Imagine climbing a 3,200 foot granite mountain that is not only steep, but slippery. The monolith is full of cracks and crevices that are so small that your fingers have to press against the rock in order to create the hold and balance while dangling hundreds of feet in the air. Now imagine climbing this massive structure without a rope.
That is exactly what Alex Honnold did in Free Solo.
Free Solo documents Honnold’s quest to free solo El Capitan in June 2017. For those who don’t know El Capitan, or “El Cap,” it’s a 3,000 foot monolith in Yosemite National Park. For rock climbers, it’s the world’s most famous rock in the world.
This past weekend, I went to the Bedford Playhouse (very nice theater!) and saw Free Solo. I left with one thought in my mimd: This documentary was one of the most inspiring films I have ever seen. It’s a crowning achievement in human history and how far someone is willing to go to push their limits. The NY Times said “Alex Honnold’s Free Solo climb should be celebrated as one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever.” After watching the film, I agree with that statement 100%.
What draws you to the documentary more than the athletic achievement is Alex Honnold himself. I found myself fascinated by Honnold. I wouldn’t describe him as the most likable person in the world. He is brutally honest and doesn’t sugarcoat anything. In one scene, Alex’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, asks him a question about free soloing and essentially stated if Alex would ever stop climbing if it compromised their relationship. Would Alex feel obligated to stop? Without hesitation, Alex said no. Some might see that abrupt comment as a sign of disrespect, but I view it as the opposite. Alex is brutally honest and knows that climbing is the most important thing in his life. He could lead his girlfriend on and lie to her about stopping. However, he cares about his girlfriend deeply and realizes that honesty is important especially when death is a possibility at any moment.
I’m fascinated by how Honnold explains risk vs. consequence in regards to these death-defying climbs. Most people would view what Alex does as risky, but he sees it in a completely different mindset. Obviously, the consequence is high (death), but the risk is rather low for Alex. Alex spent years practicing each hold on the rock (which is documented in the film), tracking and memorizing every step and hold along his route to a point where the climbing became second nature. Alex climbed on the perfect conditions with the perfect equipment. So in Alex’s mind, the risk is rather low because of his familiarity with the climb that in his mind, the risk is not scary anymore. It’s a rather interesting way to look at the climb and in general, life itself.
I highly recommend seeing Free Solo. Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who are husband and wife, present a beautiful and jaw-dropping view into the world of free soloing and how one man redefined the limits of what is possible and impossible. The documentary is as much a love story as it is a visual masterpiece. Honnold is able to find a balance between the love for climbing and the love for his girlfriend and channel that emotion into his free solo climb. The result is an inspiring accomplishment in the history of mankind.