‘Free Solo’ Directors Reveal What It Was Like Filming ‘The Greatest Athletic Feat Ever’

When the directors of 'Free Solo' set out to document Alex Honnold's mission to make the 'impossible, possible,' they knew they were taking on the challenge of their lives.

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Image Credit: Paige Kindlick

Imagine trying to climb the infamous 2,900 ft sheer rock face of the Yosemite rock formation, with just your bare hands, shoes and some chalk? In other words, being roped in by any standard rock climbing equipment. None. Nada. If you think that’s absolutely crazy and a sure way to plummet to your death, well so did most of the elite rock climbing world, who were very familiar with who Alex Honnold was, and were astounded by his quest to climb El Capitan, which had never been “free soloed.” In fact, no one had even talked about daring to try it.

But that was Honnold’s dream after he began free solo climbing as a shy California teenager, and went on to successfully complete over 1,000 free solo climbs. Documentary filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, an accomplished mountain climber himself, were fascinated by the challenge of following Honnold’s quest, but were also torn about whether they could affect the outcome, they told Hollywoodlife.com in an EXCLUSIVE podcast interview. “We never had to convince him to do the film,” Elizabeth said. “Everyone involved was very committed… but the existential question at the heart of the film was, ‘if we’re filming, is he more likely to fall?’… Ultimately, it would come down to whether we believed in Alex. And whether we trusted his judgement and whether he trusted us to do our jobs the right way.”

That meant that as Honnold spent months preparing by climbing El Capitan, roped in, in the traditional way, with expert climber Tommy Caldwell, who had climbed the face for 20 years, the film crew was also meticulously preparing. Chin, who has climbed Mt. Everest, and Vasarhelyi, who are married and have two little girls, assembled a very unique crew. Every member of the video team had to be elite, professional climbers and also world class cinematographers.

“Meaning, there’s only a few people in the world who could film Free Solo,” explained Chin. “We spent well over 30 days just on El Cap, not to mention all these other formations. We went to work every morning and were rappelling over the edge on a 3,000 foot wall.”

Filming was therefore, not for the faint hearted as the Free Solo film team followed Alex’s months of practice, plus his growing relationship with his first ever serious girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, plus Chin and Vasarhelyi, got Honnold to open up about his relentless drive and yes, his fears. “Any sort of mistake is fatal, ” said Chin. And Alex climbed it in three hours and 56 minutes without any kind of safety equipment. Really, it’s considered the greatest athletic feat of all time. Because climbing at that level without a rope takes total commitment and is truly, even for seasoned climbers, unthinkable.”

Honnold feels compelled to explain in the film that he loves life and has no death wish. He believes that his meticulous preparation lowers his risk of making a deathly move. “I try to expand my comfort zones by practicing the moves over and over again. Move through the moves so they aren’t scary anymore,” he said, not that you as a viewer will find what he does any less terrifying.

What’s driving Honnold we learn, is his quest for perfection. “If you are seeking perfection, free soloing is as close as you can get and it does feel good to feel perfect… for a moment,” he shares.

Vasarhelyi and Chin, did their own part to mitigate the risks of capturing his climb on film. Chin had safety systems plus two or three backups  in place for his cinematographers. “Plus, we had to be really careful… if you dropped a lens cap it could fly several hundred feet and hit Alex,” explains Chin. The crew had to carry 50lb packs with all their camera equipment, ropes and food and water for the day, plus they had to be able to move very quickly since Alex was such a fast climber.

Ultimately, the project took two and a half years and yes, SPOILER ALERT, Honnold astoundingly accomplished this miraculous feat, and the documentary is breathtaking. On the day that Alex actually climbed, it was “a terrifying, terrifying experience… we had to always remind ourselves of why we believed in Alex and how we trusted him and trusted his judgement,” admits Vasarhelyi. “On the day of, it was this weight that you can’t shake off, so when he made it through the hardest parts there was a certain moment where it was just understood that you were witnessing one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time.”

Yes, and now you can too.  Listen to our Holllywoodlife podcast interview on itunes and I highly recommend seeing, Free Solo. You can find a theater near you on the Free Solo, National Geographic website.  https://www.nationalgeographic.com/films/free-solo/

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