More than 30 people have fallen to their deaths trying to climb El Capitan, a 3,200-foot granite peak in Yosemite National Park.
In June 2017, two climbers, working together and with ropes to protect them, fell to their deaths.
The next month, Alex Honnold became the first person to climb El Cap “free solo,” alone and without ropes. The climb took him less than four hours and was the culmination of an eight-year ambition. His preparation and that climb are the subjects of this documentary.
Honnold is an unusual guy who began climbing things — trees, mountains, buildings, whatever — when he was 11 years old. He is now the most prominent climber in the world. He’s been featured on multiple magazine covers because, well, pictures of people tempting death while hanging on sheer mountain faces are pretty darn dramatic.
The film, from National Geographic, which also ran a Honnold cover, was organized and shot by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who also made “Meru,” a well-received 2015 doc about a Himalayan climb.
“Free Solo” has had a limited theatrical release and soon will become available for streaming online. Still, even as it shows in fewer theaters, ticket sales per screen have remained relatively high.
The movie itself has thrilling photography shot from the ground, by camera-bearing climbers perched on nearby ledges and by aerial drones. These images, which show best on large theater screens, seem to appeal mostly to men who thrill to stories of physical challenges. (Yes, there are also some intrepid women climbers.)
Then Honnold is put in context in the observations of other climbers, who describe an unusual sport and small community that I had not known existed, and also the falls that have cost the lives of dozens of them.
As for Honnold, we hear about a distant but not abusive family upbringing and how he started to learn how to hug people when, he says, he was “about 23.” Almost 10 years later, he adds, “Now I’m a pretty good hugger.” He’s an unusual character, but by no means an unpleasant one.
We see him with his head tucked into an MRI machine for a study that reveals his amygdala is virtually dormant, which is not particularly surprising. The amygdala is the area of the brain that, in the rest of us, reacts automatically to frightening or threatening stimuli.
Then we learn about Honnold’s home, a well-appointed van, and his demanding exercise routine and his girlfriend, a nice person but one who can be a distraction when he is climbing. (In not entirely credible style, the two are filmed discussing their relationship and their plans and feelings, which looks like acting and seems a bit out of place in a documentary. But this is nit-picking.)
As one climbing friend observes, “Free solo needs mental armor. Having a close romantic relationship removes that armor, and you can’t have both at the same time.”
Anyway. Alex may be fearless, but he is disciplined. He practices every part of the El Cap climb multiple times with ropes, and he fills notebooks with observations that he memorizes about every step and handhold of his planned ascent. His girlfriend drives off as the day of the climb grows near.
Then comes the climb itself, which is condensed into less than 20 minutes, not as much as I’d have liked to see.
By the movie’s end, it’s tempting to wonder what next challenge Honnold will set for himself and what it will cost him. It reminds the viewer of the climbing friend’s comment earlier on.
“If you’re pushing the edge, eventually you find the edge.”