Free Solo: Gripping Rocks & Gripping to Watch
Rock climbing has significant history in California, specifically in the Yosemite Valley. Not surprisingly, one of our own has taken the sport to new heights. Alex Honnold free solo climbed the prestigious 3,200-foot wall face of the El Capitan mountain in Yosemite in 2017, as documented in the gripping film Free Solo.
What does it mean to free solo a mountain, you ask? Free climbing is the term describing rock climbing that uses ropes only to protect the climber from falling very far. Free soloing takes this skill one step further—to the furthest extreme—by scaling heights without any ropes at all. Practiced by a select few, many notable free solo climbers have died participating in their sport. Alex Honnold is the current superstar of the free solo world.
Not surprisingly, free solo climbers like to climb in privacy so they can fully concentrate on each and every hand hold and foot hold. They are rarely filmed in the act since drones and cameramen can provide distractions, however slight. In the making of this film, Alex and director Jimmy Chin struggle with whether or not to film Alex’s attempt to free solo El Cap — or to let him sneak away into the night and climb anonymously. Fortunately for us, the film was made.
The Experience of the Film
Silently, dizzyingly, the movie opens high above the Yosemite Valley Floor treetops with Alex’s red tee shirt contrasting against the granite rock wall. His body is completely stretched out with only his hands and feet shoved into rock crevices to support him. The first sound is simply Alex’s heavy breathing. From the very beginning, Free Solo is dramatic, gripping, and romantic. You are witnessing mankind at his most primal and most accomplished self.
Alex, who has lived in his van for years in order to climb, is philosophical about his sport. He started soloing as a teen because he didn’t want to talk to other rock climbers, being too shy. Climbing requires, “Higher-level concentration without ropes.” Thus, he never told anyone he was free soloing big routes because he did not want any pressure. “I think that the free soloing mentality is pretty close to warrior culture, where you give something 100% focus because your life depends on it.” Yet, “It does feel good to feel perfect, like for a brief moment.”
Watch the Free Solo Trailer
An Attitude of Invincibility
Alex’s friends shed plenty of tears in the film in nervous anticipation of his impending free solo climb of El Capitan, fearing the worst. His training climbing partner is accomplished climber Tommy Caldwell. Tommy admiringly and cautiously compares the way Alex climbs to, “Flowing through the mountain. His attitude towards risk makes you feel invincible. It’s like a vice.”
Further drama in the film comes in the form of a budding romantic relationship with new girlfriend, the adorable Sanni McCandless. Free Solo addresses a fairly universal question: Should ambition be curtailed in order to fit into in societal norms, such as an intimate long-term relationship? In this case, will Alex give up free soloing just because he would hurt the one he loves by falling to his death? His philosophy is, “Nothing good in the world happens by being happy and cozy. Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cozy.” And so, the conflict unfolds in the film.
Free Solo Now Playing in Theaters
For an extreme-sport documentary, this one is very engaging for the non-climber, with all of its captured humanity, compassion, excitement, and natural beauty. Free Solo is now playing in select theaters.