The rock climbing community is very tightly knit, especially around Yosemite National Park. The groups of climbers, dating back to the 50s that became obsessed with California’s monoliths gave birth to the sport and took face climbing into new realms including the purest and most dangerous kind of climbing, Solo Climbing (without a parachute or ropes). For many trailblazers the experience goes far beyond the physical activity, the experience transcends into something much bigger. In FREE SOLO, Award-winning filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Meru) co-directs with Jimmy Chin to tell the story of Alex Honnold’s attempt too free solo “El Capitan” or “El Cap” in Yosemite. El Cap is perhaps one of the most challenging vertical surfaces to climb at about 3,000 feet from the base of the summit to its tallest face, and has recorded more than 30 fatalities since 1905. To free solo El Cap had been impossible until Alex Honnold came along.
Honnold arrived to Yosemite in 2005 and took rock climbing by storm with a quiet grace and amazing speed. Since then there have been several documentaries tracking his career, and even more articles and posts about Honnold’s achievements. Honnold has come a long way in his career and pushed the limits in every direction. He found the perfect synthesis between his love for climbing and the evolution of the sport to make it into his livelihood, and added a whole new dimension and meaning to his existence. Honnold has truly become one with climbing itself. A few years ago, Honnold told this reviewer that, "The joy of movement, running in an open space, the pleasure of it, that is the heart of climbing. Combined with the aesthetics of Yosemite, one of the most beautiful places in the world, it is rewarding. It drives you to push yourself."
FREE SOLO is a wonderful movie that continues to ensure that key moments in the sport are documented and comprehended on a larger scale, the film is as important for the climber as it is for the filmmakers. As a stand-alone film, FREE SOLO is very good but the pace tends to drag a little, so that the one hour and 40 minutes actually feels a lot longer. As a film that forms part of a series of other films and tells an important part of the history of climbing, and in particular the professional and personal story of Alex Honnold, FREE SOLO is uniquely intimate and captures what is perhaps a paradigm shift in Honnold’s personal life and professional career.
One of the joys of FREE SOLO is that it gives viewers a special opportunity to hear and see how Honnold approaches climbing and insights on how he thinks of life and his own impermanence. Honnold’s approach to climbing is complete, body, mind, and spirit; his strategy for climbing is elegant, like a beautifully-choreographed ballet—one foot here, one hand over the other, reach, and so on,— the symbiosis between the climber and the rock is a pleasure to watch. Honnold is the heart of FREE SOLO, through which he not only achieves his greatest professional feat, but also explores parts of himself with vulnerability and frankness about his own shortcomings and hang-ups. When Honnold free-solos El Cap, everyone rejoices for their own respective hopes, failures and triumphs.
In theaters now, check for listings.