Touching The Sky: Climbing The Heights To Make Free Solo

"When I saw the final film, it totally made sense. It’s much more honest. It's much more real..."

As we sit in a screening room in the Mayfair hotel watching the final 15 minutes of Free Solo, I find myself instinctively wanting to look anywhere but the screen yet equally unable to look away.

“I take enormous pleasure in watching people cover their faces,” elite-climber and subject of the film Alex Honnold says when he is invited up on stage after the film has ended, a broad grin on his face. “Everyone squirming in their seats.”

Free Solo is the latest film from directing couple Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who assembled a team of expert climbers to follow and film Honnold’s every move as he prepared for and attempted his ultimate climbing goal: to ascend the world-famous 3,200-foot El Capitan rock face in Yosemite National Park. Without a rope.

Speaking with me the next day, Honnold reflects on the irony that in the past, he’d done all his free soloing alone, in isolation. Then for a full two year period, the natural introvert was sharing every moment of his life on and off the rock with a film crew and camera: “It was definitely an invasion of privacy,” he tells me. “They’d be filming up the wall with me all day. Then you’d get down and be exhausted and they’d have another film crew ready on the ground asking, ‘so how was it, how do you feel today?’ I’d have the whole camera crew inside my van when I’m hanging out with my girlfriend trying to have dinner. So yeah, you get broken down. But that's what makes the film so honest, it's just two years of normal life laid out. There's very little guard.”

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While he’s made climbing films before, his previous projects focused purely on the activity, with a target audience of those geekily obsessed with the niche sport: “I hadn't done anything like this before. Most climbing films you just rappel into position, get the shot and move on. You just do whatever's easiest because it's really difficult to film in a vertical setting. With Free Solo, I was often like, ‘this is way too much work, this is dumb.’ Then when I saw the final film, it totally made sense. It’s much more honest. It's much more real.”

While Chin himself is a professional climber, Vasarhelyi isn’t and it’s her perspective that draws in the aspect of Honnold’s upbringing, his nascent relationship with girlfriend Sanni McCandless and how these personal aspects bear upon his ability and career as a climber, as I learn when I speak with her: “We were just interested in Alex as a character, the idea of this kid for whom it’s scarier to talk to somebody than go out climbing by himself without a rope. That moved us. The way he addressed such fears, methodically moving through each one, little by little. Introducing vegetables one by one, learning how to hug one step at a time, speaking to strangers one step at a time. So we thought his story could be quite inspiring.”

While completing press for their fifth documentary Meru, Chin and Vasarhelyi had the idea to make a film with Alex who Chin had been climbing with for over a decade. However, when he made it clear he wanted it to be about free soloing El Capitan, something he had been dreaming about for years, they hesitated: “That changed the dimension of the whole project,” Vasarhelyi recalls. “We actually stepped away from it for a little while because it was just too scary, it was too dangerous. And then after a lot of soul-searching and consideration, we decided we would make it. But, you know, the trust between all of us was very important.”

Even once they had committed to the project, it took over two years for Honnold to complete his feat, presenting challenges for both him and the crew: “From the outset of the whole film project I was like, ‘we'll see,’ you know, ‘who knows,’” says Honnold. “So I think for the filmmakers that's tough because it's hard to budget your film accordingly when you don't really know when it's going to happen when it’s so open-ended.”

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Amidst beautifully-shot aerial views of the stunning landscape and Honnold’s astonishing climbing abilities, we follow the physical injuries and setbacks Honnold faces on the way, the difficult boulder problem on the route seeming not only insane but impossible to do without a rope. We even see the climber make a first attempt and turn back, with his goal seeming all but out of reach. The death of a prominent climber, Swiss Ueli Steck, in April 2017, casts a dark shadow over the whole team and project.

The refreshingly raw and honest approach also delivers subtle moments of comedy, as we see Honnold amidst his very modest means of a camper van and dinner straight out the pan, his rather blunt way of interacting with people, him encountering a unicorn onesie-clad climber on his final ascent up (it takes the average party three to five days to climb up and there was a crew camping on the face overnight…the unicorn onesie was less easy to explain).

Others carry an emotional intensity, revealing the childhood reasons he has such a deep-seated desire to be the best at whatever he does. And with Honnold falling in love for the first time, he starts to appear distracted and torn over pursuing his goal, with one of the film’s most poignant seeing Sanni confront Honnold over whether it’s worth him taking such an extreme risk when he has her and their potential future together to take into account, which even he reflects was hard for him to watch back: “I perhaps wish I had been a little more kind or compassionate.”

Though he stands by his ethos in terms of risk-taking: “In some ways no matter how much you care about your partner and other people, you still care about surviving more than that in theory. I always value my own survival more than any other relationship. There's just an inherent desire to live. So I don't know if it really changes your decision making that much, as ultimately I always want to survive.” And that really, each risk in climbing is carefully calculated and calibrated: “Climbing is definitely not an adrenalin sport where you huck and pray and just go for it and see what happens. It’s very slow and methodical and precise. You see that through the film: it's two years of work for this one climb that lasts for four hours. There's a lot of effort that goes into one thing. It's not like base jumping or something, where you just jump off and see what happens.”

We’re also presented with a meta-level of insight into what the film crew themselves faced, not only the logistics of filming in vertical, the team rehearsing the perfect second-by-second shots while Honnold rehearsed his perfect movements, but the moral dilemma of filming a feat that could have ended in Honnold’s death in a split second: “The technicality of it wasn't too challenging, Jimmy has 20 years of experience filming in this vertical world and our team was a hand-picked of team of elite pro-climbers who also happen to be incredible cinematographers. The challenging parts were the ethical questions and the commitment to shield Alex at all times from our own feelings, to insulate him from everything that was happening around the movie. Because we couldn't add to the pressure.”

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His pure ambition to complete the mission kept him focused: “For me, I wanted to do the climb more than anything else anyway so it didn’t really matter, the film didn’t totally matter, it didn’t matter how long they were shooting. All I wanted to do was actual free solo El Cap so I was going to work on that as long as it took. Whether or not they filmed the whole time was kind of on them. There was a real clear division of labour – I was focused on the climbing, they were focused on the filmmaking. I trusted them to do whatever was best. And conversely, they trusted me to make good decisions and do the climb appropriately. No matter how much external pressure there is, there's more internal pressure to not die.”

The “sublime moment” Honnold completed his mission, the first free solo ascent on El Capitan on 3rd June 3 2017 in 3 hours 56 minutes, made it worth it: “It was exquisite to be able to watch someone achieve what he dreamed of and trained for for many, many years. It was a privilege to witness,” says Vasarhelyi. But it was only when the whole team were all reunited for a screening at the Telluride Film Festival, there was a collective retrospective reaction to what they had all jointly experienced.

“It was so powerful. We were all sat there – including the crew, Tommy Caldwell, Sanni – sobbing,” Vasarhelyi remembers. “It was a mixture of reliving the experience, that we’d witnessed one of the greatest human achievements of our time, the work we put in. Everyone had been so committed to pulling this off but there was a pressure at all times because of the stakes. There was this element of PTSD we all had, this weight on your shoulders for two years, what if something had happened on our watch?”

Ultimately, for Vasarhelyi the film is about so much more than climbing: “There’s an existential heart to the entire movie. Alex lives a life of intention, he has great intentionality behind absolutely everything he does, and he chooses to do this because it's what he wants to do and it's how he wants to live his life. It begs us to ask those questions of ourselves. It makes the impossible seem possible. And I think that is very inspiring.”

As for Honnold, his climbing career is by no means coming to an end. Indeed, since finishing shooting he set a new speed record for climbing “The Nose of El Capitan” of one hour 58 minutes and seven seconds with climbing partner Tommy Caldwell. But whether or not he will ever have another goal like free soloing El Capitan, he can’t be sure:

“I think within the context of free soloing, it's hard to imagine anything bigger than El Cap. I mean, there are tonnes of other climbing challenges I'm interested in. And working with my foundation and maintaining a good relationship with my girlfriend – there are plenty of other aspects of life that I'd like to pursue. But within free soloing, it's hard to imagine anything bigger”.

“Time will tell,” he says ominously. Never say never I guess.

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National Geographic Documentary Film's Free Solo is in UK cinemas now.

Words: Sarah Bradbury

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