El Capitan is a wall of granite that rises more than 3,000 feet in Yosemite National Park in Mariposa County, Calif.
Last year, Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan in just under four hours, which was pretty impressive. What was even more impressive, though, was that Honnold did the climb without the aid of ropes or any sort of safety device, the first such ascent of the imposing monolith.
Free Solo is a National Geographic documentary from directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin about Honnold and his El Capitan ascent that follows the boyish climber on his obsessive pursuit of a form of climbing that leaves most of its participants dead. Along the way, Honnold gets a girlfriend, deals with a few injuries and climbs relentlessly, honing his mind and body for his assault on El Cap.
It's a thrilling film, beautifully photographed and assembled, with moments of wry humor from Honnold, and the scenes of him climbing are sometimes scary in a way that might have you covering your eyes.
I'm not giving anything away by telling you that Honnold survives his climb, but that doesn't make it less frightening to watch as he makes his way up the rock face, finding toeholds on barely perceptible ripples of stone and hanging from his fingertips 2,000 feet off the ground.
As Honnold's friend Tommy Caldwell points out early in the movie, what Honnold is doing is like an Olympic event where one either wins the gold medal or one dies. There is no room for error.
Free Solo is not, though, a tribute to some energy drink-fueled thrill seeker. It is instead a portrait of someone different from most of us, someone who has devoted most of his life to a single thing, even though that thing could probably kill him.
Honnold was a studious, shy kid who eventually found comfort in climbing, first in gyms and then outdoors. Because of his shyness, he often climbed alone. He was 19 when his father died, and soon after Honnold took off for the dirt-bag rock climber's life, living in a van and traveling to climbing sites. He notched free solo ascents all over the world, and became a sort of crossover star. 60 Minutes did a piece on him, he was on the cover the The New York Times Magazine, he wrote a book called Alone on the Wall.
Growing up, the somewhat stoic Honnold didn't get a lot of emotional encouragement. There's a sadly funny moment in his van when he talks about being in his early 20s and noticing that people hug each other, so he decided that maybe he needed to try that.
90 Cast: Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin, Sanni McCandless
Directors: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
Rating: PG-13, strong language
Running time: 100 minutes
There's also the feeling that his mother, who is interviewed in the film and is supportive of his climbing, demanded perfection from him. Good enough was never enough for her, he says.
"No matter how well I ever do at anything, it's not that good," he says in a starkly honest way. "It's a bottomless pit of self-loathing."
Free Solo also looks at the effect Honnold's new girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, has on his climbing. The most obvious is that he sustained minor injuries on (roped) climbs with her.
Beyond that, though, is McCandless' fear of him dying and his lack of empathy for her feelings. He genuinely doesn't understand the big deal. He's doing what he loves, and if he happens to fall to his death while doing it, well, get over it.
It's the sort of thinking one might hear from a drug addict or alcoholic.
Later, after Honnold has second thoughts and turns back on his first attempt to solo El Cap in 2016, someone notes that it was good to see that "Spock" can have emotions and doubts like anybody else.
Still, Honnold comes across as a goofy, slightly maladjusted grad student. One particularly funny scene has him cooking some messy concoction of canned chili, spinach and potatoes on the stove in his van and then eating it from the skillet with a spatula.
Chin, who with Vasarhelyi directed the 2015 climbing-themed documentary Meru, is also in the film. A climber as well, he and his fellow crew members grapple with the ethics of filming what could be Honnold's death. Would their presence force him to take a risk he wouldn't normally take?
Leading up to his solo attempt, Honnold spends plenty of time on El Cap, roped in, with Caldwell, methodically studying every inch of the 3,200 feet he will eventually climb alone, going over the particularly difficult parts and keeping meticulous notes. He talks about expanding his comfort zone and working through his fear until what he's doing isn't scary anymore. In his mind, if he studies enough, he'll be fine.
(An MRI taken during filming revealed that the activity in his amygdala, the brain's fear center, isn't nearly as active as most people's.)
The film builds gradually to the solo climb, which Honnold begins with what seems like a preternatural sense of calm. He ascends like a dancer, full of grace and confidence, finding purchase where there seems to be none, squeezing himself into cracks in the rock and inching his way up, conquering the terrifyingly difficult sections.
With dizzying shots from drones and cameramen hanging from the rock, we see the enormity of what Honnold is doing and never at any time do we forget just what is at stake. As he neared the top, I held my breath until I knew he was safe.
MovieStyle on 10/26/2018
Print Headline: Do or die: In 'Free Solo,' ropeless rock climber Alex Honnold won’t stop till he reaches the top