Don’t fly solo at “Free Solo”


El Capitan is a daunting rock formation in Yosemite National Park. For many years, it has been a popular obstacle for rock climbers. Alex Honnold is the only person to ever complete a free climb of El Capitan.

I’m not really into thrillers — or movies in general. So when my family wanted to go see a movie one rainy night in Washington D.C., and they let my 14-year-old brother pick the film, I was nervous. I didn’t know how much blood and gore I would have to close my eyes for, or whether or not I would fall asleep in the middle of it. Was it even worth it for me to go?

Yes, without a doubt. My brother chose “Free Solo” — a National Geographic documentary about Alex Honnold, a professional rock climber who dreamed of climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan, possibly the most challenging wall on Earth, without a rope (free soloing, as they say).

It was an utterly stunning depiction of Honnold’s life and livelihood. The filmmakers, all rock climbers themselves, filmed Honnold night and day, exploring his relationships, successes and failures.

Even in the beginning of the film, I could see Honnold’s personality. Honnold always said what he was thinking; he didn’t try to cover up any thoughts or emotions. He had a largely positive voice for the story, but when his pessimism came through, I could feel it. I was laughing when he showed us how he cooked out of his van, where he primarily lived, and crying along with his girlfriend when she broke down in a moment of stress.

Speaking of his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless appeared in the story at the beginning, giving the audience a sense of how other people felt about Honnold. We got to find out nearly everything about their relationship, from when they met — she gave him her number at one of his book readings — to when they moved in together. She showed us the side of him that we didn’t get to see when he was climbing: the sweet, silly and loving side. Without her, the movie would’ve been about focus and strength, which, while important, are not nearly as interesting as a movie about a strong, focused rock climber who is learning how to love.

The film is set over a year, during which Honnold lived out of his van and climbed El Capitan a number of times, with a rope, of course. He also traveled; we watched as he free soloed a huge mountain in Morocco.

We watched as he successfully climbed El Capitan with some of his friends, including Tommy Caldwell, the first person to ever complete a free climb of El Capitan. We watched as he tried to climb part of it with McCandless, and fell, minorly injuring his ankle. We watched as he set out one morning before sunrise to make an attempt at free soloing El Capitan and stopped not far up the mountain.

What was an incredibly difficult mental and physical feat for Honnold was stressful and nerve-wracking for me, but when he finally set out to free solo El Capitan, I was so excited. During his entire journey up the wall, I desperately wanted to close my eyes, but I couldn’t tear them away. And (spoiler alert!) when he finally made it up that wall, I was so relieved I couldn’t help but laugh.

As the New York Times put it, “Alex Honnold’s Free Solo climb should be celebrated as one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever.” And I’ll leave it at that — even if you’re not a movie person, you should try to see this one. You’ll leave that theatre ready to climb El Capitan.