Free Solo tracks epic ascent of El Capitan

Alex Honnold’s 975-metre trek up sheer granite rockface at Yosemite National Park

Free Solo. Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chan. Featuring Alex Honnold. Rating: 9 (out of 10).

Vancouver, and the North Shore in particular, can be very clearly divided into an “us” and “them” mentality.

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No, not those homeowners who got in before the housing bubble formed versus those poor schmos who will be renting forever. I speak of those outdoorsy types who take advantage of the veritable funhouse that Mother Nature has plonked in our backyard. That spandex-clad co-worker has our world-class mountain biking covered. There’s those perky moms at school who compare best times on the Grouse Grind. Not to mention those keen skiers who saw spring skiing season as a last-chance to hit local slopes: unlike myself, who heard the call to skip school, grab a folding chair and bikini top, and carve out a little square in the snow for an afternoon of sunburning.

I mention this all as a preface to Free Solo because I’ve never been the type of person to embrace those movies about the great outdoors as a participant; I watched those iconic Warren Miller ski documentaries, for example, with a mixture of admiration and detachment. But with this film I was all in: you can’t help but feel that you are witnessing something historic, the way spectators must’ve felt watching Roger Bannister break the four-minute mile (a feat he quickly repeated at the Commonwealth Games right here in Vancouver).

There is a lot more than a world-record riding on Alex Honnold’s ascent of the 975-metre El Capitan sheer granite monolith at Yosemite National Park, “the centre of the rock-climbing universe.” He climbs the entire thing without safety gear, with only the slimmest of finger- and toe-holds between glory and death.

The film has wide, triumph-of-will appeal but National Geographic Documentary Films, along with directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, also create tension and drama on a personal level in addition to the mechanics of the climb by documenting Alex’s insecurities and perfectionist tendencies, products of a rigid upbringing without hugs and “the L word” and a life spent in conquering mountains in quiet solitude.

The opening shot is not for the faint of heart, or faint of anything. Alex is already a rock star in the climbing world: he has graced dozens of magazine covers, done the talk-show circuit, been featured on 60 Minutes, and written a book. While promoting his book in Seattle he meets Sanni. But relationships never last long; partners cause climbers to lose focus and are a dangerous distraction, as Alex finds out. “I travel too much. And I live in a car.” Then there’s Alex’s fatalistic, frustrating attitude towards death: If I die, “they’ll just move on and find someone else,” he says matter-of-factly.

Death is not so much a risk as an eventuality in the free solo-climbing world. “Everybody who has made free-soloing a big part of their life is dead now,” says Tommy Caldwell, a mentor to Alex and legend in his own right who says he has lost 30-40 friends to the sport. Tommy has spent 20 years climbing El Cap but “I’d never do it without a rope.”

Alex has been dreaming of solo-climbing the sheer rockface since 2009. He climbs it regularly – with ropes – taking mind-bogglingly detailed notes about every grip and foothold on every pitch section of the climb. Running parallel to Alex’s plan for the ascent is the complex planning process on how to shoot it: Chin and the camera crew are all experienced climbers themselves and are cognizant that one false move, one dislodged rock, one millisecond of a break in Alex’s concentration means death. “It’s hard to not imagine your friend and you’re making a film… and him falling through the frame to his death,” says Chin. 

There’s variety in the film in Alex’s training in Morocco, in what his MRI results tell us about the brain and some people’s propensity for risk, and in a few scenes of potential domesticity with Sanni. He takes baby steps in learning how to communicate his feelings, which is hopeful, but looks like a caged animal in a new, shared apartment, which makes one wonder whether there’s life for Alex outside of his white panel van and wide open spaces.

Then of course there are the splendid scenes of Alex climbing, which defy superlatives like jaw-dropping and nail-biting. The vistas are beauteous but the risk is terrifying: even an experienced climbing filmmaker on the ground can’t look through the lens at various points in the ascent. Knowing the outcome doesn’t dull the thrill of the experience.

Please go see Free Solo on the biggest screen possible, those of you who’ve climbed the Lions and the Chief, and yes, those of you who rarely leave the couch. Free Solo is a truly epic journey, and you won’t be disappointed. “It does feel good to feel perfect, even for a brief moment.”




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