Alex Honnold is one of the best-known climbers in the world. But alongside his rapid rise to fame came an environmental footprint that was at odds with his philosophy for living simply. Backcountry recently caught up with his solar charity about its founding principles, current work, and plans to help end energy poverty everywhere.
In 2012, Alex Honnold’s existence—and his reputation—was relatively low impact. He lived in a Ford Econoline van, camped out at crags, and climbed as often as possible. But as his fame and sponsorship deals grew with each new achievement, so did his footprint.
“Alex wasn’t that famous back then, and estimates that his annual expenses were under $15,000 a year—pretty minimalist”, laughs Dory Trimble, Executive Director at the Honnold Foundation. “Around that time Alex started getting invited on more expeditions and climbing trips. He and fellow climber Maury Birdwell were traveling home from a trip, and they started discussing Alex’s desire to offset his carbon footprint while riding in the back of the car. The two of them hatched a plan, and that’s where the foundation started.”
As well as countering his own environmental impact, Alex wanted to address the social injustices he witnessed when taking part in expeditions to developing nations. More than one billion people lack access to electricity around the world, and the Honnold Foundation was established to help combat this global energy poverty. First funded solely by Alex, who gave a third of his annual income to the foundation, it now supports solar initiatives around the world through private and corporate donations.
With Dory at the helm for the past two years—the Foundation’s first and only full-time employee—a great deal has changed: a distilled mission statement, a bigger online presence, and a plan to bring solar power to even more underserved communities, both in the United States and overseas.
“This past year has been really exciting” says Dory. “We funded work with GRID Alternatives on the Navajo Nation and in California; work in Ethiopia with a non-profit called The Solar Energy Foundation; and we also funded work with Solar Aid based in the UK. This year, we’ll be funding work in Puerto Rico, Detroit, and continuing to support work on the Navajo Nation.”
Following his ropeless ascent of El Cap in 2017, and the award-winning film Free Solo that documented the feat, Alex’s rise to fame has been dizzying. His profile now extends far beyond the confines of the climbing world it once occupied, becoming a household name in the process. And all the while, his foundation has been quietly benefiting from his success.
“It’s funny,” says Dory. “Whenever we look at increased donations, our ability to give more, or the rate at which things are happening, it’s hard to know why everything is changing—whether it’s because we now have staff, or because Alex’s movie won an Oscar [laughs]. But it’s just amazing to see our impact scaling up. And because we’re so small, a huge percentage of the money that comes in goes straight back out as grants.”
The Foundation recently made its first grant to GRID Alternatives’ tribal office, and both organization’s have been buoyed by the results. Working with tribes across the country, not only does GRID Alternatives supply renewable energy systems to underserved communities, they also provide job training, too. A perfect match for the Honnold Foundation’s funding criteria to support ‘bold and ethical organizations driving innovation in the solar industry.’
On their most recent funding visit to the Navajo Nation, the foundation watched a solar installation at Bilagaana’ Sneez’s Chapter House, pitching in to help where they could. The install was being run by Native American students from Fort Lewis College in Colorado, who were enrolled in a year-long course that culminated in the implementation of a solar energy system designed by them. “A lot of the Fort Lewis students working with GRID were Navajo, and from chapters nearby” explains Dory. “Watching them put their technical skills to use in these communities that are like mirrors of their own was a really cool moment.”
Tim Willink, GRID Alternatives Tribal Program Director, helped to oversee the installation at Bilagaana’ Sneez, also known as Counselor Chapter, and echoed the sentiment: “To see folks from these communities all geared up and in hard hats, leading these projects and installing solar, is really something. Resources are key for work like this, and the Honnold Foundation’s support has meant a ton.”
Continuing to fund projects like GRID Alternatives’ work in tribal communities is a primary focus for the foundation. Because as Dory explains, the issue of energy access becomes striking when visiting the Navajo Nation in particular: “When you leave Albuquerque, you’re surrounded by oil derricks and natural gas extraction sites, but a lot of the homes you see aren’t connected to the grid. Despite all the energy extraction happening in these places, the people who live there tend to use imported energy—so spend money that’s leaving the reservation.
“There’s a huge need, and it’s amazing to be able to help address that need, led by folks from that community. Solar gives people the opportunity to have control over their own energy access, keeping more resources in their community instead of sending it all away.”
The funding that goes to GRID Alternatives and their work in the Navajo Nation is just one example of the impact the Honnold Foundation is having on energy poverty. For Alex, his efforts to counteract the carbon produced by his lifestyle now stretch way beyond his own footprint—bringing much needed resources to an issue that only grows in relevance as society begins to accept the consequences of its fossil fuel dependency.
“Supporting the foundation helps us keep supporting people like GRID—conducting innovative and powerful grassroots work all over the world. Because no matter who you are, we believe that energy should be clean, easy to access, and affordable.”
Support the Honnold Foundation and its work on the Navajo Nation by donating here.