Who would dare to climb up the sheer face of a mountain with just their bare hands risking death with every move? Alex Honnold does, and you will hold your breath watching his journey in the spectacular Free Solo documentary.
“Anyone could die on any given day.” Those are the words of the world’s most famous free solo rock climber, Alex Honnold. And while of course, that’s true, most of us don’t purposely put ourselves in death defying circumstances, like on the side of a towering 2,900 foot mountain, without any ropes or harness.
Honnold, on the other hand, does do that, when he scales what are virtually sheer mountain faces with just his hands, his shoes and a strapped-on container of chalk. His most astounding and life challenging feat was becoming the first person ever to free solo climb the infamous 2,900 ft face of the El Capitan rock formation in Yosemite National Park ,in 2017. That epic accomplishment, arguably the “greatest athletic achievement of all time,” according to Free Solo co-director Jimmy Chin, has been documented in a breathtaking Oscars-contending film that you must see, and it’s in theaters right now.
Alex Honnold’s quest to make the “the impossible possible,” as co-director, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, put it at an NYC screening on Dec. 5th, isn’t just completely riveting to watch, it also raises provocative questions about the purpose of life.
As Alex, who is 33 now, reflects in the doc while he contemplates what seems like an insane mission that he is setting for himself — he in no way ‘feels obligated to maximize’ his lifespan, by giving up what he loves.
And what he loves and has been doing since he was a young teenager, is free solo climbing. He is exhilarated by scaling mountains without any of the mountain climbing equipment which provides safety if he falls. He estimates that he has made more than 1,000 solo climbs and each time, one false move could send him hurtling to his death.
“I differentiate between risk and consequence,” he tells a group of rapt students in the film. “The risk of falling is low,” he insists. (because of his skill and training) “But the consequence is high.” Uh yes. Most of the world’s top free solo climbers have eventually fallen to their deaths. Honnold nevertheless insists that he does not want to die, and the film follows his journey on what turns out to be two years of training and preparation to make his historic and astounding, SPOILER ALERT — successful — free solo climb up the Freerider route of El Capitan’s face in 3 hours and 56 minutes.
Along the way, filmmakers Vasarhelyi and Chin, who are married, brilliantly capture Honnold’s intelligent and engaging personality, his personal growth as he unexpectedly (for him) develops a true love relationship with his now girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, as well as his deep commitment to the quest to climb ‘El Cap’.
Chin appears in the film, along with his crew — all of them world class mountain climbers and videographers. While Honnold climbs El Capitan, roped in with famed mountain climber, Tommy Caldwell, to learn every single inch of the beyond challenging route, Chin and his team meticulously plan how to shoot Alex’s ultimate ascent without risking his safety.
Imagine if they knocked a pebble or dropped a camera lens cap and somehow hit him or distracted him, and they were responsible for him falling to his death? They wrestle with this plus the actual morality of simply documenting his dangerous free solo ascent. Could filming the documentary push him to climb before he’s ready or when he shouldn’t even do it at all, (which any sane person would tell him not to do).
And as Vasarhelyi said at the screening, “When you do a non-fiction film, you don’t know what’s going to happen. And we know that even if Alex fell, we’d still have to finish the film.” Nevertheless, she and Chin persisted, and their filming of his climb is literally breathtaking- you will hold your breath while watching. Honnold refuses to give up his quest, confessing that he is, “Seeking perfection. And free soloing is as close as you can get. It does feel good, to feel perfect… for a moment.”
For most of the rest of us 9 billion people on the planet, death isn’t the absolute only option of us not reaching our goal. But after watching Free Solo, you will understand why Alex Honnold was willing to dedicate himself to reach his perfection.
And it is delightful, simply delightful.