Over the first 12,000 or so years after Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan wall was scoured out by glaciers, no human had ever climbed up it without a rope. Then, last year, Alex Honnold scaled the 3,000-foot monolith without assistance of any kind. It is an utterly elemental human achievement, and while people have been scaling El Cap for 60 years and people (mostly Honnold) have “free soloed” plenty of imposing rock walls before, Honnold’s El Capitan climb stands alone as, I would argue, the most impressive athletic achievement of our lifetimes, at least.
Free Solo, the latest from Meru directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, chronicles the two years of intense preparation Honnold went through to get ready for the climb. It’s a superhero movie masquerading as a documentary, a meditation on what sort of person it takes to achieve something this singular. The climbing footage is as vertigo-inducing as the trailer promises, and I spent a good third of the movie with sweaty palms, not aware that I was also watching the screen through my fingers. I suspect this effect hits exponentially harder in a theater setting. It doesn’t matter that Honnold obviously survives to the end of the movie; I couldn’t help but feel dumbstruck and powerless and scared watching Honnold, tiny and fragile, cling to the side of a mountain on glassy granite.
What’s most intriguing about the film is the character study crafted by Vaserhelyi and Chin. Honnold is presented honestly, without hagiography, as a former dirtbag climber and loner without a robust emotional toolbox. He knows that free soloing is an acutely dangerous passion, and while he seems aware, intellectually speaking, of his friends’ fear that someday he won’t be perfect up on that wall, he doesn’t seem to be able to or want to fully connect with that fear. Honnold undergoes a CAT scan in the film that confirms that his fear triggers are far beyond the layperson’s.
But he’s not a computer or anything, and the second-most gripping relationship in Free Solo (after Honnold + El Capitan, of course) is between Honnold and his girlfriend Sanni McCandless. Honnold is, to put it kindly, a project. He is married to the sea, and he discusses, repeatedly, his concern that a relationship will hold him back in his climbing and keep him from achieving what he wants to achieve. After a belaying mistake causes Honnold to fall and get injured, he floats the idea of breaking up with McCandless on the spot. She has to break through his wall and get him to see that he can, in her words “have it all,” while she simultaneously copes with the ever-present possibility of Honnold crashing to the ground and dying.
The tension between McCandless’s steady empathy and Honnold’s obstinance is fascinating, as he clearly loves and cares for her but is unsure how much of himself to invest when he’s risking his life in such a deliberate way. For her part, she knows that free soloing is part of the deal, that Honnold can never truly feel without putting his life on the line. McCandless is an impressively patient person, and she puts so much of herself in this very unique relationship. However, Honnold wants more than anything not to be held back, and his critical honesty seems like it’d be hard to live with him at times. Honnold does not see the point in living for happiness when he can live for achievement
Obviously, he’s a perfectionist. He obsessively charted every single move, every hold, every sequence on the Freerider route that he eventually took up El Capitan. Free Solo follows him home to his mother’s house in Sacramento, a place where his monastic dedication to climbing bloomed. Vaserhelyi and Chin present a portrait of a young Alex Honnold as a lonely child who didn’t connect to many people. This is one price, the film argues, of perfection. Honnold’s father died when he was 19, and since then, he’s basically never stopped climbing.
This monomaniacal dedication is a prerequisite for the job, not only to accrue the climbing skill, but to accept the risks. When Honnold falls or fails to hit a move on the wall, it feels unnatural. His friend Tommy Caldwell talks about how Honnold doesn’t even remember the circumstances of several falls that caused injury.
“If you’re pushing the edge, eventually you find the edge,” Chin says. The specter of Honnold’s sudden, violent death looms over the entire movie like a great spectral fart. It is the ever-present emotional counterweight of everything that happens in Free Solo, and it’s jarring to hear him even talk about it. Caldwell and Honnold, at one point, talk about all the friends they’ve had that died in climbing accidents. There’s a montage of famous free-soloists, all of whom are dead now. The two friends process Ueli Steck’s death on screen, in real time, and it seems to bounce off Honnold. He’s made his peace with death.
Which is not to say he has a death wish. Honnold stares death in the face in order to obsessively craft a plan to avoid it. He would not try something this dangerous without examining every grain of rock that he’d need to climb, and this detail-oriented perfectionism is more impressive than stubbornly ignoring it would be. He’s outflanking death with preparation, which, even then, is no guarantee of success. Honnold first tried his historic ascent in Nov. 2016, but he called it off because it didn’t feel right. Some of that uncharacteristic queasiness was because of Chin’s mountain-strapped camera crew.
The filming process of Free Solo is its own sort of metatextual plotline throughout the movie. What are the ethical responsibilities of a documentary filmmaker when the subject could, at any moment, plummet to the valley floor? Chin and his crew all must come to terms with the looming possibility that the movie they’re making will not have a happy ending. Worse still, Honnold clearly doesn’t feel like himself in front of an array of cameras, and several members of the film crew talk about how gutted they would feel if they were to somehow cause Honnold’s death.
All of this tension comes to a head for the final climbing sequence. Honnold must climb for almost four hours, following one towering crack system all the way to the top. He relies on tiny slivers in the unjointed granite for footholds, and throughout much of the climb, he has to jam his body into a crack in the wall, using the tension of leaning back to move up the system. There is an impossible sequence where Honnold has only a minuscule thumb hold for his left hand and two thin flakes for his feet. He somehow has to switch his thumbs and kick his left foot out as hard as he can to keep his balance. Freerider is not the hardest route on El Capitan, but this move is terrifying. There is no hiding here, especially not for Alex Honnold. The viewer knows he will succeed, but the last five minutes are agonizing. I was pleading for him to just get off the wall.
You don’t need to know about crimps and traverses to know that what Alex Honnold did is a transcendent feat of athleticism. You do not need to know about the history of free soloing to feel the risks. You don’t have to be a climber to appreciate Honnold’s feat. You just have to be a human.