A thoroughly unassuming young man, Alex Honnold, has pulled off the most mind-blowing and seemingly impossible thing any single human in all of human history has ever accomplished, with no help from anyone. Don’t even try to refute me. This guy free solos El Capitan. Let me break that down for you.
Free: Without a rope or any other kind of safety equipment. None. He does it with what you walk down the hall with. Plus a little powder bag for keeping his hands dry. Bare hands and a pair of climbing shoes. Those are his tools. Doesn’t even take a water bottle.
Solo: By himself. No help, no assistance. No one beside him to even encourage him along.
El Capitan: In terms of difficulty, it’s the absolute center of the rock climbing universe. 3,200 feet of smooth granite, totally vertical rock.
His climb and the preparation for it is captured in the absolutely fabulous National Geographic documentary “Free Solo” (trailer here) playing, unfortunately, in very limited release. Check your local listings and go see it. Or you can order and stream it here.
The Free Solo, Broken Down
After years of practicing with ropes, determining and recording in his notebooks every hand and foot hold, every precise move that he must take to succeed, Honnold wakes up one morning in Yosemite National Park and decides today is the day. He grabs a T-shirt, some pants, his climbing shoes, his chalk bag and approaches this Goliath of a rock that’s nearly as smooth as glass in some areas. With nothing he needs to prepare or arrange, he just starts climbing with less ceremony than any of us would demonstrate at the climbing wall at the local REI store.
He’s done other seemingly impossible climbs hundreds of times, including buildings. Anything super-high and crazy scary that provides the slightest finger- and toe-holds. He totally knows what he’s doing. On this climb, precisely 3 hours and 56 minutes later, he lumbers over the top of “El Cap,” stands at the very edge, looks down, and communicates the totality of his satisfaction with a simple smile.
When his buddies, waiting for him up top, ask how he feels, he says, literally … “I’m delighted.” Delighted? Like “I’m delighted you stopped by?” But that’s Alex. One buddy looks to the camera and says, “Well, it’s nice to see Dr. Spock has emotions.”
My buddy and I drove an hour twenty to Denver to catch this documentary. If you have teen or older boys who could use a vision of what it’s like to set an atomic BHAG and let nothing stand in their way, see it with them. It sets the stage like few other things for some important and complex questions in a young man’s life.
What do true courage and determination look like? When do bravery and passion morph into recklessness? Where do physical challenge and adventure cross the line into a disregard for the value of human life? These are not easy questions, but important ones that fathers should discuss with their boys. This film provides a vivid illumination of them.
All The Ways This Doc Thrills and Inspires
Where to start in explaining the film? First off, there is simply the majesty of the places he climbs. Driving in, Alex tells us that Yosemite Valley is the most beautiful valley in the world, and he’s seen a lot of the world.
Second, you are struck by Alex’s super-chill nature. Nothing is a big deal to him. Of course he’s weird. He has to be. He’s not freaky weird, though. Just regular, endearing weird.
His life is simple. He lives in a van. (But not down by the river.) The only complaint he has about his home is that a regular place to shower would be nice. When he does find a shower on the road, it doubles as his laundry. Soap runs down his body onto the wet clothes under his feet, which he stomps on like Italian ladies turning grapes into juice.
What more does he need? He seldom combs his hair and doesn’t seem to care. He’s seldom found in anything other than T-shirts, climbing pants, and a North Face jacket when it’s chilly. The man has no pretense. He wouldn’t even know where to look for pretense.
Early in the film, trying to figure this guy out, they show Alex going through a brain scan. The results show nearly no activity in his amygdala, that part of the brain that registers fear. Makes sense, but this is not his secret weapon. He works extremely hard. He trains continuously, practices, plots, breaking every single move down to a highly deliberate science, doing it over and over again with ropes first until its second nature. He wings nothing. He is not a thrill-seeking daredevil.
Alex is like a ballet dancer performing a four-hour routine on a vertical wall so far off the ground the massive sequoia trees below look like fungus on the valley floor. The older climber who inspired Alex when he was young – and the second most skilled free climber in the world – says that to understand what Alex does is to consider being the greatest Olympic gold medalist in your field, except any mistake you make, even the slightest slip, is not rewarded with a slower time, but death. Another mate adds this caution: “When you’re pushing the edge, eventually you find the edge.”
Other climbers living in that very exclusive stratosphere explain that normal people who watch Alex do this are terrified for him. But those who know what it’s like to be up there are absolutely petrified at the heights and difficulties Alex faces. Not only is what Alex does in this film the most incredible feat any single human has ever pulled off, he might be the one person who’s created the largest distance between himself and the next best in his field.
The Balance Between Prudence and Bravery
Here’s a question well worth considering as you watch the film, about the proper balance between his personal drivenness and the irreplaceable value of his own life. Can, or should, the driving power of the former override the priceless gift of the latter?
All parents must face this, usually to far less dramatic degrees though, as their children start to explore the world and their own visions for life. This brings us to the next and subtler best part of the film: The study of his personal, human relationships. Can you even have any meaningful relationships when your day job is taking super-human risks? This is a big part of the film, and the main players are his mom, his girlfriend, and of course his small group of climbing buddies.
Let’s start with mom. She explains that she has long seen how climbing enlivens her son’s soul from his earliest age, even as she tried to put reasonable boundaries around him then. She asks, despite the fear of losing him any day, how could she take that (ironically) life-giving passion away from him? It’s a surreal question. Who regularly comes within a fingertip of death?
But what Alex says about his boyhood family life pierced my heart as much as anything. He seemed to have had a quite average, middle-class childhood. But he explained that his family never hugged. He grew up not knowing physical affection was even a thing, explaining dryly: “When I got older, I saw people hugging. I thought, ‘That’s something people seem to do. I should learn how.’”
He says he’s an awesome hugger now. It’s one of the funniest lines in the film. He is engagingly funny. He also said his family never used that important term that is fundamental to our humanity: “I love you.” Saying that word has been much harder for him, even now.
Piercing the Shell
That’s where Sanni, his girlfriend, comes in. They met a few years ago, at Alex’s book signing in Seattle. They’ve been a thing ever since, with her getting into his heart deeper than anyone ever has. One of Alex’s peers says all free soloists must create a protective shell to be able to emotionally do what they do. That shell must keep everyone they might develop meaningful personal feelings for at a distance if they want to keep training for the next, more dangerous climb. They all recognize that Sanni is the first one to have pierced that shell in Alex, as slight as that might be. Of course, this is a major part of the story.
The film has her talking quite a bit about her struggle in coming to love this curious man. Like his mom, she doesn’t want to keep him from his passion and life dream of free climbing the largest and most difficult rock face in the world, but she also cannot fathom the very real possibility of losing him. We witness the phenomenon of being super-human slamming right into the emotional requirements of being regular-human. What’s the proper balance between honoring our unique gifts of stunning talent and sacrificing our driving passions for those we love?
Of course, Alex and Sanni’s story is an extremely dramatic example of this, of figuring out how to balance our love for someone and letting them be free to follow their dreams. The film provides us a number of opportunities to witness her attempt to reel him in to normal life a bit, to try and manage his life in the smallest way. She does succeed in convincing him to become more domesticated by buying and moving into a condo. The result of their shopping for a refrigerator is hilarious. He prevails in getting the smallest, cheapest, most unadorned one. She rolls her eyes.
Having discovered love and saying Sanni makes life better in every way, we see Alex work on rebuffing her efforts at control with the smallest twitch of gentleness he can muster. Most often, this has him simply remaining silent when she asks if this challenge is really necessary. She realizes the futility of slowing him down.
The morning he walks to face the wall, she’s interviewed as she is driving away. She can’t watch him. Sitting in her car, through strong tears, she asks the obvious questions. What if I never see him again? What if the hug we just shared is our last?
All of us face this possibility when we leave a loved one, even just to go to work or school, and we reflect on it from time to time. But in this case, she knows it is highly likely her fears will be realized. But this is the negotiation she has to settle for, because her man lives in a whole other universe.
Can You Love If You Put Your Own Desires First?
What about his consideration of those who love him? Does he even possess the ability to think about such things? Can anyone be truly human without having it? Some of the most human parts of life are found in the negotiations we must make with others in balancing their needs and wants with our own. No other living organisms do this, and humans who have no capacity for it are called narcissists.
Is this Alex’s deal? No. You can see him trying, struggling with it. Like hugging, he knows it’s something he should really get better at. But we know his personal gravity will always fall toward the necessity to climb.
The wonder and mystery of full self-giving between two people, allowing another to have a real claim on your life that must be reciprocated, cannot coexist with life goals that can’t tolerate compromise. Both of them, like in any relationship, will have to be willing to make some major life compromises. It looks like Sanni will have to make nearly all of them. What must her parents think about her choice in following love?
During his celebration at the summit, you’re watching to see if he calls Sanni right away to ease her fears. Are her worries even on his mind? He does not call her. She calls him. He tells her made it, that he’s fine, and for the second time, repeats that he’s “delighted.”
Is this the last real chance Alex will take? Having so dramatically slaughtered the largest prize in his sport, will he change his life more in the direction of love and his consideration, obligation even, to Sanni? All she can do is hope. His climbing buddies certainly hope he will. We all know he won’t be sorry if he does. Perhaps even Alex does, but that risk is likely his greatest fear.