Rock Climbing, Abseiling & Canyoning

Free Solo | Review of Alex Honnold’s New Film About Climbing El Capitan Without Ropes

We watched it at the Kendal Mountain Festival last weekend, and our palms are still sweaty

When you watch ‘Solo – A Star Wars Story’ there’s a certain lack of jeopardy surrounding the main character, with the viewer watching safe in the knowledge that Han makes it out of his escapades alive, and will go on to star in sequels and deliver all them brilliant lines. In spite of naming similarities though, ‘Free Solo’, starring Alex Honnold, is a completely different kettle of fish.

Yes, the viewing audience for Free Solo can say “I’ve seen interviews with Alex after El Cap, so I know he doesn’t plummet to his death”, but faced with the pant-wettingly terrifying reality of a man climbing 2,307 feet of Yosemite’s most revered rockface (without ropes) is enough to make you question whether the climber has in fact been replaced by a very convincing 3D hologram for the last 16 months in some kind of twisted PR stunt.

Of course – pending review by a panel of conspiracy theorists – we’re fairly sure that that’s not the case. But the fact still stands that you can go in assured of the ending of this film – and still come out with sweaty palms, feeling like you too have made some kind of gargantuan lifetime achievement. Spoiler warnings be damned. It’s the enthralling moment-to-moment tension in this one that gets you.

Free Solo is a breathtakingly impressive climbing documentary. But it also serves as an excellent character study of the man himself, and honestly illustrates the difficulties of filming and documenting a man driven by perfecting the art of free solo climbing. Where does the moral benchmark lie if the star of the show loses his life in the name of good film-making? That’s a question tackled head on by this film.

Screenshot: ‘Free Solo’ trailer (via YouTube)

While many might regard his pursuits as unjustifiably dangerous, Honnold’s logic is (at least in his mind) undeniable, and in the process of building up to the main event, we’re given excellent insight into the extraordinary lengths he takes in preparing for such a task.

While many might cringe at the cross-pollination of romantic relationship and action sports docu-drama, Alex’s developing relationship with Sanni McCandless is given due weight in the tale, as the serious emotional repercussions of a worst case scenario attempt are fully explored. But for the most part, all this does is to add weight to risks reiterated by experienced El Cap climber Tommy Caldwell and Jimmy Chin’s extended film crew.

Screenshot: ‘Free Solo’ trailer (via YouTube)

The fear from them is tangible, as well you might imagine, and is only slightly alleviated with each pitch Honnold completes.

The end comes with a flurry of emotion as you might expect, even from our usually reserved protagonist; but for all our words and praise, very little can be said that’ll do justice to the intricate and beautiful process that Free Solo takes you through.

Best watched on the big screen thanks to amazing visual storytelling by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, we can’t recommend highly enough that you seek out a local screening immediately.

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Alex Honnold Interview | We Speak to the Man Who Climbed El Capitan Without Ropes

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