To climb free solo is to put your body in direct competition with the environment. Free solo climbing is to climb without safety equipment or assistance. It's a sport which forces you to bet your life on the confidence of your body.
Alex Honnold lives in a white van. In the morning he opens the door, airs out the van, grabs a small broom and sweeps away all the detritus which accumulates on the carpet floor. Later in the day, standing over a stove, he throws sweet potato into a skillet. The oil sizzles at it hits the pan, after a little while he adds a handful of spinach. The pan still hot, on the makeshift bed in the van, Alex Honnold talks about what propels him to climb rocks. Between questions, he raises the cooking spatula to his mouth, the microphone picking up his loud chewing.
To climb free solo is to put your body in direct competition with the environment. Free solo climbing is to climb without safety equipment or assistance. It's a sport which forces you to bet your life on the confidence of your body. As said by a climber in the film Free Solo, “it's like an Olympic competition, except that if you don’t get the gold medal, you die.”
In June 2017, Alex Honnold performed the first free solo climb of El Capitan. A rock formation in Yosemite National Park in California, El Capitan is 3000ft or 915 meters high. From 1905 to 2018, over thirty people have perished climbing the mountain. Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin documented his climb utilizing long range cameras, drones and camera operators hanging from ropes off the side of a cliff face.
From a visual and production standpoint, Free Solo is impressive, managing to capture Honnold’s climb effectively without undue distraction. While the viewer knows that Honnold will not fall, there is still a overbearing tension as a person climbs without safety measures in place. Even when success is known, there is still a visceral reaction to each downward pan, emphasizing the consequences should he fail.
Honnold, as a subject, is funny, at times charming. When he speaks, he has a slightly stilted delivery. His face is often expressionless, and his gaunt figure creates an almost alien profile on screen. He so easily fits the stereotype of the unaffected genius. Vasahelyi and Chin smartly abandon any attempt to explain Honnold or his motivations outside of the necessary. Instead they focus on his friends and family. Often the tensest scenes in the film are simple conversations, often held in whispers in his makeshift home-van. These are the conversations where the stakes are set and where the film is at its most effective.
Free Solo illustrates the human reaction to the super-human. It’s a tense, at times touching document of what it looks like to love someone pushing the boundaries of human achievement. It illustrates the mental and emotional cost it takes to willingly push a body you treasure to a cliff face, and the catch in your throat when you realize that they want to do it again.