“For a brief moment, I feel perfect.”
Alex Honnold’s revelatory statement is crucial to understanding the internal drive that led the climber to successfully scale Yosemite’s El Capitan alone, and without equipment—”free solo”—in June 2017.
This pursuit is what drives the plot in Free Solo, the 2018 documentary directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Vasarhelyi.
When applied to Honnold’s staggering feat, “perfection” is anything but a vacuous term. The litmus test of a flawless ascent is reaching the pinnacle of El Cap. The minutest slip, a misstep of any kind is simply unforgiveable. Gravity assures a certain death for the climber who errs. Incredibly, Honnold bests one of nature’s imposing and beautiful landmarks in a fair match.
Free Solo traces Honnold’s life from a young boy into the 32 year-old world class climber who would accomplish what most believed was impossible. A major portion of the film traces his tedious exploration of plausible routes for a free climb. One juncture in particular proves profoundly difficult and Honnold’s recurring attempts to master it are stymied. He has a team and is tethered to a rope, but his goal is to attain certainty that it is physically possible to pass this obstacle. When the day arrives to free solo El Capitan, he will have to combine a calculated leap with precise hand and foot placement.
Though viewers know that Alex will survive the climb, the suspense is not minimized as the audience watches Honnold attempt to conquer the Granite monolith and receive a training injury in late 2016, setting him back several months.
Climbing alone, however, does not occupy the film’s storyline. The camera crew traces Honnold’s relationship with his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, a sympathetic companion and fellow climber who accompanies him on his travels. That Alex places climbing over her is quickly obvious. During the accident in which Sanni is to blame for losing her grip on Alex’s rope, Honnold candidly admits that after the incident, he considered severing their relationship, but is convinced otherwise. “Would you be happier?” Sanni asks. He concedes that he probably wouldn’t.
As the plot develops, Sanni expresses an increasing desire to settle down and pursue a life with Alex, even purchasing a home together in Las Vegas. At one point Alex opines that, “She wants to be happy…for me it’s all about performance.” When the directors recount Honnold’s childhood he recalls his mother repeating an old saying that, “good enough isn’t.”
As Hannold draws closer to scaling El Cap, the directors increase focus on the nature of interpersonal relationships. Though his life is inextricably bound to others, his pursuit of climbing is unapologetically individualistic. Alex the man is not just attempting to climb, but to live “free solo.”
With less than a day before the assent, an experienced, respected climber gently warns Alex that he doesn’t have to make this attempt. Viewers read between the lines the message that Alex’s life is not worth the risk he is taking. The camera crew is also cautious, gingerly asking whether they should continue filming if he falls. Sanni herself leaves Yosemite Valley in tears before Alex ascends.
Undaunted, Alex begins early in the morning, successfully reaches and masters the leap, passing the most difficult portion. In less than four hours he is atop El Cap. The camera crew is jubilant along with Sanni whom Alex calls by phone from the summit.
Back in base camp, Alex is interviewed and at one point is asked if he is done climbing, or are there other peaks left to scale. He pauses for reflection, conceding that there may be other mountains to conquer. The camera captures Sanni’s pensive expression of incredulity and concern, leaving the viewer to intuit her thoughts.
Free Solo is more than a contemporary iteration of man vs. nature. It’s a reminder of the breadth, depth, and height of perfection. Alex pursues a style of climbing in which life and death are at stake in every attempt. Thus, to live and scale another rock face requires tactically flawless maneuvering. Alex is correct that his climb requires a real degree of perfection.
Yet, the film powerfully discloses imperfections in the man—particularly as it relates to his relationships. Though Alex is assisted, encouraged, and counseled by other climbers, his camera crew, and his girlfriend, his pursuit is a solitary endeavor—physically, psychologically, even spiritually. Even his friends who support him express doubts at the worthiness of the endeavor. Are we not more important that soling El Cap? It seems the answer is no. This leaves us with a fragmented and incomplete human being.
Moreover, the film is provocative for its challenge to the very pursuit of free climbing for its own sake. It hearkens to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics where courage is described as mediating between cowardice and recklessness. Though Alex Honnold demonstrates remarkable endurance, focus, and passion, it is a greater challenge to conclude exactly how he is brave. Free Solo reminds us that bravery involves risking one’s life for the sake of another. This is precisely what Alex will not do. One may even dare say he’s afraid of mediocrity.
At several points in the film Honnold recalls several contemporary climbers—some of them friends—who died in climbing accidents. All older than Alex, each of these men kept climbing; their quest for perfection ended in their deaths. If the thrill and risk of free climbing is what drives Alex Honnold, will his own quest for perfection finally be stymied by human frailty? Will going “solo” on the mountain and in life finally lead to a free fall?