The most telling line in “Free Solo,” the new documentary that follows rock climber Alex Honnold’s 2017 climb up the face of El Capitan without ropes or gear, comes not from Honnold himself, but from his friend and climbing partner Tommy Caldwell.
“People who know a little bit about climbing are like, ‘Oh, he’s totally safe,’” says Caldwell in one of his many voice-cracking interviews throughout the film. “People who know exactly what he’s doing are freaked out.”
An insanely accomplished climber himself, Caldwell spent much of the two years leading up to the unprecedented ascent by Honnold’s side, climbing the 3,000-foot wall over and over (with ropes) with him to ensure he knew every move like the back of his heavily calloused hands before making the fateful attempt.
In that one line, Caldwell captures the dichotomy at the heart of the film, and really, at the center of a discussion surrounding any risk-filled venture. It’s easy to talk about Honnold from a distance if you don’t know exactly what he’s contending with up on the wall. Like Caldwell said, many people assume he’s such a master that there’s no reason to worry. Others write him off as an adrenaline junkie whose blind obsession is going to get him killed. This, I’d argue, is the more common response. Whenever Honnold’s lifestyle is brought up to those outside the outdoor-sports community, it tends to be met with bewilderment. Why would he do that? Is he insane?
Then there are the people who do know what Honnold is doing. They understand that despite his obsessive preparation (Honnold really does have every single move on the 3,300-foot Freerider route up El Cap memorized), climbing is an inherently risky activity, and one small hiccup or falling pebble or lapse in focus will send him plummeting to the Yosemite Valley floor. The film makes this clear by stating that almost every free soloist, apart from Honnold, is now dead. Many climbers have compared the activity to Russian Roulette, and it’s an apt description. There’s only so much Honnold can control. As Caldwell said, the people closest to him are freaked out — and it’s not lost on the audience that he is certainly one of those people. In fact, being right next to Honnold throughout his training, he might be the most rattled of anyone.
But regardless of how scared he is that Honnold might fall — regardless of how much he’s plagued by the thought that in helping him train, he’s guiding him to that moment and abetting an eventual catastrophe — Caldwell helps Honnold nonetheless. With nervous eyes peering out from an otherwise stone-cold face, he climbs with Honnold, offers advice, and guides him through any moves or problems he can’t get a hold on. There’s no doubt that Caldwell would have breathed a massive sigh of relief had Honnold decided to abandon the project altogether, but until then, he wouldn’t deny him the help he was asking for.
What makes “Free Solo” so interesting is the way it explores these relationships. The film isn’t really about the climb itself. We know he makes it. We know it’s “one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever.” It’s fascinating and vertigo-inducing to watch it happen (thanks to the incredible camera team led by Jimmy Chin, who co-directed the film with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi), but what we really take away from the documentary is a new outlook on risk. It asks: when we don’t fully understand why our loved ones do what they do, how far do we let them go?
The cast of characters that has to contend with this question is extensive. In addition to Caldwell, there’s Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless. Next to her partner’s pragmatism and almost-robotic demeanor, McCandless’s honest emotions are amplified tenfold. She makes it clear, often through tears, that she can’t fully grasp why it’s so important to him that he accomplish this. She knows that free-soloing is his life and that she can’t ask him to stop, but it doesn’t mean she’s not terrified she’s going to wake up one day to the news that he won’t be returning from that morning’s climb. For his part, Honnold responds with his brand of ruthlessly practical analysis. “If I perish, you’ll find someone else. Not a big deal.” It’s not the only time in the film the audience is left wondering why she stays with him.
Then there’s Jimmy Chin. Like Caldwell, Chin contemplates the potential role he’s playing in Honnold’s demise, but as the lead cameraman, his worry is even more personal. If Honnold dies, he won’t have the luxury of looking away. (On the day of the climb, Caldwell is hundreds of miles away, at home with his kids in Colorado, trying not to think about it.) He’ll be the one closest to it, the person most likely to deal with immediate trauma from watching it happen. “It’s hard not to imagine your friend falling through the frame to his death,” he says.
Chin also worries about the camera crew’s effect on Honnold. In a sport where even a slight breeze can be the difference between life and death, the pressure of having a team of cameramen assembling on your schedule and watching your every move could be fatal. Chin spends hours with Honnold discussing where the climber is comfortable placing cameras and where he wants space, and even then, Chin goes to great lengths to shield his friend from the pressure that the production team feels.
The most relatable reaction to Honnold’s climb, however, comes from cameraman Mikey Schaefer. Throughout the climb, Schaefer is positioned in the valley below, training a camera on Honnold as he ascends. When Honnold reaches the trickiest section of the route, a precarious sequence at 1,700 feet known as the Boulder Problem, Schaefer looks away. He’s seen Honnold fall here several times during his roped-in training, and he can’t bring himself to look up to the possible sight of a red-shirted dot plunging toward the ground. When the journalist sitting beside him reports that Honnold made it, Schaefer’s relief reverberates throughout the theater.
The question that connects every one of these people adjacent to Honnold is: Why? Why do they let someone they’re so close to embark on a journey like this? Why does McCandless stay with him when he causes her so much worry. Why does Caldwell help him train? Why do Chin and Schaefer agree to put themselves through such agony and risk watching their friend kill himself?
The answer is spelled out halfway through the film by Honnold’s mother. Despite her surprisingly cold parenting style (at one point, Honnold reveals that he was well into in his 20s before realizing that hugging was a normal thing that people do), Dierdre Wolownick offers what could be seen as the thesis of the entire documentary: “I think when he’s free-soloing, he feels the most alive, the most everything. How could you even think about taking that away from somebody?”
This is what everybody around Honnold slowly comes to recognize. Without the distance of a casual observer, they don’t have the luxury of calling him insane, of saying he’s a lunatic who doesn’t understand the risk of what he’s doing. They know he has a full grasp on the risk involved with free-soloing and that he does everything in his power to minimize it before climbing. They see his passion for climbing and they understand that, as much as it worries them, they can’t stop him from doing what he loves.
The beauty of this message is that it extends far beyond climbing. Anyone who’s ever developed a passion for something remotely risky has contended with those who tell them to stop being so reckless. BASE jumpers are reminded of fatality rates. Enlisting soldiers are asked if it’s worth it to put their life on the line for their country. Artists are instructed to give up their dream and get a steady job. And we deal with it in the travel community all the time. Especially in this age of heightened political divisiveness, we’re told over and over again to not travel to certain places because they’re “too dangerous.”
What “Free Solo” does is remind us that even if we don’t understand why someone loves what they love, it’s not our place to tell them to stop. It gives us necessary insight into Honnold as an individual, not just a headline, which reduces the distance between us and him and provides viewers with the empathy needed to respect his dream.
You don’t have to agree with everyone’s desire, but you do need to respect it — even if you have to look away when they take that first step.
Did you see “Free Solo”? What did you think? Continue the discussion in the comments below!
Header image by Emanuel Hahn