2017 was a huge year for climbing. Margo Hayes became the first woman to climb 9a+, Angy Eiter became the first woman to climb 9b, Adam Ondra made the first 9c ascent, and Alex Honnold free soloed El Capitan in Yosemite. All of these accomplishments are incredible and show how much people in our sport have pushed the limits of what can be achieved. With the ever increasing presence of social media, footage of these climbs are easily accessible and in the case of Honnold’s climb, turned into a major film. Free Solo was released on September 28th in America and December 11th in the UK to widespread acclaim and a slew of awards.
I didn’t know much about Honnold’s climb before I went to see the movie. Obviously I knew who he was and I had listened to hours of his interviews with on various podcasts during long runs (turns out he’s a pretty funny and charismatic guy, not at all like the awkward, gawking kid he had been made out to be in articles I had read), but his free solo accomplishments never caught my attention the same way Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson’s ascent of the Dawn Wall or Lynn Hill’s first ascent of the The Nose did. Still, I knew I had to see it from the trailers and all the hype it had gotten, so I went to the December 11th premiere at my local theatre.
First things first: the film is beautifully shot. It’s directed by E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the team behind the 2015 film Meru with Conrad Anker. It shows the dedication behind the final attempt and shows some of the behind the scenes issues, such as how to capture sound and footage during the climb without interfering. A major theme is how Honnold’s loved ones cope with his free solos, but this is where, for me, the film fell short. Honnold’s mother is barely in the movie, whereas his girlfriend Sanni McCandless takes up half the screen time. Coming to terms with your significant other’s decision to do seemingly crazy free solos must be incredibly difficult and for that I give McCandless enormous credit, but she still comes off as irritating and a bit overbearing. Another aspect that I didn’t appreciate was how the film portrayed Dean Potter’s legacy, who was included in the segment overviewing famous free soloers. Potter was a famed and controversial free solo climber (he would go free climbing and BASE jumping with his dog, Whisper, in a backpack, which is pretty damn stupid) and while his death was indisputably a tragedy, he died doing a BASE jump in Yosemite in May 2015, not free soloing. Misconstruing Potter’s death to hype up how dangerous it is to free solo El Capitan is disrespectful to Potter and Honnold, who frequently discussed the impact Potter’s death had on him.
As incredible as all of Honnold’s achievements and the Free Solo movie are, free soloing still doesn’t inspire me the same way incredibly hard sport routes or big-wall achievements do. I understand the argument that he is pushing our sport in a different way than, say, Ondra and Caldwell are, but seeing Caldwell and Jorgensen climb the hardest big wall in the world, or Ondra climbing harder than literally anyone else, ever, is more enjoyable to watch and more inspiring to me than free soloing ever could be. I just don’t get it.
That’s not to say don’t see the movie – it is incredible, and the footage is beautiful. But for me, nothing will surpass Tommy Caldwell’s 2017 book The Push. Caldwell is so open about his life: his upbringing, the effect Kyrgyzstan had on him, his marriage and subsequent divorce, and all the details behind the Dawn Wall climb that sadly the movie doesn’t go into. That being said, I think Free Solo is a better film than The Dawn Wall because The Dawn Wall leaves so much out from The Push, whereas Free Solo is raw and goes through the mental and physical preparations alongside the stunning shots of Yosemite.