Free Solo: ‘One little slip, and you fall and die’

Review: This chronicle of reckless, beautiful human spirit is terrifying – but magic

Trailer for Free Solo, a profile of extreme rock climbers.

Alex Honnold and his ‘goddamn warrior spirit’

Film Title: Free Solo

Director: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin

Starring: Alex Honnold

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 99 min

Tue, Dec 11, 2018, 18:05


Some way into the year’s most white knuckle film, rock climber Alex Honnold recalls that more than one ex-girlfriend has told him that he has a personality disorder.

By then we’re deep into his two-year preparations to climb the sheer wall of El Capitan, a kilometre-high sheer granite impossibility in Yosemite National Park. If he manages it, he’ll be the first climber to scale the monolith free solo – as in without ropes and safety equipment, one finger and toe at a time up a landmark that looks like it belongs in a Roadrunner cartoon.

Personality disorder? The man is bonkers.

“Here is what I don’t understand,” asks a TV interviewer. “One little mistake, one little slip and you fall and die.”

“Yeah, you seem to understand it well,” replies Honnold flatly.

Even a documentary crew comprised of experienced mountaineers repeatedly flinch during the final 20 terrifying minutes of this death-defying ascent.

Watching the spectacular Free Solo, one is often reminded of Kevin Pearce and his fellow athletes in Lucy Walker’s excellent documentary, The Crash Reel. In common with those extreme sports enthusiasts, Honnold is compelled to do what he does in pursuit of what he calls “goddamn warrior spirit”. He has that in spades.

A solitary chap who has lived in a van for nine years, even in the presence of his adoring girlfriend Sunni, there’s something monastic about Honnold’s months of pull-ups and hours of silent concentration spent mapping and memorising his route.

Against this, Sunni becomes an increasingly dominant and domesticating force in the film, a factor that only adds to a sense of dark foreboding in the days before the feat.

After various delays, sidelining injuries, and other dramas, the climb makes for an unexpectedly emotional journey, especially for the anxious filmmakers. Unable to use such conveniences as, say, a nice ladder, what climber and cinematographer Jimmy Chin and his wife and co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi have achieved is almost as impressive as the ascent.

Meru (2015), the couple’s documentary account of Chin’s efforts to summit Meru Peak in the Himalayas, inspired plenty of gasps. This latest chronicle of reckless, beautiful human spirit is more impressive again. The vast, sublime shots of Honnold framed by trees and valleys far, far below, are simply magic. Terrifying, but magic.

Now in cinemas