Reviewed: Free Solo

Reviewed: Free Solo

When contemplating great athletic achievements, a few things immediately come to mind: Hillary and Norgay’s ascent of Mount Everest, Michael Phelps’ 23 Olympic gold medals, Jesse Owens’ shattering of three world records in just one hour, and Serena Williams’ 23 Grand Slam singles titles. Each of these men and women were masters of their respective domains, performing at the very highest level and defying all expectations. However, while each of them is remarkable in their own right, their accomplishments pale in comparison to the athletic feats of one man.

Free Solo, a National Geographic documentary released in select theaters last month, tells the true story of Alex Honnold, a thirty-three year old free-solo climber. Free soloing is a form of rock climbing where the climber (or “free soloist”) performs alone, without the aid of any ropes, harnesses, or other protective equipment. By relying solely on his or her ability, a free soloist runs the risk of death every time he or she begins an ascent. One miscalculated step results in the soloist’s descent and — with no ropes to thwart the force of gravity — death.

Free soloing is something of a taboo in the rock climbing community, specifically because it results in the deaths of most of its practitioners. Indeed, according to the documentary, over eighty-percent of recorded free-solo ascents result in death. Plainly speaking, it’s a very stupid thing to do. Yet there are a select few who muster the courage (and nerve) to climb up a vertical mountain-face without a harness or rope, Alex Honnold, for instance, being one of them. A native Californian, Honnold’s childhood was draped in dysfunction. His parents divorced at a young age; his father died soon after. Overall, he received little-to-no affection as a boy. The documentary seems to posit (with evidence) that Honnold’s background gave way for his risk-tolerant lifestyle. Also, Honnold probably suffers from Schizoid personality disorder. Those who see the documentary may notice that Honnold (who isn’t your average “Redbull gives you wings” thrill seeker) lives alone in a van and expresses almost no emotion before putting his life on the line.

All of Honnold’s free solo adventures (and he’s had many) seem like nothing when compared to his defining achievement. On June 3, 2017, Honnold successfully attempted to free solo El Capitan, a 3,000 foot vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park. El Capitan has been called the “center of the rock climbing universe,” and for good reason. It is a favorite destination among rock climbers and is known for its incomparable difficulty. It takes the average (professional) climber 8 hours to reach the summit with a rope. Honnold did it in 3. I won’t even try to describe how impressive this is, but consider this: El Capitan is basically a smooth surface. If you can find a foothold (or something resembling a dent in the monolith’s face), chances are it’s the size of your thumb. Those who choose to see the documentary (which dedicates its final forty-five minutes to footage of the climb) will understand why Honnold’s ascent has been called “ostensibly impossible” – because it really is.          

Watching Honnold climb El Capitan without a rope was easily the most gripping movie-experience I’ve had in a long time. Forget “edge-of-your-seat-intensity” – this movie will make you sweat. It will make you reconsider the extent of the abilities of your old athletic heroes. It will make you rethink everything you ever thought was impressive.

Technically speaking, the filming of this movie is also astonishing. The footage of Honnold’s ascent is breathtaking and was incredibly difficult to shoot. Director Jimmy Chin hired professional rock climbers to record Honnold as he climbed, filming him while they hung from suspended ropes.

The documentary also brilliantly delves into Honnold’s psyche in an intelligent and entertaining way. In exploring the events that gave way to Honnold’s bold and abrasive nature, Chin allows viewers to get inside the head of his documentary’s protagonist.

Free Solo is the type of movie that is impossible to disappoint. There really is something in it for everyone, and at the very least if you don’t appreciate the climbing, you’ll appreciate its examination of Honnold’s upbringing and personality. Without reservation, I strongly recommend that anyone who can see this movie do so.