Al Capitan: an impossible rock-climber’s challenge?
In the documentary Free Solo we see 31-year-old Alex Honnold, a skillful rock climber who has decided to ascend the sheer 3,000-foot cliff of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park. This seems hard enough as it is, but he is going to push the limits even more by leaving his safety gear at home. He is going to climb without any rope or other device. He is followed on his pursuit by mountaineers and film directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the latter of whom also climbed the Meru in the Himalayas in 2015. While suffering from frostbite and trench feet, he kept filming this climb.
Honnold seems like an ordinary nice guy in an ordinary red t-shirt. He has been living in his van for nine years where he does his pull-ups in the morning. His training sessions in a climbing gym in Sacramento take hours every day. He also trains on the cliff itself while being attached to ropes. In this way, he explores every nook and cranny of the massive granite and notes down its narrow cracks and ledges, rehearsing and memorising them.
Tension increases. The big day for Honnold’s free solo is approaching. Then, after less than an hour, he realizes he has to give up. Circumstances were not right, he would say later. It was best for him to descend. And practise again. Until 3 June 2017. The film crew’s stress is tangible. Ditto here in the cinema. We are on the edge of our seats watching Alex. We are all aware of the fact that the slightest disturbance could be fatal. How to film Honnold without making a sound or a distracting move? Of course, they have discussed every detail in advance, but there is no such thing as complete control.
How is his girlfriend Sanni McCandless taking all this? She ‘makes life better’, he says. She is ‘cute and small’ and – conveniently – ‘does not take up much space in the van’. However, he will always choose mountain climbing over her, he remarks. Love is not always good for his ‘mental armour’.
‘Climbing makes death more immediate and present’, he explains, and this is why he needs 100% focus. Sanni calls her boyfriend ‘brutally honest’ and on Instagram she writes: ‘When I first started dating Alex, people would ask me about death. They wanted to know how I felt about his profession and the risk involved in soloing. But I wasn’t wondering if he would die; I was wondering if we even liked each other. Instead of deep contemplations on risk and consequence, I felt an intense curiosity to learn more about relationships.’ Yet, we also see – and share – her struggle between encouraging him on his mission and at the same time wishing him not to tempt fate.
Why try such a thing at all? Is Honnold a thrill seeker? Has he got some sort of disorder? An MRI test illustrates that there is no activation in his amygdale, the part in the brain that processes pleasure, fear and anger. Honnold dryly remarks: ‘With free-soloing, obviously I know that I’m in danger, but feeling fearful while I’m up there is not helping me in any way.’ He just sets it aside.
The cameraman at the foot of the mountain cannot handle the pressure anymore. While he is muttering to himself and drying his tears, we see Alex dangling by his fingertips on a thin edge at, say, 2,000 feet. We cannot help thinking of his girlfriend and his mother. His fingers, arms, toes, his whole body must be strong and flexible in a way we cannot even imagine. His endurance, but also his calculation of the cliff, weather conditions, and his own skills is beyond us. How can he be so calm and analytical?
Will he maintain all these skills when alone on the majestic El Capitan? Awestruck, we gasp, close and open our eyes, fumble for a handkerchief and then, at the end, we slowly lean back in our seats, releasing a long-drawn sigh.
directors: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin
cast: Alex Honnold, Jimmy Chin, Tommy Caldwell, Cheyne Lempe, Mikey Schaefer, Sanni McCandless, Dierdre Wolownick, Peter Croft
1 Oscar, 29 wins and 47 nominations