One of the many success stories in the field of documentary films released in 2018 is the mountain-climbing thrill ride Free Solo. For those fortunate enough to see 2015’s Meru, you witnessed a prime example of high-stakes risk sports that seemed as unprecedented as it was majestic and serene. That film’s co-directors (and husband-and-wife team) Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi return with this much scarier but no less fascinating work about climber Alex Honnold. He’s one of the world’s leading free soloists—meaning he ascends excessively tall rock faces with no ropes or any other safety equipment. One slip, one mistake, and he’s likely dead.
The documentary is a chronicle of Honnold’s preparation, training and eventual climb up the world’s most famous rock, the 3200-ft. El Capitan in Yosemite National Park—a formation that no free soloist has even attempted, let alone made to the top. Free Solo works brilliantly as both a psychological profile of the mental capacity it takes to ignore the danger and just make the climb almost matter of factly, and the physical ability to know exactly where each finger and toe must land in order not to tumble to one’s death.
Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Honnold and director Chin in Chicago to talk about how the film came to be and whether getting into the headspace of a free soloist made for additional danger during the climb. Enjoy our talk…
The thing that really surprised me about the film—and your whole process—was just how choreographed your movements have to be. Most of your training is about finding the right holds and remembering where they are for the final ascent. I’m guessing a lot people who don’t know climbing think you just show up somewhere and start ascending.
Alex Honnold: Right, if someone knows nothing about climbing, they think you can just walk up to any piece of rock and start climbing. But the reality is that your movement is dictated entirely by what’s there to actually climb, so you have to find cracks, edges, flakes, things to hold onto. So it ends up being super-choreographed because you have to follow what’s there, and that’s the challenge of climbing up a wall like that.
Jimmy Chin: In some cases, if the climbing is easy, they’ll choreograph what’s there, but you can walk up to it and start climbing, if you’re a climber and have figured out the movement as you go. But as it gets more and more difficult, the moves become much more limited and more difficult to execute, and people start to rehearse the moves to figure them out.
It feels like about 95 percent of this process is done with ropes. I thought the final climb was going to be an all-day thing, but when you make it in under four hours, I was shocked. That seems fast.
JC: [laughs] Well, it is fast.
AH: It’s funny, I had four beautiful hours after two years of practice. It’s a lot of work to get to that point.
But in your head, is it different going up with ropes versus free soloing?
AH: For sure. It feels so different, and obviously the consequences are higher, so it forces you to perform at a higher level. But also, it feels more fun; you don’t have all of this stuff jangling off of you, all this extra weight hanging off. It feels light and free and fast. Tommy Caldwell, who is also in the film, and I, we’ve climbed the route together, roped up, going the fastest you could possibly go rope up, as part of my preparation for the climb, and it took us five-and-a-half hours. We were moving; that’s what we do. Then I took the rope off and went at a very comfortable pace that felt very relaxed, where I was intentionally trying not to go fast, because I was trying to keep it mellow, and went sub-four [hours]. It’s a big difference.
I think a lot of people respond immensely to that moment when you make it to the top. It’s the happiest you are for the entire film and it’s sustained.
AH: I was kind of like that for a whole weekend.
I think after an entire movie of convincing us you are so good at burying certain emotions, a lot of people think at that moment “Oh, he is capable of emotions.”
AH: It just takes a little something extra.
JC: He’s dialed up to 5.7 at that moment.
AH: Higher. Maybe like 6.4. [laughs] We have a joke that on the emotional spectrum of 1 to 10, I live between 4.8 and 5.3, but then I made it to 6.4.
JC: I hit an 8 if I see ice cream, and Alex hits 6.4 when he solos El Cap.
AH: Hey, at least I broke the 6’s.
Do people laugh when you do that motion with your thumbs to pass that one point? It seems so specific that you have to wonder if it’s really the only way to make that work.
AH: It really is the only way. I should say, that’s the easiest way to do it. You can actually take it with one thumb and cross all the way over to the hold, but then you’re so wildly out of balance that when you have to release you swing. So if you’re going to do it without a rope, you want to do it in the most controlled way possible. That hold that you go to—the Rotten Breadloaf thing——that actually used to have an extra component to the bottom, which has subsequently broken off, maybe 10 years ago. So you used to take the thumb and cross over to the good part and swing onto it, but that fell off, so it’s really hard to swing onto the bad part. That’s why I was up there for so much time, to figure those things out. That maneuver with the thumb, if you don’t use the foot that I’m standing on to press into it, if you didn’t see that foothold, you can’t do that. But you have to drive off of your right foot in order to push into the thumb. So it takes a lot of effort to figure out where to place everything to make it work.
I’m also curious about your notebooks. What are you writing down? I know when I write something down, like these questions, I sometimes never have to look at them again, because the act of writing it down helps me memorize them.
AH: That’s true for me too. A lot of time writing it down, like you said, helps you remember it. Actually, a lot of my notebooks are drawings more than written words, so it’s basically a map of a certain sequence. I could draw the Boulder Problem for you right now, and it will show you exactly which directions the holds face and how to use them, and then I write “LH” for left hand or “LF” for left foot.
How did this whole thing get started, the idea of filming him doing this climb?
AH: It was because I needed more stress in my life. My life was too boring.
JC: It definitely wasn’t stressed enough. We came off of Meru, and there was a lot of interest in what we were doing next. There were a few different ideas out there, and one of them was a film about Alex. People seemed to really latch onto that idea as well as Chai, so when I was talking to her about what we were going to do next, I said “What about Alex?” and she immediately said, “That would be a great film.” I think that she saw, as did I, the questions that it brings up in life for someone to do what Alex does, and I think people would be curious about it. And I know Alex well enough to know that there is a little bit of depth there [laughs]. Having shot in this space for 20 years, I know that Alex was special and different, and Chai understood that as well. And it wasn’t until later when Chai was hanging out with Alex to get to know him that Alex told her that he was free-soloing El Cap.
What was the film going to be before that?
JC: A character portrait. I knew we would include some soloing, but as a filmmaker, you want to transport people into a different world, and then share the humanity of your subject that connects us all. I thought what Alex does is so extraordinary and different, and people make all of these assumptions about it, about what type of person would be doing this type of thing, and I knew that Alex was not that. In many ways, he would be very different than what people would expect. I also think that when you do things that carry this much risk, it brings up a lot of questions about life and how you live your life and the decisions you make about what you do. To me and Chai, that was really interesting as well.
Alex, why did you think this was the right time to let somebody get this intimate with you?
AH: There are several answers to that. Part of it was having seen Meru and respecting their work and knowing they would make a great film one way or another. Part of it was that I’d been dreaming about free-soloing El Cap for so many years but never actually started the process. In some ways, making a film was a good way for me to start and hold me accountable to this goal that I had. It was the inspiration to start the process. Part of was capturing the nitty-gritty, logistical side of it. It’s easier to repel in on the wall and work on things that I wanted to work on if there’s somebody with me filming, or somebody with me at all. It’s easier to carry all the ropes that you have to carry to the top of the wall and repel down.
JC: If that person is a professional climber.
AH: Totally. There’s a lot manual labor that has to take place to work on a route like that, and it’s just easier to have a partner. And it’s more fun, particularly because the crew were all really good friends of mine anyway, people I’d want to hang out with regardless. Basically, a lot of factors like that came together, and it made sense to do this film.
How dangerous was this for your crew?
JC: This kind of terrain is very comfortable for everybody who was on the crew. The danger didn’t come from any of the technical aspects, even though there were a lot of fairly technical rigging movements, choreography, getting up and down the wall, knowing what to bring, how to live in that space. But they’re all professional climbers, so the most dangerous part of the shoot was the volume of exposure—the days and hours that we spent high-level terrain. It’s a numbers game.
A lot of people treat that exposure…I used to climb a lot in the mountains, and every time I went out, I was trying to push myself in some way. And now when I train, I do it in much more benign circumstances and terrain that’s a little more safe, and save these moments when the climb is more risky, because you’re trying to reduce that exposure to risk. But we spent at least 30 days on El Cap, not to mention days on other routes. Just hiking around the rock can be dangerous. Rocks can fall down if there are other people hiking above you. So the volume of exposure was the most dangerous aspect of this shoot.
AH: It’s a funny combination of being really safe, and you could just potentially die. In a lot of ways, everything we did was absolutely safe because you’re on a rope, you’re repelling, it’s all supposed to be safe, but if one thing happens, you could die.
JC: One mistake, and you could definitely die.
AH: But it’s supposed to be totally safe.
The cliché is that people who do what you guys do are adrenaline junkies or have a death wish. Was part of the reason to do this film, to debunk that stereotype?
JC: Yeah, the intention wasn’t just to debunk that idea. I think in the process of what we’re trying to show, it does explain to people in fact, these people are very mindful and intentional. But there are films that have taken me to a space that I never thought I’d care about but then understanding the nuances and challenges of what it is became very interesting. But those films were also interesting because the character was driving the narrative. That idea where you can bring someone into a different world that seems really foreign, but they’re able to connect with it because there’s this sense of humanity from the subject that connects you with this thing that you had a lot of presuppositions about.
You said last night that you like to come in at the end of every Q&A screening to watch and hear the audience reaction to the end of your climb. Plus, I’m guessing it makes you happy to see it. But how do you feel watching the other stuff, the more personal stuff?
AH: That’s the stuff that’s hard to watch. It is for sure more terrifying. It’s all part of the process, and I committed that we’re doing this thing. In the same way they trusted me to do what I needed to to prepare to do the climb, I trusted them to do what they needed to do a good film. And if they told me that that’s what they needed to film, that’s what we filmed. But I think that the fact it all came together so honestly is a testament to the trust I put in the filmmakers. That’s life; it’s all laid out; and it’s there, even if it’s hard for me to watch.
A huge part of your process is getting rid of everything that might stress you out, fear, and to a degree, emotion, thinking about what you might lose or who might be hurt if you made a mistake. You have to empty your head of all of that. How aware of the mental part of your process were you before seeing it in this movie?
AH: Honestly, I don’t know if I really was. As I was going through the process of preparing, I was just doing what seemed like I needed to do, what felt natural. But even hearing you lay it out like that, I’m like “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” [laughs] But I can’t say that I’ve ever thought of it in those terms, even though it makes total sense and that’s what’s happening.
JC: It’s very hard to be objective about yourself.
AH: When you’re in thick of it—day in and day out—there are just so many other things going on. Even Sanni [McCandless, Alex’s girlfriend] leaving to give me some space and let me free solo, when we look at it now in the context of the film, it makes perfect sense—“I need to shed all attachment.” But it’s also, at the time, Sanni going back to our home in Vegas for a few days and hang out so I can have some alone time, and then I’ll do the climb and see her back home in a couple days, because I had to go home anyway because I was going on this trip to Alaska the week after. You’re lost in all the detail as it’s happening. “I’ll see you at home in eight days. I’ll be packing up my skis and going on this trip.” And in the time before that, I’m going to solo El Cap, hopefully. Now when you see it laid out in the film, you’re like “Of course that’s what happening.”
It’s like you have to get into a headspace where the climb is done matter of factly.
AH: That’s exactly it. That was a key part of a my mental process—getting to the point where I’m like “This is totally normal; I can do this.”
After the one failed attempt, what changed in terms of where the cameras were placed or anything else that changed? Or did anything change?
JC: We didn’t really move much because we’d been filming the whole time he was training and we had shots of all the different segments that were important to the story. The only things that we changed were moves to get a slightly better shot of the final climb.
AH: Certainly for the first year and a half we were preparing, we all talked about the rigging a lot. “Where are you going to repel in? Who’s going to have how much rope? Which ledge? Are you going leave that rope there or is somebody else going to come in and get it?” It’s complicated to get up and down a wall like that; it takes a lot of discussion, but as we went on and learned it really well, we just didn’t have to have those discussions anymore. Everything was super-tight and easier.
There’s an implication at the end, but then you backtrack a bit, that this might be the end of extremely dangerous climbing for you. That this is a good place to stop because you’ve done something that no one else has done.
AH: But somebody might do it next year.
Have you done anything even close to this in the last year?
AH: I’ve done several climbing challenges that are similar in terms of difficulty. We went on this expedition together to Antarctica last winter, and then I did a speed record on El Cap up a different route but Tommy Caldwell and I climbed it in sub-2 hours, which was a big goal for us, but with a rope. But still, you have rope but you aren’t clipping it very much, so you’re still risking very big falls potentially. So I’ve been taking on other types of climbing projects. Honestly, I don’t know if there’s anything as big and inspiring as El Cap. I might not have another free solo project of this same magnitude, but that’s fine. There’s more climbing in the world.
And now you have a fulfilling life outside of climbing, which is new for you. Owning a home is new.
AH: [laughs] Yeah, having a solid girlfriend is pretty nice.
Thanks for talking
JC: Steve, always a pleasure. Thanks, man.
Free Solo is now playing in Chicago, and continues through the week at Music Box Theatre.
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