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Free Solo

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Free Solo is a documentary about Alex Honnold’s attempt to free solo the rock wall El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.  (A free solo climb is climb done not only without any aid from climbing gear, but without any protection from ropes if the climber falls).

El Capitan is 3000-foot sheer rock wall, that took 42 days to climb (with aid) the first time it was done 60 years ago.  Although I’m no expert on the subject, I get the sense that at the time the idea of free soloing the wall would have been considered about as doable as long jumping the Grand Canyon, i.e., literally impossible, and indeed something insane on its face to even consider attempting.

Free solo climbing has become something of an athletic art form since then (I want to watch what looks like an very interesting documentary about the development of a climbing counter-culture in Yosemite in the 1960s and 1970s).  People regularly do things that would have been considered impossible not long ago.  Nevertheless, what Honnold is attempting still seems completely mad to viewer, such as myself, who comes to the subject from outside that culture.

Free Solo is a fascinating and in some ways disturbing movie.  First, what Honnold does is beyond description.  It has to be witnessed to be appreciated, preferably at an IMAX theater. Honnold is in pursuit of a kind of perfection, which, if taken as seriously as he takes it, is something that always threatens to veer into a sort of madness.

Second, the film raises all sorts of interesting questions, often implicitly but sometimes explicitly, about the ethics of this sort of mind-blowingly extreme free soloing, and in particular about the ethics of filming it for profit.

One of the most engrossing parts of the film is watching Honnold negotiate his relationship with his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, in the context of his quest.  It’s also interesting to see how many people care so deeply about Honnold, and how none of them on some level want him to keep trying to do what he’s doing, including director Jimmy Chin and his film crew (all elite climbers themselves).  Chin’s role in particular in the enterprise is problematic — a point which he admirably doesn’t try to edit out of the narrative.

Honnold himself is strange enigmatic figure: a “dark soul,” to use his description of himself as a child. Obviously extremely intelligent — among other things free soloing at this level is a highly analytical activity — he is also surprisingly introspective about why he is living his life in the way he’s living it. In his early 30s, he has spent his whole adult life literally living out of a van, pursuing good weather for climbs, although in recent years his feats have earned him what seems like quite a bit of money from equipment sponsors.

It’s a cliche that climbing is something that inspires various sorts of existential philosophical reflection, but in Honnold’s case the reflection seems very genuine, and tinged with a sort of pervasive melancholia which doesn’t jibe very well with the triumphant Hollywood ending of the film.

Free Solo is one of the most thought-provoking documentaries I’ve ever seen, at a time when we are awash in great examples of the genre.  It’s very much worth seeking out on a big screen, preferably with people you want to talk to about it afterwards.

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