If you don’t like heights and films mapping the psychology of someone who seems cognizant of risk, then you definitely won’t like Free Solo. But if you like watching unfathomable human feats or people whose version of rational is very different from ours, then the film is exactly what you need.
The film follows free soloist climber Alex Honnold’s two-year journey as he prepared to achieve his lifelong dream: climbing the face of the world’s most famous rock – the 3,000 feet El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in California – without using ropes or other safety gear.
Many highly regarded solo climbers have died to attempt to scale the mammoth rock face. In June, very experienced speed climbers, Tim Klein, and Jason Wells fell to their deaths 1,000 feet from the Freeblast section of El Capitan. The duo was roped together simulclimbing the terrain which they had completed at least 70 times previously.
Since successfully completing the enigmatic and terrifying climb in 3 hours and 56 minutes, Honnold, 33, has been widely regarded as the greatest free solo climber in the world, with the climb celebrated as one of the greatest athletic feats of all kinds in human history.
But aside from the downright magnificent footage of the climb itself, Free Solo captures Honnold’s rigorous preparation and plans before the climb and the emotional toll it took not only on himself but also on the people who care about him.
Honnold struggled with both lacerating self-doubt and serious injuries, including a busted ankle from a roped fall which cast uncertainty over the endeavor with producers persuading Honnold not to feel pressured into the climb.
Filmmaker Jimmy Chin, who is a world-renowned photographer and mountaineer himself, said the crew felt a lot of agitation and grief throughout the filmmaking process.
According to the Metro, he said:
“You’re a pro, but when you have that much exposure, and you’re moving that much equipment, and you’re filming on top of it and thinking about your friend, it’s a tremendous amount of physical and mental exertion.
The crew was tortured by the idea that maybe you’ll be filming your friend’s death.”
But co-director and award-winning documentary filmmaker, E. Chai Vasarhelyi, said whether the climb went ahead was ultimately out of their hands.
Speaking to the Associated Press, she said: “I don’t think our role as filmmakers was to tell him not to do it, and that’s weird, right? Especially when there’s a life on the line.”
Indeed, Honnold’s long-term girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, could not stop him from taking on the climb despite the massive danger it presented and the pain it caused her.
She said: “I don’t think I ever wished he wouldn’t do it. I wanted him not to want it, but I never wanted him not to do it.”
“Knowing that he does want it, you realized he’s going to be so bummed if never brings it to fruition.”
For Honnold, it’s about the process of obliterating fear to triumph over the impossible – his life-long goal.
Speaking to The Guardian, he said: “I think a big part of the film is showing the long process to get to that point where it wasn’t scary anymore because I had been dreaming about soloing El Cap for so many years.”
Free Solo is currently out in the US and will be coming to cinemas on December 14 in the UK.