet but I wasn’t sure what the bills were. Fortunately when I opened it to show him his options, the two bills were a $5 and a $20. This visual representation was what he needed. The man begins to assume a leadership role. Now that we had passed the smooth marble terrain of Grand Central, we were back to the rough, chossy concrete on the streets. The man suggests we put the heavy box on top of the rolling suitcase to create a makeshift dolly. Genius. He begins to act, but I won’t let him. I want to be the one responsible if something breaks. I precariously place the heavy box on top of the much lighter and smaller suitcase. The man grabs the album artwork like a shield.

Man: I’ll clear the way.

We trek across the 42nd street ridge, with the man yelling “Look out! Coming through!” I walk backwards while pulling the makeshift dolly and balancing the iMac box on top. The man gives me directions when we approach curbs, scaffolding, and other technical terrain all while he clears the way with the MtnMeister shield (great PR for the podcast). We reach 5th Ave.

1:45 (15 minutes until turnaround time, 150 feet and an elevator to summit)

The conditions were relentless on 5th Ave. High school marching bands rained down. Floats and military vehicles passed through while a crowd five-deep cheered on. The man used the MtnMeister shield to get through the crowd, where fortunately there was a crosswalk and access to cross the street when the traffic guards paused the movement of the parade.

We find 500 5th Ave and enter the building. At this point, both of us are on the brink of delirium. We approach a man at the front desk who looks thoroughly confused at who came bolting through his door: one person carrying a piece of canvas podcast artwork as a shield, the other with an iMac box on top of a rolling suitcase, both drenched in sweat. I give my savior $25 and thank him for his help. He didn’t have to, but he stayed to make sure the job was complete. The front desk man tells us we need to use the alternate entrance for the freight elevator. Committed to the job, my savior helps me find the alternate entrance and we part ways as I take the freight elevator to the summit.

1:51 (9 minutes until we go live)

Soaking wet, I walk into our interview room to see a camera man, Honnold’s publicist, another production person, and Honnold, who was signing books – at least 3 stacks of 25 each. I apologize and briefly explain the trouble.

Honnold: Wait, so you paid a homeless person to help you carry all of that stuff? That’s badass!

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that (I’m not sure if he was homeless – just a man down for an adventure). Alex looked busy so I started setting everything up. Less than 10 minutes until go-time, and the setup of technology wasn’t exactly easy. After Honnold was done talking to the Huffington Post, he helped me log into Google Hangouts to get the live-stream set up. Everything was somehow working out.

2:03 (3 minutes past turnaround time)

The set comes together and I ask Honnold to press the button to start the Hangout. He does and we see the front facing video of our set. We awkwardly say hello and welcome everyone, and I try to compose myself after everything that happened in the last half hour. I realize that my updated interview notes are on my laptop in the Osprey pack. I’ll have to make do with the old stuff on the iMac.

3:00

We finish up the interview, which was rough at first but got better as time went on. The audience Q&A was fun because we would look at the camera and make jokes to the people who were watching live…or so we thought. Alex presses the button to turn off the hangout, and we simultaneously realize that we needed to press that button to take the video live. The five-seconds of video that captures Alex saying “Dude, the live never worked. That’s so fucked!” pretty much sums it up.

Fucked indeed. Fortunately we got the audio, which is what MtnMeister does best. Sincere apologies to the audience and to Alex for the missing live stream. Interviewing Alex Honnold was a cool experience and a big move for the podcast. I wish the interview would have gone better – I’m confident it would have had I been there on time – but I wouldn’t trade it for this hilarious experience. The moments that define an adventure are the ones that you don’t expect. I took one picture throughout this whole fiasco. This is how I will remember Expedition Honnold and I offer great thanks to this man.

Expedition Honnold

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