Free Solo is the extraordinary story of Alex Honnold’s effort to become the first and only person to free climb El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, in 2017. Described as the “centre of the rock climbing universe,” the “most magnificent wall on earth” and as “unfathomably huge…230 feet of sheer granite,” El Cap was once considered too difficult to ascend even with ropes, let alone as a free climb. Throughout the film, directors and climbers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi follow Honnold as he prepares for the climb, both on the ground and on the rock face itself, which he spends months navigating and mapping with ropes before attempting it without them. In the period preceding the projected climb date, Honnold not only suffers a fall that compresses a disc in his back, but tears a ligament in his ankle, both of which make the climb even riskier, not only because his chosen route up El Cap is apparently very ankle-dependent, but because it makes it more likely that he won’t survive another fall. While Honnold partly attributes these two freak accidents to his burgeoning relationship with Sanni McCandless, it feels more likely that they result from the presence of the filming crew, whose role grows more complicated as the climb draws close.
From the outset, this is a pretty inspiring story, not least because Honnold was living in his van, in a Wal-Mart parking lot, a mere six years before attempting this most difficult and dangerous of all mountaineering feats. Less than 1% of climbers engage in free climbing, and everyone who had made free climbing a part of their lives has died by now, meaning that it’s more of an expectation than a possibility that Honnold will die in action at some point. Yet that just reiterates free climbing as a form of mindfulness and meditation, a heightened awareness of life and death in which the climber is always seeking perfection, but also the limitations of perfection, using the rock face as a way of contemplating their own mortality: “Some part of you is always being crushed by the mountain.” In some sense, Honnold is always already occupying his own death, always positioned, preparing, at the base of one of the mountains where his body will finally fall, and turning the interplay between horizontal and vertical space into a remarkably dynamic zone where he can come to terms with his own impermanence. For those reasons, his mantras around climbing are quite compelling and striking, especially his distinction between risk and consequence, the El Cap climb being – in his own words – low risk but high consequence. Combined with his donation of a third of his earnings to environmental non-profits groups, that makes him peculiarly endearing and grounded – ironically – in his motivational sessions and lectures.
Of course, the film is just as interested in Honnold’s climbing technique, and perception at the rock face, as in his philosophy and activities on the ground. Early on, it becomes clear that Honnold is considerably more comfortable on vertical surfaces than on horizontal surfaces, and treats all horizontal experiences as a precursor to vertical experiences. Even on the ground, his horizon is vertical, suffusing the film with a rapturous upwards gaze that’s embodied in the image of El Cap itself, whose scale is so unimaginable that it enjoins the eye to continually look up, since it’s impossible to properly apprehend it in a single glance. The only way to break this looming expanse down into smaller segments is to actually climb it, and it’s fascinating to hear Honnold map out and describe the trickiest pitches on his preferred route to the top. There’s the Enduro Corner, which doesn’t contain any secure footholds, where the only way for Honnold to keep his feet in place is through the pressure he exerts with his hands on the walls. Then there’s the Boulder Problem, which requires either a hand-free jump or a karate kick in order to navigate a ninety-degree crevasse. And then there’s the Teflon Corner, which Honnold compares to climbing on glass. This contains the worst handhold on the whole mountain, only accommodating half a thumb – nor even a full thumbpress – and requires continual micro-adjustment of balance.
While Honnold may be relatively comfortable strategizing all these difficult pitches, it’s clear that the idea of being filmed – or at least being filmed to this extent – is a more challenging prospect. Early in the film, he reveals that he tends to keep his projects private just before they happen, and that this is the first time in his career that he’s ever been scrutinised so closely in the buildup to a climb. On the other side of the camera, this is also a dramatic prospect for the crew, all of whom are experienced climbers. Not only do they want to celebrate Honnold, and respect his meditative rapport with the mountain, but they have to face the likely prospect of being three feet away from him at the moment of his death. Moreover, they have to make sure that they don’t cause his death, since even a sneeze, or a jolt, or a sudden movement, runs the risk of disturbing his mindful communion at the rock face. In fact, the suspense is probably worse than the crew than it is for Honnold, despite the fact that they’re tethered to the mountain with ropes, since without the adrenalin that comes from the free climb, they’re all much more alive to the risk and the prospect of a fall.
Between Honnold and the film crew, then, Free Solo speaks quite eloquently to a world in which physical terrain seems to have been exhaustively mapped, contained and neutralised by digital technology. In the opening scenes, a shot of Honnold’s computer reminds us that El Capitan has been domesticated in just this way, as both the name of one of Apple’s most recent operating systems and as one of the standard desktops on new Apple computers. Through the process of free climbing, however, Honnold recovers the mystery of space, and encounters a kind of space that can only be navigated and commandeered through experience. While it’s certainly possible to “map” the side of the rock face using digital technology, the discrepancy between the scale of the wall, and the minutiae of its footholds can only be properly grasped through direct embodied experience. Similarly, while drone cameras can easily scale the mountain, their perspective is much less attuned to vertical space than to digital space, with most of the best drone shots adopting a panoramic perspective, leaving shots of Honnold climbing across the wall to the film crew themselves.
In the process, the space between the camera and Honnold takes on the same qualities as the space between Honnold and the wall – tactile, precarious, provisional and intensively embodied. Since drone cameras are a big risk in terms of distraction, they tend to be fairly minimal, leaving most of the footage to traditional cameras, which, on the rock face, take on the same visceral embodiment, the same awareness of the hand and body of the director, that typified the pre-digital era. A further complication occurs when Honnold backs out of the first climb attempt – not because he thinks he can’t do it, but because the presence of the cameras has intruded too far into his personal space. When he tries the climb a year later, following a sojourn in Las Vegas with Sanni, it’s with a much more limited crew, and a much more spontaneous and flexible approach to the mountain itself. This time, there are even fewer camera operators hitched to the rock face, with much of the filming occurring on telephoto lenses, from the ground. Yet this doesn’t remove the audience from the action so much as suggest the mindful radius that Honnold has to erect around himself to make the climb, producing much more volatility and intimacy than a regular drone could ever do.
No surprise, then, that when Honnold finally completes the climb it feels as if he has been resurrected, or has somehow achieved a second life. Each new pose on the mountain, and each new contortion of his body, is more extraordinary than the last, while his passage seems to open up more sublime conjunctions of rock and distant vegetation than the cameras could ever have conceptualised or visualised by themselves. In a lovely epilogue, it turns out that this also may be enough for Honnold, and that he may have finally achieved the high that he has been searching for his whole life. Combined with his charity efforts, and his self-described “melancholic” sensibility, that awareness of finitude is what prevents this being yet another white-man-in-the-wilderness narrative, as much as Honnold might sometimes align himself with “warrior” culture and even describe his relationship with Sanni as unimportant compared to his warrior ambitions. While he claims that anyone can be “happy and cosy,” and that only real men become warriors, you sense that he’s found his own cosiness on the rock face, and his own domestic bliss at El Cap, one that’s more than resilient enough to carry over into his personal life. And it’s that final show of vulnerability that makes this such a powerful story, as intimate and moving as it is epic and remarkable.