When Alex Honnold became the first person to climb the 3,000-foot face of Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan with no ropes last year, the New York Times said it “should be celebrated as one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind ever.”
There have been plenty of photos and media around Honnold’s achievement since it happened, but a new documentary hitting theaters this week dizzyingly puts you right there on the rock face with him–and beyond.
After a crowd-pleasing run on the festival circuit, Free Solo will be available on big screens around the country this week to give more people a shockingly close look at what it might be like to do such a thing. Whether it’s the sheer physical challenge, the psychological motivations, or the ethical dilemma about whether to film it in the first place, there is a laundry list of questions surrounding Honnold’s feat beyond the most obvious, “How’d he do that?” What makes Free Solo such a remarkable achievement in its own right is how it tells the tale.
Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and produced by National Geographic, the film simultaneously chronicles three parallel storylines: First is Honnold the climber: probing his past, his motivations, and frankly his mental state in preparing for such a monumental challenge. Second, Honnold the man: his life on the ground and, crucially, the emergence of his first serious romantic relationship over the two years leading up to his climb. And third, the story of filming such a feat to begin with, riddled with challenges both technical and ethical.
“We had to distill what the priorities were with the film,” says Chin, a renowned climber, photographer, and filmmaker who has worked with National Geographic for years and also serves as a brand ambassador for The North Face. “You’ve got a series of thoughts–clearly we wanted to do the climb justice, we wanted to do Alex’s character justice, but we also were very conscious of his experience. What we decided was that, first and foremost, this was about Alex’s experience and his safety, period. Then we worked backwards from there.”
Chin says part of the goal for the film was to make it more than a straight-up climbing film, or simply a document of athletic human achievement. “It was going to unpack who Alex is,” says Chin. “He’s this really un-emotive person, so to coax him out and bring him to life, was another challenge. Two very distinct goals, and that’s why our partnership works so well, where I could focus on one, and she could on the other. Having Chai on the ground, really focusing in on Alex’s non-climbing life. Because he’s facing two very big challenges in his life–the climb and intimacy. Both are very scary for him, and that’s how we looked at it.”
Making the film part of the storyline was not in the original plan. But as Vasarhelyi and Chin thought more about it, they found the questions they faced as filmmakers were ones audiences should see. Part of preserving Honnold’s experience–and safety–was answering the question of whether to film it in the first place. Traditionally, free solo climbing is a solitary pursuit. Primarily, as Chin says in the film’s trailer, no one wants to see their friend drop out of the camera frame to their death. Would the cameras throw off Honnold’s concentration? Could the pressure of getting it all on film alter his approach, potentially pushing him to take on more risk than necessary?
Vasarhelyi says they were reluctant to include it. “It seemed like a distraction at first,” she says. “But they were all carrying this weight that the whole production carried, of the risk, the ethical issues, and it became a good opportunity to provide an avatar for the audience because this was happening in a vacuum. No one else knew about it. It became a really important part of it, the questions that we struggled with everyday around, are we doing the right thing?”
The Right Partner
While Chin has been a National Geographic photographer for years, both he and Vasarhelyi credit the film’s producer for its patience. “Given the risk involved in this film, and the secrecy–you couldn’t announce it was being made, you just had to hold it down–Nat Geo was a perfect home for the project,” says Vasarhelyi.
Courteney Monroe, CEO of National Geographic Global Networks, says Free Solo is part of the company’s new feature doc strategy, which it started a couple of years ago with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood, and built upon last year with Jane by Brett Morgen on Jane Goodall. “We’ve really transformed our content strategy, pivoting to something much more premium [and] creatively ambitious, and feature documentaries are a big part of that,” says Monroe.
For 130 years, National Geographic has been helping to fund adventure and exploration, from the first summit to the North Pole, to the first U.S. team to climb Everest, to James Cameron’s solo mission down to the Mariana Trench in 2012. “We have a long-standing tradition of supporting the best explorers in the world, who share our passion and commitment to pushing boundaries,” says Monroe. “And Alex Honnold is part of that tradition. For all those reasons, it felt like a quintessential National Geographic story to tell.”
Free Solo hits theaters on September 28th.