Alex Honnold free-climbs El Capitan

I haven’t yet seen the movie Free Solo about Alex Honnold, arguably the greatest rock climber in history. For Honnold is a “free soloist”, climbing without ropes or any gear beyond his shoes and chalk bag. That means if he falls, he’s dead.

This New York Times video recounts the making of that movie, which premiered in August of this year. I had no idea that the cinematographers were rock climbers (though they surely had to be!), nor how difficult it would be to film Honnold’s daring climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan, which he accomplished in just three hours and 56 minutes on June 3 of last year. It’s a stunning achievement, and I can’t even begin to fathom the mind-set of someone who can attempt that.

Here’s a nice 10-minute mini-documentary about that climb.

I actually had a chance to see this movie and didn’t get around to it, which I much regret. But I’m sure I’ll get another chance, and this time I won’t pass it up. Wikipedia summarizes the positive reviews:

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 99% based on 72 reviews, with an average rating of 8.4/10 [JAC: the critics’ rating is now 97% and the average score 95%] . The website’s critical consensus reads, “Free Solo depicts athletic feats that many viewers will find beyond reason – and grounds the attempts in passions that are all but universal.” On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 83 out of 100, based on 22 critics, indicating “universal acclaim”.

Writing for Variety, Peter Debrudge said, “Apart from a slow stretch around the hour mark, the filmmakers keep things lively (with a big assist from Marco Beltrami’s pulse-quickening score, the nail-biting opposite of Tim McGraw’s soaring end-credits single, “Gravity”), featuring test runs at Zion National Park’s Moonlight Buttress and the nearly sheer limestone cliffs in Taghia, Morocco.” Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair called the film “bracingly made” and wrote, “I left the theater invigorated and rattled, in awe of this charismatic man’s accomplishment but scared that it will inspire others to attempt the same…But maybe Free Solos detailed, transfixing portrait of their hero will at least show some sort of barrier to entry, communicating to those eager wannabes that very few people indeed are built quite like Alex Honnold. And thank goodness, in a way, for that.”

If anyone’s seen this movie, weigh in below.

47 Comments

  1. TD2000
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    This is truly one of the greatest athletic achievements in human history.

    Alex must have some sort of neurological anomaly that prevents him from feeling fear.

    • Michael Day
      Posted November 29, 2018 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      Alex gets an MRI in the film, and they conclude as much.

      • TD2000
        Posted November 29, 2018 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        Interesting! I’ve been following Alex’s exploits for years and have always wondered if he ever got a functional MRI or PET scan to assess his fear response. Now I’ve got to see this film…

    • Mark R.
      Posted November 29, 2018 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, this is the guy you want in the foxhole with you!

  2. Ian Clark
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    It’s a great movie. It’s gut-churning at times, but that’s part of the appeal.
    In the movie, at one point during the climb, one pro-climber/cameraman had to turn away from his zoom lens due to nerves, but that can be understood. Unlike us, he did not have the luxury of knowing that the climb was going to end well.

  3. Posted November 29, 2018 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    I saw it twice. I recommend it very highly. The photography is spectacular, and the back story about what drives is Honnold is excellent as well. You’ll meet other great climbers like Jimmy Chin and Tommy Caldwell. Caldwell and Honnold set the speed climbing record on El Cap this year, the day after two other elite climbers died trying. But you don’t have to be a rock climber to enjoy this movie. My wife, who is afraid of heights, loved it.

  4. Michael Day
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    My wife, son, and I saw it a couple of weeks ago and loved it. It’s inspirational, funny, tense…and really visually stunning at times. It was also sobering, since many extremely talented free soloists have died doing what they loved. My son (12) has been a competitive rock climber since he was 7, and I told him that if he aspires to replicate any of Honnold’s climbs, I’ll be waiting at the top to knock some sense into him.

    • Mike
      Posted November 30, 2018 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      Surely it would be better to knock some sense into him at the bottom.lol

      • Michael Day
        Posted November 30, 2018 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        True, true. Given my acrophobia, he could just stay near the edge of the cliff and avoid any “knocking”.

  5. Ed Hessler
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Honnold gave a short TED talk (~12 minutes) that is well worth viewing. His preparations for this climb are meticulous. I was reminded of the answer to the apocryphal question asked of someone in New York City: Q: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? A. Practice. Practice. Practice. He is also an great speaker.

  6. karaktur
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I won’t watch it. I used to climb rock, with ropes and such about 40 years ago but now if I close my eyes and imagine a cliff, I get a very unpleasant visceral reaction. Vertigo?

    • John Conoboy
      Posted November 29, 2018 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      Me too. I learned to climb in California when I started grad school, and I was at UC Davis for two years so it was an easy drive to Yosemite. I was not all that good a climber, but I had friends who were very good. Hanging out at Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley I got to meet some of the great climbers of the day (and drink a lot of Red Mountain wine with them) but none of them could match Honnold. Even knowing that he was successful, I could not watch such a movie as it would make me ill.

    • J Cook
      Posted November 29, 2018 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

      Boy do I know that feeling. I climbed around on the apron of El Cap and some other exposed rock in Yosemite back in the 60’s and learned quite quickly I did not have what it takes to do that kind of climbing. Peak bagging was my style.
      Whew!

    • Posted November 30, 2018 at 8:00 am | Permalink

      I did some rock climbing in my youth and now find it barely possible to watch film of other people climbing, especially free climbing. Even the cover image of the video above makes my palms go sweaty.

      I think it stems from an incident when I was climbing as part of a three. I was following the lead up a pitch when I fell off. I took a big swing because the single rope went over an overhang above me. Anyway, I didn’t hit anything, so I got back on and finished the pitch. When we got to the top, we found out that the rope had rubbed on the rock and the outer sheath been had abraded by my fall to the point that we could see the nylon core.

  7. Gary Fletcher
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Actually, the RT average score is 8.3/10 as of 11/29/18. Anyway, the movie is now on my Netflix “saved” queue (yes, I still get DVDs in the mail!)

  8. Adam M.
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    I imagine free soloists don’t retire… at least not voluntarily. They go until they slip.

    But we’ve all got to die somehow.

    I remember when Harrison Ford was flying his restored WW2 fighter plane and the engine died and he crash-landed and broke some bones, that he was repeatedly chastised by public figures and urged to give up flying, since he might not survive next time. (He’s been in a few crashes…) But I think it’s great to die doing what you love with full acceptance of the risks. That’s how I hope to go.

    Better than dying of old age… unless a long, peaceful life is what you love. 🙂

  9. Posted November 29, 2018 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t watch it. My altophobia is such that I get scared looking up at buildings. I have to close my eyes when watching a scene like the many that must be in this movie.

    • Diane G
      Posted November 30, 2018 at 3:23 am | Permalink

      Mine is nearly as bad but for some reason seems to result in a strong craving to watch films like these. I’ve found my limit, though–the idiots who climb out on flagpoles and the like on the tops of skyscrapers, just to take selfies…

      • Posted November 30, 2018 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        A couple was killed earlier this year in Yosemite while taking a daring selfie. They fell 800 ft off Taft Point.

      • Posted November 30, 2018 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        Ok, I’ll ask the question. When does a physical act like this go from being a feat we laud to being a sickness we treat? The well-known saying about motorcyclists seems appropriate here. It is not a matter of “if” they are going to have an accident, but “when”. And, of course, an accident with this kind of climbing is almost always fatal.

        • Tor G. Bertin
          Posted December 1, 2018 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

          In Honnold’s case, there is an immense amount of preparation involved, including climbing the whole route to the point that it becomes muscle memory. The route is cleaned, meticulously inspected, etc.

          It’s still immensely dangerous, but it’s basically the opposite of ‘wild, thrill seeking’ behavior in approach. Probably the line lies along with that one: awareness of the dangers, and efforts to reduce them as much as possible (however much that can be done with ropeless climbing).

  10. Raghu Mani
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    This is one documentary you should see on the big screen. Watching trailers/highlights on YouTube is scary enough – but watching it on the big screen takes it to a whole other level. I don’t know if Alex was scared at all during that climb but watching him in a movie theater, I was sweating!

    – RM

  11. Mark R.
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    On my watch list. Thanks for the intro.

  12. Posted November 29, 2018 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    As much as I am inspired by athletic achievement, my fear of heights would probably prevent any enjoyment I could get by watching him climb. I will look out for his talks online about mental and physical preparation.

  13. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Personally I find these subjects as distasteful as Darwin Awards movies. It suffice for me to read the epitaphs/dissections as they come in (or not).

  14. Keith
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Honnold’s achievement is truly stunning. I would like to see this movie but I am not sure I could manage my anxiety to sit through it! My heart is racing after viewing this short clip.

  15. veroxitatis
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Honnold is truly a one off. The only free soloer who came at all close, in my opinion, was Catherine Destivelle. Her climbs in Mali, the Alps and of the Old Man of Hoy in Orkney, UK were magnificent. The Old Man was uniquely dangerous in that at any moment there was the potential to be vomited on by a fulmar irritated at this trespass of its territory!

    • Jonathan Dore
      Posted November 30, 2018 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the film of her climbing in Mali is awe-inspiring.

  16. Sarah
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Nah. I think on balance I’ll give it a miss. I don’t even like to hear about a text someone has read about a picture of someone talking about a book about heights. This film would give me sweaty palms and a dizzy sick feeling. Just thinking about it…

  17. Posted November 29, 2018 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Ulp!!!!!!

    rz

  18. Posted November 29, 2018 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    A fantastic documentary, highly recommended. I’ve climbed El Cap twice with ropes and recognized some of the spots Alex was in. I can tell you than even though I was roped up, the exposure is incredible. If you are even slightly afraid of heights, El Cap is your worst nightmare.

  19. Jay
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Movie is great…. exitement squared!
    😱🤭😬

  20. Chris Whitehouse
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    How do you go through all of that planning and difficulty and then shoot the video in 2D? If anything cries out for 3D it is something like this.

    • Posted November 29, 2018 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

      Do you have any idea how hard it was to shoot this? 3D would have been far too difficult and costly for a documentary like this.

      • Chris Whitehouse
        Posted December 1, 2018 at 10:20 am | Permalink

        Why. It’s just a dual-lens camera. It didn’t need to be an IMAX camera. The Civil War was photographed mostly in 3D over 150 years ago,so I’m sure they could have figured it out.

  21. Doug
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    Even though I knew the outcome, this was still nerve-wracking [in a good way] to watch. It was scarier than any horror film I’ve seen in years.

  22. Bryan Bornholdt
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    I was in Yosemite Valley the day after Alex soloed Free Rider and the Valley was abuzz with amazement and energy. This was a truly historic feat. At the time I was not amazed that Alex had done it. However, after watching the movie, I was astounded that he attempted it. It was such a cutting edge undertaking, even for Alex.

    Amazing!

  23. Rasmo Carenna
    Posted November 30, 2018 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    I’ve been following Honnold for a time. It’s nice that Mr. Coyne shows interest in this remarkable man. He is more than an accomplished athlete. I find him very articulate and thoughtful.
    As for his climbing prowess, there are a few clips on YouTube that will make you sick. Type Honnold and “Sendero Luminoso”: crazy.

    • Diane G
      Posted November 30, 2018 at 3:33 am | Permalink

      Thanks, that was spectacular.

  24. Bill Aughton
    Posted November 30, 2018 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Simply 100 percent. Almost nothing can compare, in fact on pure rock I think nothing can.
    Solo ascents of things like the Eiger compare in the mountain world but on technical rock, it stands alone.

  25. Sarah
    Posted November 30, 2018 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Even these comments make me queasy!

  26. phoffman56
    Posted December 1, 2018 at 3:49 am | Permalink

    I’ll see that documentary when I can. Looking at this short one definitely puts butterflies into my tummy.

    I’ve never been a climber though I’ve done plenty of hiking which involved lots of clambering with all four limbs, mainly Canadian Rockies, Lake District and Scotland, Italy Dolomites. And fixed hikers’ (not rock climbers’) ropes. Coming down is worse than going up, of course.

    Based also on 8 years or so of clambering up onto my roof to maintain and remove snow from my roof solar panels, I think I have somewhat less fear of heights than average, by ‘inclination’, not just training. (But worse with claustrophobia—caving, ugh!!)

    Here’s a conjecture though: it is far less nerve-racking to, so to speak, do it, than to watch somebody else do it. That’s even when you know beforehand for a video that no accident happened. As usual with skiing also, you look where yo want to go, not where you fear you might go!

  27. Ralph
    Posted December 1, 2018 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Ueli Steck was a mountaineer rather than a rock climber, but perhaps comparable in talent and reputation to Honnold. I find watching Steck far more disturbing – you see his holds slip slightly when dry-tooling several times even in these short videos, whereas Honnold’s moves always seem perfect. Steck was killed last year in the Himalayas, details unknown.

    Ueli Steck speed record on the Eiger N Face:

  28. John Snyders
    Posted December 2, 2018 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    I recommend seeing this movie, Free Solo, and The Dawn Wall. Both great movies about great climbers. In my opinion The Dawn Wall is the more inspiring story. Tommy Caldwell spent years working on a project everyone thought was impossible, trying and failing over and over until he succeeded. Alex took a difficult climb that others have done and made it unnecessarily dangerous.


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