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A perfect climb

Alex Honnold in Free Solo (National Geographic)


A perfect climb

Free Solo is a sweat-inducing but beautiful documentary

Someone with a fear of heights probably shouldn’t go review a documentary about Alex Honnold climbing the agonizingly smooth, 3,000-foot face of El Capitan without a rope. For whatever psychological reason, I have loved watching Honnold’s free soloing videos.

Free soloing means you climb by yourself without ropes or harnesses or any other assistance. As someone in the film Free Solo (in limited release Sept. 28, and then going wide) put it, free soloing is like an Olympic event where you either win a gold medal or you die. The documentary contains a small handful of curse words.

El Cap was Honnold’s lifelong dream, and a National Geographic film crew followed him over two years as he undertook his feat. It’s a boggling, warm, funny film that leaves you in awe while also thoroughly addressing the ethics of risking your life in such a way.

“Look, I don’t want to fall off and die either,” Honnold says in the film.

Honnold was in the audience at the New York premiere, so we all knew he made it. But I still sweated through my shirt watching the climb, and the audience gasped and held hands over mouths. It’s a movie to see on the big screen.

One smart decision from the directors was to turn cameras on the filmmaking process and show the angst of the crew, many of whom were expert climbers and longtime friends of Honnold’s. Would the cameras affect his ability to focus? What if someone dropped a piece of equipment on him? Would the crew be able to live with themselves if they filmed him “falling through the frame,” as his close friend and director Jimmy Chin said?

Initially Chin and his co-director (and wife) Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi had planned the film as a “character portrait” of Honnold, but then Honnold told them he was planning to scale El Cap. Chin said the filmmakers took several months off to consider the ethics of it. They decided, like Honnold’s mom did years ago, that he was going to climb regardless of what they did, and then they made meticulous plans to try to avoid affecting his climbing during filming.

In a Q&A after the premiere, a moderator asked Honnold about whether he worries that he’ll inspire kids to undertake such a risky sport. Honnold said free soloing is “self-selecting,” because only very experienced climbers can make it high enough at Yosemite without ropes. Honnold spent a year and a half planning every inch of his climb, hiking to the top of El Cap and then rappelling down the route to note each indent and crack.

“It’s not like skydiving where anyone can put on a parachute,” said Honnold. “It takes thousands of moves to get up the wall.”

The thousands of moves are something to watch. In one particular shot on the wall Honnold is pulling off what looks like ballet—with a smile on his face. One quote buried in the film made Honnold’s motivation for climbing several thousand feet up a wall without any safety measures crystal clear.

“It does feel good to be perfect for a brief moment,” he reflected.

Stick with me for a second: Free soloing is like our spiritual state in one sense, the sense that one mistake means death. Honnold experiences a pre-Fall (that is, a spiritual fall!) ecstasy when he can scale an impossible face without a single mistake. He feels something like what we were meant to be, and even if it’s a dangerous undertaking, it’s beautiful to behold.


  • Ann Marshall
    Posted: Thu, 09/27/2018 05:17 pm

    Wow, thank you for recommending!