The greatest moments in sports history are designed to be played on repeat; most sports fans have, for instance, memorized Michael Jordan’s buzzer beater in Game 6 of the 1996 NBA Finals. By contrast, it is almost unbearable to watch the greatest moment in rock climbing history even once, though I similarly can’t seem to shake it from my mind.
Alex Honnold, the 33-year-old climbing superstar, is inching his way across the “Boulder Problem,” a vertical pitch more than a thousand feet above the ground on Yosemite National Park’s legendary El Capitan. Earlier in the film Free Solo, Honnold describes exactly what he needs to do to succeed: Grab a nub of rock with his left thumb, step his feet over onto similarly small “ledge” beneath him, then switch from his left thumb to his right thumb, and “karate kick” one of his feet onto another vertical wall; only friction is holding him up. As he explains it, the audience sees Honnold try—and fail—this move a handful of times, falling onto his rope and giving it another go.
During the climax of Free Solo, he’s trying the same move, but he’s gotten rid of the rope entirely.
A mistake here—or anywhere else on El Capitan’s 3,000-foot vertical face means certain death. One of the cameramen filming the attempt—a friend of Honnold’s and a climber himself—is unable to watch. Neither is most of the audience.
“That’s my favorite part,” Honnold told me at the recent launch of the new LG V40 ThinQ smartphone in Queens. “I love coming into theaters at the end and watching people with like, both hands on their face, and pulling their hair. People are clutching each other for safety. I’m like, kind of honored.”
“I just found out that not everybody knows the outcome—that Alex lives,” Jimmy Chin, climber, photographer, and co-director of the film, told me. “Apparently there’s a decent percentage of people who going into the movie that don’t know, and I was thinking—if you don’t know if he makes it or not, it would be insane. I would be so stressed out.”
Free Solo documents Honnold’s training for the first ever “free solo,” or completely ropeless, ascent of El Capitan. The movie is filled with metaphors and similes trying to explain how insane this is: One climber said it’s like an Olympic athlete trying to win a gold medal, “but if you don’t win, you die.”
The metaphors aren’t really necessary, because to anyone who has ever tripped on a curb or a set of stairs or leaned out over a railing, the stakes are quite clear. But to really hammer it home, the other subjects of the movie—his new girlfriend, his friends, other professional rock climbers—spend much of the film talking about how they don’t want Honnold to try the feat, which he had been ruminating on for years and training for for months.
During our interview, Chin tells Honnold that Tommy Caldwell, himself a climber famous for conquering the Dawn Wall, El Cap’s hardest route (with a rope), “really didn’t want you to do it.”
“Yeah, but, I bet he’s like, glad that I did,” Honnold responded. “It’s always the two sides of it. ’I wouldn’t want my friend to do it, but if he does, it’s amazing!’”
It’s no surprise that reviewers have called the film “the year’s most disturbing movie.” Honnold himself was unsure people would actually want to watch. When I met him and Chin last week, I’d told him that I’d seen the movie the night before.
“Was there anyone there?” Honnold asked. I told him both the 7 PM and 7:25 PM showings were sold out, that there was a line out the door. “Huh, that’s weird. I didn’t know people went to movies on a Tuesday. Off the record, that’s sick,” he joked.
Both Honnold and Chin are superstars in the rock climbing world who have begun to crossover into mainstream recognition; Honnold for climbing some of the world’s toughest routes without ropes, Chin for somehow being a pro-level climber, mountaineer, photographer, journalist, and filmmaker. Chin’s 2015 mountaineering documentary Meru, about the first ascent of a particularly difficult peak in the Indian Himalayas induced similar terror in audiences and was a critical darling.
Chin and Honnold have known each other for years and are close friends, and their friendship, some of which plays out on screen, is core to the success of the film. It’s not a traditional journalist-subject relationship, but Chin co-directed the film with his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who didn’t know Honnold well before production started.
“If you know someone really well, you have a certain type of access that someone that doesn’t know them as well won’t get, and that’s really helpful because you are trying to get intimate access, more of the real person, the real subject you’re filming,” Chin said. “But then, because he’s my friend, I don’t really want to push him on certain things because it makes me feel awkward, so it really helped we had two people on it coming from different perspectives.”
Both Meru and Free Solo are triumphs of human will, but were made in very different ways. Chin shot Meru on handheld cameras and Go Pros while attempting to summit Meru on two different occasions. Only after he succeeded did he realize that maybe he had enough footage to make a movie. Free Solo, riding on the back of Meru’s success and Honnold’s star power, had funding from a studio and was always intended to be turned into a feature film. The only problem is that no one knew if Honnold would ever actually free solo El Capitan, and no one knew if he’d die during production.
“This is a very intentional film, but it was also a huge risk. We didn’t know what the outcome was going to be, we didn’t know what the timeline was going to be, so we had to believe in ourselves and believe in Alex,” Chin said. “If something had happened to Alex, I think it would have been really hard to make a film. We thought about it a lot, and it would have taken some time.”
“It would have been a brutal, really depressing film,” Honnold chimed in.
“It would have been a really depressing film,” Chin agreed. “But it also was like, we realized we wouldn’t trust somebody else with the film, but we would have ended up making it.”
Instead, the film isn’t depressing at all. It’s thrilling. And, at a time when everything in the world feels uncertain, scary, and bleak, it’s optimistic. If you have even a passing interest in rock climbing, you should go see it, in theaters, so you can watch everyone else watch the movie—or watch the insides of their hands.