Free Solo

(Vasarhelyi & Chin, 2018)

Free solo climbing is the most dangerous sport in the world. The word free references the fact that the climber ascends without ropes, harnesses, or any other protective equipment. The word solo references the fact that the climber achieves this feat alone. As is noted in the film, every person who has made free soloing a big part of their life, is dead. But 33-year-old Alex Honnold is still alive, and he is probably the most talented free soloist in the world. Free Solo follows Alex as he prepares for the climb of his life: an almost 3,000 foot ascent up one of steepest and most dangerous rock faces in the world: Yosemite’s El Capitan. And as the title of the film suggests, he will do so without any equipment. The world heard of Alex’s feat back in June 2017 when he actually did it, but knowing he gets away unscathed doesn’t make watching this film any easier. Part sports doc, part character study, Free Solo is easily the most visually arresting film of 2018. Jimmy Chin’s magnificent cinematography brings a sweat-inducing realness to a sport that is seldom captured on film. Whether you think Alex Honnold is crazy, stupid, or somewhere in between, the impressiveness of his free solo ascent of El Cap cannot be understated. Directors Vasarhelyi and Chin may have been chronicling the life and philosophy of one of their closest friends, but in the process they have also documented one of the greatest sports achievements in history.

Alex Honnold was already a world class climber before his El Capitan free solo, having been featured on countless television programs and magazine covers over the years. But what those media fail to capture about Alex is his personality. He is the perfect subject for Vasarhelyi and Chin’s documentary because he not the type of person that audiences are used to watching. He is soft-spoken, calculated, and sometimes cold. He lives a solitary life, and it is clear from his interactions on camera that he does not like when attention is paid to anything other than his climbs. Like many climbers, Alex lives in his van. It doesn’t matter that he is in his early thirties or has a girlfriend; buying a house still feels far away for him. When Alex cooks dinner, he doesn’t bother wasting utensils or plates. He eats his food right out of the pan, using a large spatula as his fork. At one point he even drinks coffee out of a stove pot. He lives as a minimalist, despite his multi-million dollar net worth. The less stuff he has or has to deal with, the happier he is. So when he is 2,000 feet in the air with nothing but a backpack and a bag of chalk, he is ecstatic.

Another prominent figure in the film is Alex’s girlfriend, Sanni, who he has been dating for the past few years. Sanni is peppy and optimistic-- a stark contrast to Alex’s practical cynicism. As Alex prepares for one of the most dangerous climbs ever attempted, Sanni is forced to watch from the sidelines, hoping the man she loves will survive. Alex assures her that if he dies it won’t matter, because she will just get over it and find somebody else. That’s just the way Alex thinks about things. An MRI scan of Alex’s brain showed limited activity in his amygdala, the portion of the brain that processes fear. This means that Alex’s threshold for fear is much higher. A situation that may make your stomach churn will hardly affect him at all. When he is dangling from a rock face, he doesn’t feel like he needs to be afraid. Even pondering his own death doesn’t faze him. Imagining the fall from the top of El Capitan, with his body exploding upon impact, is just part of the job description. As a free soloist, he has to be prepared for that outcome. And to Alex, that isn’t scary at all.

Free Solo is not the story of a mentally unhinged adrenaline junkie. In fact, Alex Honnold is surprisingly well-adjusted, save for a bit of social awkwardness. What Free Solo is really about is the sacrifice it takes to maintain a certain level of athletic excellency. For Alex that means managing the thrill of climbing with the realities of life on the ground, and while in the past he has been able to take on risk with extreme confidence, Free Solo finds him in an rather uneasy position. The delicate balance he keeps between his relationships and his career is in jeopardy, and one wrong move could cause either to crumble. Alex’s free solo ascent to the top of El Cap is incredible to watch, but it is not even the most interesting part of the film. What makes Free Solo special is that it is about more than just the feat. It shows Alex’s mental and physical preparation, his philosophy on life, and even his justification for putting his life on the line. It may not be something many people can fully comprehend, but it is a rare and exhilarating experience just to try. ★★★★★

David Merkle