Free Solo: Conquering El Capitan

Filed in Film by on October 6, 2018 0 Comments

El Capitan

To seasoned rock climbers, El Capitan, a massive granite formation in California’s Yosemite National Park, is the ultimate challenge.

More than 3,000 feet in height, this iconic monolith has been conquered by skillful enthusiasts using rope and protective equipment, but until Alex Honnold came along, no one had ever climbed it in free solo style. Climbers understood that even one little slip could mean sudden death.

Alex Honnold uses no safety gear to try to reach the top of El Capitan

On June 3, 2017, Honnold, then 31, broke the mould by becoming the first person to reach the top of El Capitan without safety gear. It was a feat that required an extraordinary level of expertise, strength, endurance and courage. His amazing and yet-to-be-duplicated accomplishment was filmed from start to finish by a dedicated camera crew.

The finished product, Free Solo, directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, will open in Toronto on October 12. It’s an understated yet emotionally raw documentary. The very first scene establishes its tone and mood. A small, unidentified figure in a red jersey and black pants is climbing the sheer rock face of an awesome mountain, El Capitan, and you can hear his heavy breathing.

Alex Honnold clings to sheer rock

In a voiceover, Honnold says that he was absolutely focused and that his chances of falling were quite low. But he acknowledges that the consequences would have been fatal had he made a mistake.

As is pointed out later, several famous rock climbers who’ve attempted to scale dangerous peaks in free solo fashion have been killed. In this game, there is no margin for error. “You have to do it perfectly,” says his friend and fellow climber, Tommy Caldwell.

Honnold, a voluble fellow who tells a story well, was raised in Sacramento, California. From an early age, he was drawn to and addicted to climbing, a pastime his father encouraged. After his father’s death, he quit school to concentrate on his hobby. Although he lives in a van, he has fared well financially. As he tells high school students in a talk, his earnings have been equal to “a moderately successful dentist.” Generously enough, he donates one-third of his income to environmental causes.

In reply to a question, he says he would choose climbing over a woman in a heartbeat. But about 40 minutes into the movie, we meet his girlfriend, an attractive young lady named Sanni. Describing Honnold as honest and weird, she says she loves spending time with him. He admits that Sanni has improved his life, but adds that romance can be a distraction, a claim that climbers of his calibre would readily endorse.

The film segues to Morocco, where he practices his techniques in anticipation of conquering El Capitan. It then shifts back to California as he continues to hone his sculpted body. Sanni, who’s new to the sport, keeps him company in California, where he takes a fall of 30 feet. He injures his ankle, forcing him into a short convalescence. Despite his injury, he presses on, practicing for the El Capitan ascent. He explains that his self-confidence comes from feeling super fit.

Alex Honnold

The filmmakers interview his mother. She says she would be happier if he abandoned free solo climbing altogether.

Several days before the big event, Honnold asks Sanni to leave. He needs to be alone with his thoughts. She’s worried he may die. “Why do you want to do this?” she asks plaintively, failing to understand what drives him. “It’s a totally crazy goal.”

Alex Honnold stands next to El Capitan

In the final segment of the film, he takes on El Capitan. He climbs with enormous self-assurance and skill, the cameras catching all his deft moves. One of the cameramen can’t bear watching him, fearing he will fall.

Viewers, however, will be transfixed.

Free Solo is riveting and exhilarating, particularly in its last breathless 20 minutes.






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