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Opinion: The Free Solo Documentary Addressed Some Uncomfortable Truths, But Ignored Others

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Disclaimer: This article contains significant spoilers for the documentary Free Solo.

Alex Honnold Freerider Free Solo El Capitan Rock Climbing Documentary
Alex Honnold climbs way, way, way above the Valley floor during his free solo ascent El Capitan’s Freerider.Courtesy National Geographic

Alex Honnold is a polarizing figure. I don’t mean within our community, I mean within my own mind. Honnold gives me cognitive dissonance. I believe both that his free solos are amazing feats, approaching the limits of human potential, and that he’s recklessly risking his own life. I’m impressed, but I—like so many in the climbing community, including some of Honnold’s own friends—wish he wouldn’t pursue these unroped climbs in the first place. The film Free Solo, which documents Honnold’s groundbreaking El Cap solo via Freerider, is this concept distilled.

Before I move on, let’s get one thing out of the way. This is not a review. Free Solo is a great movie—one of the best climbing films to date—and you should go see it. OK, now that that’s settled….

As a member of the climbing media, I don’t like questions like “Should the media cover free soloing?” I don’t believe it’s our job to decide. I believe it’s our job to report on newsworthy climbs of whatever type and let readers form their own opinions. Yet there was a point during Free Solo, as Honnold was waxing poetic about the virtues of soloing, that I couldn’t help but wonder: Does this movie glorify free soloing? Will this movie encourage more people to climb ropeless? After finishing the film, I realized that there’s not one answer. It depends on whom you ask.

While it’s true that Honnold spends the entire film expounding on his love of soloing, not a single other person interviewed wants him to go through with the climb. Tommy Caldwell does not want Honnold to do it. Peter Croft, one of Honnold’s Yosemite free-solo predecessors, reminds Honnold that he doesn’t have to go through with it. Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, tries her best to be encouraging, though she would much prefer Honnold not solo. The film shows that Honnold’s continued pursuit of ropeless ascents puts significant stress on his loved ones, even when he succeeds. So the question becomes, whose side are you on? The film can be seen as an inspiring story of Honnold going against the odds and proving all the naysayers wrong to accomplish something incredible. Or it can be viewed as the story of a climber who went against all better judgement and got away with it. Or somewhere in the middle. Or both. Cognitive dissonance.

Of course, the movie guides the viewer toward Honnold’s perspective. The story follows the structure of a major Hollywood movie, and he is the hero of the film. We’ve all been conditioned since birth to root for and empathize with the main character, and it can be hard to go against this instinct. I, for example, was rooting for Walter White in Breaking Bad right through the bitter end, long after he had gone from roguish antihero to utterly irredeemable human being.

The filmmakers do a good job of questioning Honnold leading up to the ascent, which is why it’s so jarring when they stop. After Honnold tops out, the ambiguity disappears and it becomes a wild celebration of an athletic achievement, complete with triumphant guitar riffs. It’s as though the filmmakers believe that since Honnold succeeded, it was a good idea all along, and we were wrong to ever doubt him; victory silences scrutiny.

Perhaps this has been a problem in climbing media all along. In the 1997 film Masters of Stone 4, Dan Osman not only performs his well-known speed solo of Lover’s Leaps Bear’s Reach, but he also dry tools a fast-flowing waterfall without a rope. Both segments are presented as being unabashedly rad. In Valley Uprising, the film speculates that Dean Potter’s free-BASE soloing—free soloing while wearing a BASE-jumping parachute—may be the next big progression in our sport. Neither of those men are alive today. Cedar Wright’s Safety Third, part of Reel Rock 12, is a celebration of Brad Gobright, who breaks his back on a risky trad route and does not look nearly solid enough when he free solos Eldorado Canyon’s Hairstyles and Attitudes (5.12b/c) for the film’s climax. In Meru, also by Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the team decides to continue pursuing the first ascent of the Meru Shark’s Fin even though group-member Renan Ozturk is non-verbal due to a possible stroke. And then they summit. And then the credits roll. And then the music plays. Certainly we’ve been guilty of the same approach to reporting on risky endeavors at this magazine—perhaps too much cheerleading and not enough of the tough self-examination.

What Free Solo does do well is shatter the image of Honnold as he’s typically been portrayed in the media. Before Free Solo, you could view Honnold as a funny, intellectual, well-adjusted guy who just happens to take great pleasure in the occasional onsight solo and in working big routes until he has them so dialed that they are, to some degree, “safe” pursuits to then do ropeless. Free Solo, on the other hand, doesn’t portray Honnold as a happy guy. He places his athletic pursuits ahead of all personal relationships, he’s obsessed with perfection, and while he is able to climb a 3,000-foot 5.13 without a rope, he is unable, upon completion, of surmounting the challenge of accessing his own emotions and allowing himself to cry. The film cuts away before he can answer the question, “Are you depressed?” But on a podcast interview with Tim Ferris (45:15 in the episode), he does respond, saying:

“Yes. I think I gravitate towards being a somewhat depressed person. Or—I don’t know actually. I’m sort of just flat…I feel like I don’t have any of the highs. I kind of go from level, to slightly below level, to back. It’s all pretty flat…Sometimes you just feel useless, you know? But in some ways I embrace that as part of the process because you kind of have to feel like a worthless piece of poop in order to get motivated enough to go do something that makes you feel less useless. But then ultimately that still doesn’t make you feel any less useless, so you just have to keep doing more.”

For years, climbers have been talking about Honnold as though he has superpowers. Now, with a more-honest portrayal, it seems that it may be his weaknesses that both allow and drive him to put his life on the line: an inability to access emotions, struggles with self-esteem, and indifference toward his own continued existence. In the film, his biggest concern about falling is that others may have to watch. He says, “The idea of falling off is—obviously I’m trying to avoid that— but it’s kind of OK if I’m just by myself. But I wouldn’t want to fall off right in front of my friends because that’s messed up.”

Free Solo does admirably dive into an uncomfortable question: Was the film crew influencing Honnold to go through with the climb? The crew certainly seems uncomfortable. Chin shows a great wave of relief when Honnold pulls onto the summit. Mikey Schaefer proclaims that he will never work on another project like this again, and is visibly upset throughout the climb, looking away from his camera in El Cap Meadow at key moments on the solo. But Chin is quick to shirk responsibility when Honnold bails off an early attempt in autumn 2016, telling himself that it proves that the documentary is not encouraging Honnold. He says, “What made the big difference for me is that he did turn around last year. He didn’t feel the pressure to have to do it because we were there. That, to me, said a lot.” The film ignores two important things:

  1. By allowing the crew to film him, Honnold by default is acknowledging that he wants the crew there more than he doesn’t. If he did not see significant value in being filmed—fame, glory, a wide-release documentary, and the accompanying monetary incentives—he would not have agreed to it. Therefore, the film crew must provide some motivation to Honnold to go through with his free solo of El Capitan.
  2. As my coworker James Lucas is quick to point out, the film crew makes the free solo more accessible to Honnold by providing him the option to bail at any time. While no one can save Honnold from a sudden foot slip or botched move, the film crew gives him the option to rappel whenever he’s not feeling it, and he did take advantage of this benefit on his abortive attempt in 2016. Their presence lowers the barrier of entry to the climb.

But if I’m going to cite the filmmakers as accomplices, then the other uncomfortable truth is that we, the viewers, are equally culpable. By watching Free Solo, by clicking Alex Honnold YouTube videos, by reading news stories, by going to his book signings, we create the market for the free-soloing content that gives Honnold sponsors and opportunities in the first place. Consider this: When’s the last time you’ve seen a photo of Honnold climbing with a rope? His sponsors may stick with him if he quit free soloing today, but none of us would know his name had he not exploded onto the scene with ropeless ascents of the Rostrum and Astroman in-a-day back in 2007 then Moonlight Buttress and Half Dome in 2008. His value as an athlete is wrapped up in his willingness to climb difficult routes unroped.

So will the movie encourage more people to free solo? Probably a couple. But at the same time, did we all encourage Honnold to free solo El Cap by lavishing praise upon his previous big solos and, later, by lining up at the box office for this documentary? I think we did.

Kevin Corrigan is the digital editor at Climbing Magazine. To read more of his work, check out Unsent for his humor columns and Noon Patrol for his non-humor columns.