A documentary about an extreme sport will have you shaking your head and gasping in your next breath. The idiocy of some human goals and the splendor of nature are the reasons. National Geographic funded, “Free Solo” introduces most to Alex Honnold,a thirty-three-year-old professional rock climber. We watch him arduously prepare for a rope-less climb up the 3000 foot granite wall of Yosemite’s El Capitan.
Many call Yosemite National Park one of the most beautiful valleys on Earth, and film directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin do not want to see free soloist Honnold there. They hope to see him on top looking down on that valley from the most impressive wall on Earth, El Cap. This tension between wishing Honnold to succeed and fearing that they may distract him with a camera drone or a sound enhances the fear factor.
One of the most surprising part of the film is the preparation details interwoven into the narrative. The route is charted, memorized by touch, journaled with body positions and practiced moves. Physically, yoga stretches and drill and pull excercises prepare the body. Emotionally, dealing with fear and expanding comfort zones, and seeking perfection in being physically fit provide the armor needed. The preparation is arduous, time sapping, and methodical. Incrememental progress is the mantra.
While Alex is honed in to extreme preparation, his girlfriend, Cassandra McCandless, is all about communication. They met at a book signing, and their real life relationship is a boost to the narrative. We understand Alex more through her loving eyes. She is a life and transition coach, who knows how to ask questions and respect and clear emotional boundaries. Her boyfriend’s ropeless ascent is given her perspective, too. 3200 feet is a long way, and when it is a sheer granite rise the risk is enormous. The movie’s visuals are heart-stopping, even for the climbing camera men. There is no margin for err.
The writers provide the lists of fellow climbers, thirty to forty, who have died. They show Alex giving talks to high schoolers about making one’s hobby into a successful career. When one student asks how much money Honnold makes, Alex doesn’t wince: “ I make an income compared to a moderately successful dentist.” He tells the questioner that one-third of his income goes to a non-profit. He is forthright and honest.
We see the risk-adverse Alex climbing in Morocco and cooking vegetarian in an old van. If solo climbing trains your mind, it also benefits from a amygdala wired for high stimulation. We see Alex undergo brain imaging(MRI) to prove this point. The amygdala plays a pivotal role in triggering a state of fear.
Alex needs a higher stimulation to activate his amygdala. Seeing Alex do a karate kick while hanging by his fingers is pretty crazy. With only his chalk bag, Alex shows us that repetition and practice have their place in a successful outcome, too. The crew finds Alex’s attempts equally scary. The film’s sound track extenuates the suspense, even though we know the outcome. The first person to free solo El Capitan will make you doubt gravity. There were a lot of fathers and mothers with their teenagers in the theatre. I wonder what they talked about after this documentary.