Filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
FREE SOLO B+
USA (100 mi) 2018 d: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi Official Site
Imagine an Olympic event where if you don’t get the gold medal, you die.
―Tommy Caldwell, rock climber on free soloing
After filming his own attempt in MERU (2015) to scale a 4000 foot wall on Meru Peak in the Indian Himalayas, this Oscar winning film for best documentary examines the exploits of rock climber extraordinaire Alex Honnold as he prepares for one of the extreme accomplishments in mountaineering, ascending the face of Yosemite’s 3000 foot-high vertical rock wall known as El Capitain in 2017 without ropes or climbing equipment, described as free soloing, where there is simply no margin for error, with mounting pressure that you have to be perfect all the time, as a simple mistake could cost him his life, like high-flying tightrope walkers working without a net, yet his extensive preparations include meticulous planning, making him the only climber to ever accomplish this feat, arguably one of the greatest athletic achievements in human history. To capture it on film is even more daunting, as initially it seems to put even added pressure on his attempt, even though the members of the production crew are all rock climbers themselves, members of an exclusive fraternity who more than anyone else understand the risks involved. In this unique fellowship, the Holy Grail of mountain faces is Yosemite’s El Capitan, which captures the imagination of all rock climbers, remaining fixated in Alex’s head for eight years before he decided to scale it without ropes, as he was drawn to the ungodly possibilities, considered the greatest big-wall climbing route on Earth, a massive granite formation that runs straight upwards, drawing adventurous climbers every spring hoping to challenge the epic terrain, featuring a degree of difficulty that’s hair-raising to flat-out insane, with some sleeping on the mountain as it may take anywhere from three to five days to make the climb. To do it in one day is considered heroic. Alex’s climb was over in less than four hours, quite simply a superhuman accomplishment. Most people free solo for a few hundred feet. What makes Alex different is his ability to extend this to several thousand feet, where the degree of difficulty gets outrageous. Not a single person on camera in the climbing community supported Alex’s decision to climb ropeless, none of his training partners, no one thought it was a good idea except Alex, yet they all supported his decision, even though some couldn’t watch while it was happening. Described as a wooden, Mr. Spock figure who never allows his nerves to overwhelm him, seemingly without fear, yet the recording of this event is both exhilarating and nerve-wracking, with Alex displaying rare athletic abilities resembling Spiderman where he literally walks up a seemingly flat rock surface, standing on non-existent crevasses for support, yet his near mathematical preparation allows him to anticipate each and every move ahead of time, like a champion chess player, mapping out a strategy with fellow climber Tommy Caldwell, identifying problem spots, where he’s able to rattle off his moves in a lightning fast display of memory and mental precision. A college drop-out from Berkeley, Alex is something of a social outcast, mostly avoiding relationships with people, living a nomadic lifestyle alone out of his cramped van, which allows him to easily travel from site to site. At a book signing in Seattle for his own personal memoir Alone On the Wall, leading to an accompanying television short for the program First Ascent, Episode 1 - Alone On The Wall on Vimeo (23:51), he meets the ever cheerful Sanni McCandless, another seemingly irrepressible force (claiming she is drawn to his ruthless honesty), though she’s not a climber, and the two have been together ever since, sharing space in that well-traveled van. This begs the question whether she will have an influence in his mental preparation, and at least initially this is answered by an otherwise inexplicable series of falls that occur during practice sessions, something that hadn’t happened in years.
Curiously, the only acknowledged drone footage shown in the movie is Alex’s free solo climb of the limestone cliffs of Taghia, Morocco in 2016, a test run which starts about 20 minutes into the film, as drones are not allowed in a national park, yet there is aerial footage in the final ascent, which is either from a drone or a helicopter, which could easily interfere in creating possible safety hazards. All this is discussed ahead of time by the filmmakers and camera crew, wondering what impact a film crew might have on Alex’s climbing performance, with cameraman Cheyne Lempe asserting “The worst possible scenario is that one of us would do something that would kill him. Is it going to be the drone? Is it going to be one of the ropes? Is it going to be one of us accidentally knocking off a rock?” In some of the early practice runs, it seems clear that the camera is a distraction affecting his mental outlook, as it’s simply an unnatural presence, something that doesn’t belong in the otherwise completely natural experience of climbing (later pushed further back so they’re not so intrusive). This aspect recalls Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2012), specifically the author of the book, Jon Krakauer, who is himself a world-renowned mountaineer and rock climber, providing insight into the mental outlook of supreme athletes who are also risk takers, flying off in the blink of an eye to some faraway mountain ledge, taking on the challenge all alone, where not another soul on earth even knows where you are, yet it becomes a life or death battle that only matters to the climber, becoming an extreme psychological battle of wills, a mano a mano endurance test that challenges your mettle, where you take crazy chances just to survive, with many of these daredevil heroics occuring in utter secrecy, with friends in the climbing community only finding out about it afterwards, all of which goes into the mentality of this kind of uniquely high-wired, super-charged sport. The guys attracted to this sort of death wish are largely loners, already living on the fringes of society, where their outlook is largely skewed by their isolation from mainstream society. Alex seems to fit that mold, cut off and disconnected even from his own family, whose father died as a teenager, whose mother, a French teacher that only spoke to him in French as a child, acknowledges perceptively “I think when he’s free soloing is when he feels the most alive, the most everything. How could you even think about taking that away from somebody?” While still a distant presence in his life, Alex has become something of a drifter, that is, until the arrival of Sanni McCandless who constantly reminds him that he has something to live for. It comes as an awkward surprise when they have one of these deeply personal discussions the day before he plans a solo climb, a time that he needs to remove all distractions from his life and focus solely on this single goal. Rising at 4 am, starting his ascent completely in the dark, he calls it off early on without any real explanation, with the camera crew wondering if the nerves got to him, but upon further reflection, one has to conclude he simply wasn’t psychically prepared or fully invested, as things were still lingering in the back of his mind, yet he had the strength and maturity to realize this before disaster happened. The problem wasn’t the mountain, it was other people, where he had to eliminate them from his frame of mind.
Early on Alex reveals to us, “I will always choose climbing over a lady,” yet his life is trending towards a relationship, including a girl that exudes a warm, outgoing personality to balance his introverted demeanor. “For Sanni, the point of life is happiness,” he reveals. “For me, it’s performance.” Many will immediately conclude these are misplaced priorities, but in doing so they will miss the singlemost psychological ingredient needed to fully concentrate on the task at hand, and that is emptying your brain of all unnecessary clutter in a Zen-like meditative calm. It’s clear from the outset that Alex isn’t like the rest of us. What drives him is otherworldly, while what drives us is attending to more practical matters, like showing up to work each day and attempting to be responsible human beings. This film paints an unusual portrait of living on the extremities, recalling another figure who fit this profile, Philippe Petit in the James Marsh epic documentary Man On Wire (2008), the tightrope walker who snuck into the South Tower of the nearly completed World Trade Center with several hundred pounds of equipment that he manually hauled up to the roof, or 104th floor, spent the night in stealth mode, ingeniously strung a cable wire between the two Twin Towers (via a bow and arrow) before performing a death-defying and utterly spectacular tightrope walk without a net above the streets of Manhattan, a transcendent human accomplishment that still staggers the mind. Like Alex, Philippe was euphoric during his epic walk, an unstoppable force literally floating in the sky, reaching a mental space that is unheard of, seemingly invincible, yet their rigorous concentration is on full display, achieving an awe-inspiring perfection that shatters all boundaries of human limitations. This could easily have turned out differently, where we could be mourning the loss of yet another human daredevil, like the first human cannonball shot out of cannons, or plunging down Niagara Falls in a barrel, where the pathetic aspect is that these foolhardy stunts are often done out of a desperate need for money, or livestreamed thinking this will bring them instant glory. Alex is surrounded by the names of others in the extreme sport business who have come before him and built stellar reputations, but nearly all have plunged to their deaths, where he’s at the top of the list of who’s next. While Alex may be viewed heroically, utterly enthralled by his manic accomplishments, yet he also seems a tragic figure, remaining isolated and disconnected from the whole, where the word “love” feels like a foreign language. To his fellow climbers he is viewed with reverence, as perhaps they alone understand the spectacular level of risk he is toying with in his attempts to achieve the divine. Another thought that comes to mind is the inherent trust the climber has with the rock surface itself, which he clings to with his life on the line, where these cragged edges could easily crumble, leaving him in a world of surprise. Nature can be a fickle partner. By accentuating Honnold’s heroics, however, does this film send the wrong message? An open question remains whether this film will inadvertently encourage more climbers to recklessly abandon safety precautions and do more free soloing, especially considering all the praise and adulation this film and this individual have received. One of his primary sponsors, Clif Bar, dropped him out of fear that he was “taking the element of risk to a place where we as a company are no longer willing to go.” Perhaps he’s an anomaly, as his skill level is off the charts, having unique temperament, where his saving grace may be his level of rational thought, as he believes in endless preparation, developing mental confidence through thankless practice sessions that win him no notoriety, yet the extreme degree to which he was meticulously prepared suggests Alex may figure it out and find the right balance, where he can continue to enjoy the sport (and happiness) without pushing himself over the edge.