Alex Honnold is not like you or me. Sure, the fact that he climbs mountains is one of the obvious things that separate him from the pack, but even within the climbing community, he’s regarded as unique. He climbs free solo (without ropes, harnesses or any other safety devices), a method less than one percent of mountaineers subscribe to. Some might say he’s very determined; others call him obsessed, and a few people think that he may very well have a death wish. As the focus of the gripping new National Geographic documentary Free Solo, Honnold displays all of these traits in his effort to do that which has never done before – climb the face of Yosemite’s El Capitan, some 3200 feet, without the benefit of a rope.
This endeavor and the steps required to prepare for it are meticulously captured by directors Jimmy Chen, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and their crew, a fascinating examination of what goes into attempting a death-defying feat of this sort. But more compelling is the character study of Honnold, a young man with a unique perspective not just on his chosen profession but of life and love as he’s encountered it.
Coming from a family in which his parents never used the word “love” in addressing him with a father who was melancholy and never happy unless he was traveling, Honnold proves to be an incredibly intelligent young man who also happens to be emotionally stunted. Recognizing this, he describes himself at times feeling like “a bottomless pit of self-loathing” and states early on that he would choose climbing over a romantic partner anytime. This does not bode well for the budding relationship that starts between him and Sanni McCandless, an impulsive young woman who slipped Honnold her number at a book signing. He called, she answered, they began dating and when she comes to spend time with him in his van his response to this domestic change is that “she’s cute, small and doesn’t take up too much room.” (In all fairness, Mr. Romance also says she “livens up the place.”)
It becomes quickly apparent that Sanni’s presence may jeopardize Honnold’s attempt on El Capitan. He’s hurt while training due to an accident of her making. Of greater concern is that he may start to become more cautious – which could lead to a fatal mistake – while climbing due to an emotional bond he’s starting to feel for Sanni or that she’s foisting upon him. It’s never really clear which is the case as Honnold is not adept at voicing his feelings, but you can tell there’s obviously something amiss.
Yet, it’s obvious that Honnold would much rather be on the side of a mountain, hanging precariously from miniscule hand and footholds than dealing with anything as emotionally messy as a girlfriend or the threat of traditional domesticity. The young man is never more alive than when he’s facing death, and his elation is terrifying. Early on, Chen and Vasarhelyi recount how many other free solo climbers have died and a sense of foreboding, that the clock is ticking on Honnold, sets in. That his quest for this personal high may lead to his death is a constant concern.
The grandeur and terror of El Capitan is brilliantly captured by the film’s crew, who become key players in the drama as well. Friends with Honnold, Chen and the others express concern for his well-being but are also worried that their presence will prove distracting and could result in a fatal misstep, an issue the climber himself voices. In the end, the images that are captured are astounding and effectively underscore the danger this endeavor poses.
Meant to be seen on the largest screen possible, “Free Solo” is far more than a chronicle of an amazing physical feat; it’s an examination of one man’s quest for fulfillment. There’s a need that lurks in Honnold, a desire that can only be sated when he pushes himself to the very limit. As he says, “It feels good to feel perfect.” Here’s hoping his quest for that feeling abates before it’s too late.