Nervous just watching

It’s not often that I wish I had my chalk bag with me when I go to the cinema. But watching Alex Honnold precariously hanging, without any ropes, 2000 foot off Yosemite valley floor, left me with more than slightly slick palms. In fact, the hours spent watching Free Solo are possibly some of the most stressful I’ve ever felt in the squashy reclined seats of the FACT cinema. But I would (and probably will) go back to relive it all over again.

Alex Honnold, now a household name amongst climbers, has achieved this recognition through his free soloing adventures; climbing routes only normally climbed with protection thoroughly unprotected. No ropes, no safety gear, no second chances. Free Solo documents his journey up the biggest free solo ever attempted – the granite monolith of Yosemite’s El Capitan. Filmed by Jimmy Chin and his incredible camera crew (all professional climbers in their own rights), and directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi the film explores his history, relationships and approach to risk and consequence.

A different perspective

The camera work in this film is seriously impressive. Most people have seen pictures of El Capitan (it’s one of the standard Apple Mac backgrounds, if you’re not sure what it looks like), but few people manage to accurately capture its sheer scale. El Capitan is just over 3000 foot high. That’s only a few hundred feet smaller than elevation of Snowdon – from sea level to summit. Straight up. I’ve never, in any climbing film, seen shots like it, as Alex swims amongst an ocean of rock, often being lost in the shot, dwarfed by the endless walls. 

And this isn’t just a film shot by the camera crew, it’s also, to an extent, a film about them. Some of the most interesting parts of the film are the production crew questioning the ethics, safety and comfort of filming Alex’s endeavour. It’s painful to watch their faces as they watch their friend from the valley floor, struggling with the possibility that they could be watching him fall to his death at any minute.

More head than heart

And then we come to Alex himself.

He comes across as having an attitude like no other; he is intense, but still somehow carefree. By the very nature of his chosen activity, everything has to be so carefully thought out – and it really, really is.

At one point his friend, pro climber Tommy Caldwell, asks Alex what he’s writing in his journal. There are no emotions, no description, just a detailed description of moves, strengths and weaknesses; an intricate examination of his performance. His motivations are quotes drummed into him by his mother; ‘good enough isn’t’ and ‘almost doesn’t count’. Both are extremely true.

Despite this, he seems almost detached from the enormity of the climb he is tackling. For him, it is hard, and because of that, fun.

Emotional reactions to the climb are few and far between. And his relationship with his girlfriend Sanni, also relatively free of emotional reaction, gives us an insight into his unusual private life. It’s refreshing to see a working relationship that isn’t the normal romantic stereotype.

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Free Solo is an examination of a lonely soul, and his journey not just through the climb, but through life.

This could have been a film that looked for some sort of transcendence or romance in his endeavour. But true to Honnold himself, it is pragmatic, considered, and awe inspiring.

If you fancy a break from the festivities, or you simply know a good thing, go, go go.

(Photos courtesy of National Geographic)