Free Solo


No helmet necessary…

Main Cast: Alex Honnold, Sanni McCandless

Directors: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin

Even when you see it, it’s almost impossible to believe it.   Climbing the 3000 vertical feet of rock known as El Capitan at Yosemite National Park with nothing but one’s bare hands and some rubber-soled booties may be the most audacious feat in the history of all human activity.  But despite his right to claim the title of “world’s greatest rock climber” young Alex Honnold is about as mild mannered and chill as they come.  While many of his previous amazing climbs have been documented on film, it was his attempt on El Capitan that inspired National Geographic to bring Free Solo to the big screen.  It’s as fully amazing as you’d expect it to be.

Honnold has been climbing vertical structures since he was young, chalking up some truly profound achievements over the years.    Since dropping out of UC-Berkeley after one year in 2004, he’s spent most of his time living out of a van, traveling California’s wild places and climbing, often entirely alone.  He gained minor celebrity status in 2012 after climbing Yosemite’s Half-Dome and being featured on 60 Minutes.

Displaying tenacious finger strength, nerves of steel, and apparently unlimited endurance, Honnold seeks out the tiniest cracks or irregularities on a rock wall’s surface and slowly, yet inexorably, scales the seemingly impossible, eschewing ropes or safety equipment of any kind.  The continuous interplay between friction and gravity makes for some truly tense viewing.  On film, it’s often anxiety provoking, but it must be horrible to watch in person.  Free Solo captures this well, featuring the reactions of ground based observers often turning away in anguish as Honnold maneuvers around some of the most treacherous rocky obstacles.

The viewer also gets to look inside Honnold’s head a bit.  While I don’t think the climber himself fully understands why he does what he does, the movie spends some time delving into the man’s psyche.  There are numerous quiet scenes that allow the viewer to get a sense of his drive and the kinds of sacrifices he’s made to achieve his goals.  However, the underlying peacefulness of these scenes is a bit of an illusion, as the tension that pushes Honnold toward this ultimate climb is always present, lurking beneath his seemingly chill exterior. 

Honnold is obviously the star of the show.  But there is another genius who doesn’t get nearly as much attention.  Jimmy Chin – the film’s co-director and co-producer, as well as an acclaimed photographer and mountaineer – is a critical member of the cast.  Some of the best parts of the movie are when Chin is describing how anguishing it is to face the possibility that at any moment he could be filming his dear friend’s tragic death.  While Honnold has no equal when it comes to climbing up giant walls of rock without any safety equipment, Chin is equally preeminent when it comes to mountain climbing photography and film making. 

Featuring two uniquely and stupendously talented individuals, one on the rock and the other behind the camera, Free Solo is some truly remarkable movie making and was awarded the 2018 Oscar for Best Documentary.  The movie isn’t for the faint of heart and it might leave you thinking that Alex Honnold is crazier than he is brave, but it’s a beautiful achievement regardless.  Highly recommended by this mild acrophobe. 

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