Like many, I was a casual observer of this year’s Academy Awards. I love movies and am usually entertained by the Oscars. I see four or five of the nominated films each season, so I am no expert on cinema by any means, but I enjoy sitting in a dark theater.
I took particular interest when I heard ‘Free Solo’ won the award for the best documentary film. I had heard it was centered around one climber’s attempt to climb El Capitan without ropes.
I successfully scaled Mt. Rainier in 2011, and for me it was a herculean task. But I have never tried rock climbing and can only imagine what it would take to accomplish that, let alone with no help. It has always been a bit of a fascination for me, so I was intrigued to see this movie.
*Spoiler alert: This article reveals how the film turns out, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the ending.
El Capitan is a vertical rock face rising 3,000 feet out of the Yosemite Valley in California’s Yosemite National Park. The granite face is a popular climbing spot with many different extremely challenging routes. It was first scaled in 1957 and took 47 days. The first successful solo trip took place in 1968.
In recent years, climbers from all over the world have become infatuated with the notion of free climbing El Capitan, which means no ropes or any safety gear. Crazy, right? That is the premise of this thrilling movie.
The movie is centered around Alex Honnold, one of the world’s most renowned rock climbers and free climbing experts. His nickname is ‘No Big Deal,’ and he has scaled some of the most dangerous walls around the world, many without the assistance of safety gear. Filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi follow Honnold’s quest to be the first to free solo El Capitan.
Honnold’s intense preparation and fascination with the climb are the focus of the movie, and getting to know him as a person and a climber is a puzzle. He is a different bird, as I like to say. I don’t even know if his girlfriend, who figures prominently in the film, really knows what makes him tick. A brain scan shows he is indeed blessed/cursed/stuck with a brain that doesn’t sense fear like the rest of us. It all makes sense when you see the actual climbing.
One of my fascinations with the movie comes from the work of Chin and Vasarhelyi and their incredible cinematography. The breathtaking scenery and climbing footage left me in awe. While I chomped on my popcorn, I was looking up trips to Yosemite. It is the real star of the film.
When the actual climb begins it is in such a nonchalant way that it snuck up on me that ‘THIS IS IT!’ Suddenly I was immersed in the route the film had painstakingly mapped out. Every sticking point and dangerous spot for him to navigate were fresh in my mind. And all of this taking place thousands of feet above the ground.
Now, I’m not great with heights and feel I have the normal aversion. But this movie had me on the edge of my seat with sweaty palms throughout his climb. As he navigated up the face I really got a sense of the danger of this climb. I see why it took him nearly three years of preparation to get to that point.
The fear of death is an underlying theme here. As the climb progresses I could see the anxiety among the film crew, many of whom were Honnold’s close friends. I can say, without a doubt, the last 20 minutes of this movie were as nerve-racking as I have ever experienced watching a movie. For that, much credit needs to be given to the directors.
Because you get to know Honnold and his quirky personality throughout the movie, I couldn’t help but shed a tear of joy when he finally finishes this thrill ride. The sense of relief I experienced for him (and myself!), was like none other. I can only imagine how he felt accomplishing probably the most difficult feat in climbing history.
Whether or not you are a climber, see this movie. It is a combination of breathtaking scenery and incredible athletic expertise. After watching it you’ll have to agree that Alex Honnold is one of the best athletes in the world. No question. Climbing is coming to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. I sure hope he shows up.