Arts interview

That’s one big wall

Free Solo documents Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitán and the two years of preparation it took to make it to the top without ropes

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Alex Honnold on his ascent of El Capitán, with his hands wedged into a crack in the rock thousands of feet above ground
Courtesy of National Geographic

Free Solo
Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Alex Honnold
Rated PG-13
Release Date: Sep 28, 2018

Looming 3,000 feet above the Yosemite Valley stands El Capitán, a granite monolith of a natural rock formation. For a rock climber, it’s a paradise, yet a merciless enemy; it’s the ultimate dream, yet the worst nightmare. Most climbers ascend with the protection of ropes secured to pitons — metal rings and anchors bolted into the rock. After all, when thousands of feet of emptiness snap at your toes from below, having a buffer separating yourself from death makes it a bit less daunting of a task. But in May 2017, Alex Honnold did the unimaginable — he free soloed El Capitán for the very first time, climbing to the top without ropes at all. Free Solo documents Alex’s year-and-a-half of preparation, the friends and film crew who supported him each step of the journey, and the domination over fear that was necessary to make it to the top.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Alex’s preparation for the climb was the amount of practice that went into it (with the protection of ropes) before his free solo performance. It very rightly could be called a performance — each foothold, each hand movement — was rehearsed. Alex practiced tough parts again and again until the movements were welded into muscle memory, just as a master pianist would rehearse their music before a concert.

Alex: The whole point of the year-and-a-half of preparation was to make sure on the day that I was doing it, there wasn’t anything that caught me by surprise… In every single move, there was no hesitation it all went really smoothly… Over the course of preparation, I had a bunch of days where I’d rappel down to a particular problem and do it twelve times in a row. I spent days swinging around and trying different things; doing one move, then doing it again a different way, then trying a different foot…

Alex completed the ascent at lightning speed — he started before the sun rose, and finished in just under four hours. He wanted to get the climb done before the sun turned to face the side of the cliff he was on, as climbing is a lot harder when you’re hot and the holds are slippery with your own sweat. About 1,000 feet up, Alex passed by a few climbers, including a climber in a unicorn suit, who were just waking up from their portaledges (portable, hanging ledges for sleeping on during a long climb).

Alex: When I climbed by, everyone was about one day off the ground one day up is about 1,000 feet, and so that’s roughly what I climbed in the first hour…. The average person climbing El Cap spends around three to five days on the wall, but climbing without a rope is infinitely faster… If you’re gonna spend a couple of days, you’re gonna need a couple of gallons of water, and those weight like eight pounds a piece, and pretty soon you’re carrying this 100-pound bag up the wall. So it’s hard to move fast.

All throughout Alex’s preparation, there was a supporting community around him. Alex’s girlfriend, Sanni, appeared in his life early in his 1.5-year preparation. The film crew and the directors, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, turned out to be some of his biggest supporters. Many of the cameramen were climbers themselves, and good friends with Alex from before. Filming Alex as he performed his dangerous feat may have been more stressful for the crew than facing it was for Alex himself.

Chai: We had to trust in his capacity to make the right decisions. He had to do it because he was ready to do it, and not climb if he didn’t feel ready. It couldn’t be because he felt any pressure from us.

And tracking Alex's every move while staying out of his way couldn’t have been easy. The movement of each camera across the cliff, the placement of each cameraman on the wall, all had to be carefully choreographed so as to not interfere with his climb. And Alex had to manage the pressure of having cameras trained on him every move of the climb.

Chai: It was our job to minimize the pressure as much as possible…. Working alongside him, we had to make sure there would be no surprises from our side….
Alex: Yeah, you had to trust the film crew not to drop anything on you, or trust them not to swing across the wall and hit you with the rope — if the filmer is swung off to the side, clipped into something to film from a nice angle, they’re basically in this big pendulum, where if they come out from where they are they can knock you off the wall. That’s why it’s important to trust who you’re working with, and prepare together, so each person knows exactly what’s gonna be happening.

But the reward of such a struggle was a stunning victory over an indomitable wall and even over fear herself, as well as a beautiful snapshot of nearly two years of Alex’s life.

The Tech: What was it like for you to watch a whole two years of your life put under a microscope?
Alex: It was an experience. It’s funny; it seems like audiences watch with their hands covering part of their face for like most of the film, and that’s exactly how I watched it — except I covered it for the first hour or so, where it’s about my relationship with Sanni, my family, and my backstory — I’m like cringe! Cringe! But then come the climbing, I’m like, “This is awesome! So excited.”
The Tech: Did you feel like you learned anything about yourself in watching it?
Alex: Maybe that I should be a little more friendly or kind or caring,… but I mean, not really. It’s really honest; this is just my life for two years, and I feel like I know myself relatively well.

Interviewing Chai and Alex was a lot of fun — it was like watching a scene from the movie. They bantered back and forth in between questions, cracking jokes and making fun.

Chai: In the future, if you have children, that’s kinda amazing that they’re gonna be able to watch it.
Alex: Yeah, can you imagine if I have some five-year-old kid, and I’m like “Look what Daddy used to do!”… And then imagine you have grandkids.
Chai: They’ll be like, “that’s crazy, that’s Grandpa!?”
Alex: And you’re like this old, kinda plump white-haired man, and you’re like “look what grandpa used to do!” Yeah, back before he ate too many cookies.

It was heartwarming to see such tender friendships play out around such a pivotal, awe-inspiring feat. If you get a chance, this story is well-worth a watch on the big screen. El Capitán looms up right before you, life-size. The film captures beautifully a man’s relationship with beloved friend, yet also with breathtaking nature.