Sports in the Movies: Free Solo
Every year Yosemite National Park welcomes over three million visitors. Of these, one percent come to climb the rock walls of the valley. With harness, ropes, and climbing partners they scale the, sometimes, treacherous granite. These intrepid sportsmen are not the dare devils of Yosemite, however. That title goes to the climbers who free solo. With only climbing shoes and chalk bag to improve their grip, they climb walls that had previously only been accessible to winged creatures. Those of us who have visited Yosemite, and clung for dear life to railings as we ascended prepared trails, know the queasy feeling as you walk to the edge of a precipice and look down. How could someone climb these cliffs, especially with no safety equipment? Who would do such a thing?
The 2018 National Geographic documentary, Free Solo, answers this question. It is produced and directed by married couple, Elizabeth Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. Vasarhelyi is an award winning filmmaker. Chin is an accomplished rock climber and Cinematographer. Before they could take on such a project, they needed a “Star”. For this they chose noted “adventure rock climber” Alex Honnold. Honnold dropped out of Berkeley after his freshman year to fully pursue his passion for rock climbing. Living largely a solitary life, he lived in a van and traveled to various climbing sites. In his early thirties , he was approached by Vasarhelyi and Chin who wanted to document Honnold’s free solo climb of El Capitan, one of the most difficult rock faces on the planet. Honnold had been considering this climb for some time, but now had to approach it with greater intent.
The film digs into Honnold’s life and what he had to consider before the attempt. Using standard rock climbing techniques and safety equipment, he ascended the face of El Capitan many times, making copious notes, and essentially memorizing every movement, foothold and handhold. Chin and his film crew, made up of climbers, had to be ready at a moment’s notice; They had to wait for the day when Honnold’s mind and body were in perfect sync with the task. They had to do this without putting pressure on Honnold, because the worst thing would be if the filming itself led to a tragedy.
This film will give you a new appreciation for the climbing difficulties that Yosemite can provide. It will also give you a new respect for the occasional specks you see moving up the immense granite walls.