Viewed: “Free Solo”

Alex Honnold during his free solo on El Capitan

Actually, it goes without saying. To recommend an Oscar-winning film is like telling a visitor of Yosemite National Park to take a look at El Capitan. But I have written the following movie review before “Free Solo” war honored as best documentary last night in Los Angeles. Honestly!

Everybody’s afraid for Alex. His girlfriend Sanni, his friend and training partner Tommy Caldwell, the camera crew. “Alex has the best day of his life, I not,” says cameraman Mickey Schäfer and turns his back on his tool. “I’m done.” With a super telephoto, he films the ascent of American climber Alex Honnold on the legendary granite giant El Capitan via the “Free Rider” route. German Alexander Huber opened it in 1995, three years later he and his brother Thomas climbed the route redpoint: free and in one push.

Milestone in rock climbing

Honnold goes one step further. Alex climbs free solo, without any belaying. No hooks, no rope, nothing. 1,000 meters, 38 pitches in the upper tenth degree, in extremely steep, partly overhanging rock, often almost without grips. Never before a climber has mastered a route on “El Cap” free solo. Honnold manages the feat on 3 June 2017. After just under four hours, he enters the summit plateau. A milestone in rock climbing. “I am so delighted,” Alex says when he calls Sanni immediately afterwards. “I feel quite emotional.” But he doesn’t seem to be that way – rather cool, for the fact that he has just been facing death for four hours.

“If you don’t win, you die.”

The documentary accompanies Alex and his personal environment on his most spectacular climbing project to date, from the planning phase to training and realization. Free solo climbing is a divisive issue, even among mountain enthusiasts. On the one hand, it is the purest form of climbing, the fairest possible confrontation between rock and man. On the other hand, it is the most dangerous one. In the film, Honnold compares it to an attempt to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games: “If you don’t win, you die.” Or like this: “If I fall 50 meters deep, my body would explode.” Already in the first minutes of the film I wondered what kind of man you have to be to take such a risk.

Striving for perfection

Sanni cuts Alex’s hair before his free solo

“You need a mental armor,” says Alex’s friend Tommy Caldwell. Honnold has got such an armor, but maybe it even was laid around him. Alex says that in his family they never hugged each other. Nobody used the word love. Instead it was only about performance. “Almost doesn’t count”, was his mother’s motto. Striving for perfection drives him, Alex says. Even if this perfection only lasts for a moment.

As a viewer you sometimes just want to shake him: “Wake up, Alex! Just enjoy life without risking it!” His girlfriend Sanni tries to move him into this direction. But does she have a realistic chance? In front of an audience Alex says sentences like: “I would always prefer climbing to a lady”. Or he makes it clear to Sanni that “maximizing lifetime” is definitely not one of his priorities.

Cold sweat

Full risk

“Free Solo” is a very exciting movie. Not only because of the breathtaking climbing scenes, which are brilliantly filmed by Jimmy Chin and his camera team, all of them professional climbers, and which already drive beads of sweat on your forehead while watching. But also because of the human story behind Honnold’s daring project. You just want to see behind Alex’s mental armor. And he actually grants a little insight …

So don’t miss it! And to get the climbing scenes really under your skin, you should definitely watch the film on a big cinema screen.

P.S.: Cinema release of “Free solo” in Germany is on 21 March.

P.P.S.: I watched the German vision of the film. So please apologize, if the quotes are not quite the same as in the English original version. – By the way, I met Alex in October 2017 at the International Mountain Summit in Brixen in South Tyrol. If you missed my interview with him, just click here.

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