Oh, hello! Free Solo is a 2018 documentary about rock climber Alex Honnold. In 2017, he decided to climb a 3,000 foot rock without any safety measures.
Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, it’s as much as an astonishing technical filming achievement as it is a story of bravery, madness, and whatever else you dare fancy. Onward!
Free Solo on El Capitan
This is a documentary along the lines of Senna (2010), where if you have no interest in this topic that’s irrelevant. What plays out will still mesmerise.
And having read the satirical Ascent of Rum Doodle in 2020, Free Solo does the opposite of that book. It hammers home the staggering dangers of rock climbing.
The documentary revolves around a giant geological feature in America.
El Capitan is an enormous and very beautiful granite monolith in Yosemite National Park in Northern California.
The region is a popular tourist destination for most folks to go for a nice stroll, whereas rock climbers prefer to scale the thing.
Alex Honnold is now a 35 year old rock climber who, in 2017, was happily living in his van and climbing rocks.
He’s a free solo specialist, which means he’ll often climb stuff minus any safety gear. No ropes or anything like that.
In 2017, El Capitan had been scaled thousands of times by intrepid rock climbers. But always with ropes—climbing it without them seemed too insanely dangerous.
What Free Solo does is follow Alex Honnold’s journey towards doing the impossible.
It explores his background and the reasons for his hobby.
We get a brief insight into his family history, how he dropped out of school, and Honnold has an MRI scan to examine his brain.
There he learns his amygdala doesn’t have the same reactions as most normal people, explaining why he only gets stimulus from doing very dangerous things.
He doesn’t date very much, but early on we learn a young lady called Sanni McCandless has asked him out and they now have an unlikely relationship.
Away from that, there’s a major emphasis on what Honnold has to face if he wants to scale El Capitan without any safety gear.
All this build-up may seem pedestrian and irrelevant to viewers, but it’s essential for Free Solo’s exhilarating, terrifying, and otherworldly final 30 minutes.
Crucially, the documentary goes at lengths to explain what rock climbing is all about.
You don’t just see a massive rock and start lugging yourself up. There’s a precise art, using your hands feet to shimmy and manipulate your way up sheer rock faces.
It’s somewhat balletic in its requirements, an incredible physical and mental achievement. With or without ropes.
But to take on El Capitan without any ropes, where even the tiniest of mistakes will result in certain death, is something far beyond most people.
And then in June 2017 he did it. With carefully positioned cameras from a team of rock climbing experts, he went up the rock.
As a piece of filmmaking, this is about as extreme and visceral reaction you can get as a viewer. Just watching Honnold scale the thing is goddamn terrifying.
No ropes! Nothing, just one man making his way up a 3,000 foot monolith.
Despite the fact you know he’s alive and well and completed the climb, it’s still unnerving viewing and almost unbearable.
The cameras swoop around him and take in the incredible sights, often highlighting how puny Honnold is compared to all around him.
Certain noted trouble spots on the climb, for example, require you to hold your breath. The Crux, a section of the climb, has an issue area called the Boulder Problem.
Here Honnold explains the requirements for this segment, prior to his free solo.
And here he is doing it for real, minus any safety measures, where one error would lead to him thundering into the ground far below him.
Well, it’s certainly one of the most frightening things from a film we’ve ever seen.
It was enough to give us a panic attack just watching Honnold in some of the situations he got himself into, so it’s remarkable the state of mind he can get himself into for such a climb.
And as a film, Free Solo we think is a triumph. It’s engaging, challenging, and manages to intelligently mix weighty themes alongside primal human drama.
The battle between life and death, essentially.
The good news? Honnold and McCandless are now married. So, those two are happily shacked up happily ever after. Huzzah!
And on a final note, the film was a success. It made $29.3 million at the box office and also won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2018.
A Bit About Alex Honnold
Free Solo made Honnold one of the most famous rock climbers in the world. If not the most famous one.
Since 2017, he’s been cropping up all over the internet and across the media to lend his expertise to various things.
He’s done TED Talks, interviews, movie breakdowns, and all that jazz.
Honnold strikes us as the type of bloke who’ll want to set ever more daring records.
Although, maybe in marriage, he’ll calm down a bit and rest on his laurels. We’ll have to wait and see.
But in the meantime, the record he’s set stands as an astonishing achievement.
The next time you trip slightly in the street, or stub your big toe, curse a little. But then thank your lucky stars you’re not 1,000ft up taking on the Boulder Problem.