November 13, 2015

Expedition Honnold

“For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.”

This quote, by the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, is one of the many “Chouinard-isms” that outdoor enthusiasts treasure. Chouinard has become somewhat of an idol in outdoor sports. While many titans of industry inspire their followers to sleep less and work more, Chouinard inspires his to sleep on the ground and eat cat food to save money for what really matters.

Admittedly, the quote is a bit overused by adventure junkies. People recite it as a way of reframing a small obstacle, like when it starts to rain on a hike and your optimistic friend Danny says: “Well, adventure starts when things go wrong!” I don’t have a problem with this approach, but I think Chouinard was going for a more aggressive version: adventure starts when Danny is crying, or at least at the point when he can no longer quote the founder of Patagonia because there are more important things to deal with. The quote is fun in hindsight, but in the moment, you want nothing to do with it.

This version of adventure – the in-the-moment catastrophe, now cherished memory – manifested itself in an unexpected way in my life, when I had the opportunity to interview perhaps the most well-known guest I would ever have on MtnMeister: Alex Honnold.

Expedition Honnold

The word expedition normally brings to mind the remote wilderness, not New York City, the setting of Expedition Honnold and the least remote place on earth. They do share some surprising similarities, though. The surge of confidence that you experience when successfully traversing a ridge isn’t unlike that of moving efficiently through city blocks, perfectly timing each walk sign to zig-zag to your destination without stopping once. When things are going well for you, you seamlessly move through the landscape. You rock. You are in control. Life really isn’t that hard.

When things go wrong, however, you quickly realize how much is out of your control. At the top of the mountain, Mother Nature makes the decisions; in the Big Apple, when things deviate from the equilibrium, the compounding effect of millions of people behaving differently leaves you helpless.

Welcome to Expedition Honnold.

Expedition Honnold Itinerary

10:30pm (night before interview): Arrive in NYC at my base camp on the Lower East Side
7:00am – 10:00am: Finish notes for interview
10:30am – 11:30am: Explore base camp and run around to release nerves
11:30am – 12:30pm: Pack, prepare for summit attempt (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 interview

2.5 miles to summit

There are a few ways that one can travel from the Expedition Honnold base camp, the Lower East Side, to the summit, Midtown Manhattan. I would prefer to travel light and fast – biking would take around 15 to 20 minutes and walking around 45 – but since this is a gear-heavy commercial expedition, I have hired a porter (an Uber) to help me transport everything.

Our plan is to reach the summit via FDR Drive North route and cross the 42nd St. ridge to 500 5th Ave. If we follow the ridge west from the East River, eventually we’ll reach the Grand Central Terminal, which is the last big obstacle before the final push to the summit. Many trekkers choose to go directly through the Grand Central Terminal, but we’ll drive around it since I have nearly 100 lbs of gear in awkwardly shaped vessels. Once we reach 500 5th Ave., I’ll shuttle all of the gear into a freight elevator and ascend to the 6th floor summit.

As planned, the Uber-porter meets me on the Lower East Side at my basecamp, and we work together to fit the 70lb iMac box in the back seat of his Toyota Camry. The FDR Drive North route goes as planned, but trouble strikes almost immediately at the 42nd St ridge. On the maps I had studied in the days leading up to Expedition Honnold, 1pm traffic on the eastern side was not supposed to be this bad. I look at Google Maps and am shocked to see something that resembles this:

1:15pm

45 minutes until turnaround time

0.6 miles to summit

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

Me: What’s all of this traffic?
Uber-porter: Veteran’s Day Parade
Me: Oh.

15 seconds of stand-still traffic.

Me: Where is it?
Uber-porter: 5th Ave
Me: Um, that’s where I’m going.
Uber-porter: Yeah, that’s going to take us a long time.
Me: Do you think you should have told me that earlier?

15 more seconds of stand-still traffic.

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.

1:20PM

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 the 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 all of the other recording equipment filling up the extra space in the box (in addition to the 27-inch iMac), it’s way too heavy for anyone to steal. In fact, the box is so heavy that I had 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, MtnMeister artwork, and 70lb iMac box in separate trips. Same deal with getting the gear from base camp to the Uber. Now I was stuck in Midtown having to figure out a way to carry all of them once. There’s a handle on the top of the iMac box which is meant to hold the normal weight of the iMac, but with all of the extra stuff inside, I have been trying to avoid using that handle. Until now, I have carried it in my arms, similar to how a firefighter would carry someone out of a burning building. That’s no longer an option because the blown up MtnMeister artwork is along for the ride. At this point, my only choice is to carry it with the handle, then awkwardly grab the much lighter MtnMeister artwork with my other arm and carry the Osprey pack on my back.

1:23PM

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? Also, not sure if this happens to other people, but my upper lip tends to rise and I make a snarling face. That’s what’s happening here. I move forward about 20 meters, snarl, drop both items, and switch the iMac box to the arm that was previously carrying the album artwork.

1:30PM

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 to help me. I ask the bellhop at the Grand Central Hotel. He laughs. I see a man with who is moving supplies out of a truck with 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.

I reach the smooth marble floor of the Grand Central Terminal, which is delightful. I put the heavy box on the ground and push it, like 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 to come with me to 42nd and 5th. He says he can’t, he has to deliver more things.

1:35PM

25 minutes until turnaround time

0.35 miles to summit

I continue to bull-rush the iMac through Grand Central Terminal, parting the swarms of oncoming people like Moses and the Red Sea. As strange as this scene may seem, New Yorkers have a high tolerance for bizarreness, and no one seems to be paying much attention to me, except for one person, who decides that I’m a good target for donating funds to his bus ticket. Yes, out of all of the people in Grand Central, he picks the person that is sprinting a duct tape-reinfornced iMac box across the floor.

Man: “Can I have a dollar for my bus ticket?”
Me: (Dripping sweat) Uh, what? No. Wait! 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, then turns to me with an expression of someone ready to go to battle. This is the man that 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, so we alternate jobs of bull-rushing the box until we reach the exit. I look at my partner, and a sense of worry sweeps through me when I notice that 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 now, or you can get the full $20 if you help me finish the expedition.

1:40PM

20 minutes until turnaround time

0.2 miles to summit

The man doesn’t answer me. I know I have cash in my wallet but I’m not sure how much, nor the denominations. By some stroke of luck, I open it up to reveal two bills: a $5 and a $20. This visual representation uncovers a new source of motivation for the man, and he assumes a leadership role.

Now that we have finished the smooth marble floors of Grand Central, we are back to the rough, chossy concrete on the streets. We briefly attempt to push the box in the same manner, but it’s obvious that this is not only more difficult, but the friction will soon disintegrate the cardboard. The man suggests we put the heavy box on top of his rolling suitcase to create a makeshift dolly. Genius. He begins to act, but I don’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 suitcase is so light that I’m pretty sure there’s nothing in it. Who is this guy and where was he going on his bus? No time to think about that.

The man grabs the album artwork like a shield.

Man: I’ll clear the way.

We trek across 42nd street, and the man yells, “Look out! Coming through!” as 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.

1:45PM

15 minutes until turnaround time

150 feet and an elevator to summit

The conditions were relentless on 5th Ave. High school marching bands. Floats. Military vehicles. A crowd five-deep.

The man uses the MtnMeister shield to get through the crowd, and fortunately there’s a crosswalk where traffic guards occasionally pause the movement of the parade to allow people to get to the other side of Manhattan.

We find 500 5th Ave and enter the building. Both of us are on the brink of delirium. From the psychological stress and the physical toll of the last 30 minutes, I find that my entire collared shirt is drenched with sweat, even though it is 35 degrees outside. We approach a man at the front desk who looks thoroughly confused at who came bolting through the lobby 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. I give my savior $25 and thank him for his help, but the front desk man tells us we need to use the alternate entrance, which is back outside and around the corner. My savior, committed to his job, helps me find it, and I wave goodbye as I ascend the freight elevator to the summit.

1:51PM

9 minutes until we go live

Soaking wet, I walk into our interview room to a camera man, Honnold’s publicist, another production person, and Honnold, who is 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 or just a man down for an adventure). Alex looks busy, and I have to set up the podcast studio in less than 10 minutes when I had originally allocated an hour. After Honnold is done talking to the Huffington Post, he helps me log into Google Hangouts to get the live-stream set up. Everything is somehow working out, but the set is janky to say the least. My seat is quite far from the closest electrical outlet, and the power cord for the iMac, the lifeline for this entire interview, is stretched uncomfortably tight. If I move my right leg in the wrong direction, it will pull the plug.

2:03PM

3 minutes past turnaround time

I ask Honnold to press the button to start the Hangout on my laptop. He does and we see the front facing video of our set: Honnold, me, and the MtnMeister artwork placed between the two of us. It’s crooked, but whatever, I’m just happy to be here at this point. We awkwardly say hello and welcome everyone, and I try to compose myself after everything that has happened in the last half hour. I realize that my updated interview notes are on the laptop which is filming the Hangout. I’ll have to make do with the old stuff on the iMac.

3:00PM

We finish up the interview, which was rough at first but got better as time went on. During the last 15 minutes, we did an audience Q&A where people submitted questions beforehand and live during the interview. It 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 twice 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.

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 if the events leading up to it had transpired differently. But, looking back, I wouldn’t trade it for this hilarious experience.

In the moment, no one wants to experience Chouinard’s definition of an adventure. It’s painful, anxiety-provoking, and it often makes you question what you’re doing. Yet, upon reflection, when you are removed from the short-term misery, you often find that the unfortunate events led to a brand new experience, one that is far better than what you expected. During Expedition Honnold, there were many moments when I wanted to call the whole thing off. But I didn’t. I pushed through adversity, and I am rewarded with a positive memory that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I took one picture throughout the whole fiasco. This is how I will remember Expedition Honnold, and I offer great thanks to this man.

Expedition Honnold

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