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Why Would Anyone Climb This Insane Cliff Face?

"Free Solo" tracks a mountain climber on what seems to be a suicide mission.

Courtesy of National Geographic Documentary Films.

Vertigo is a sensation experienced in the stomach and the mind—though some sufferers feel it as sharp pains in the soles of the feet. At the edges of precipices I feel it as a sudden absence, a classic “bottoming out.” Not only is the floor gone but my entire body with it: Nothing stands between the void and my core being. Vertigo is not so much a feeling about life or death as some sudden and horrific mixture of the two.

Free Solo, a new documentary by filmmaker E. Chai Vasarhelyi (Meru) and photographer/climber Jimmy Chin, gets very close to capturing this sensation on film. It follows Alex Honnold—described by a rock climber friend of mine as “a nut”—on his quest to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan cliff face. He wants to do it without a rope.

Several people try to explain just how unhinged this idea is. Tommy Caldwell, a role model to Honnold, asks us to “imagine an Olympic gold medal level achievement, but if you don’t get the gold medal—you die.” It’s a sheer face of granite, 3,200 feet high. Honnold picks a route, then tests it out with the safety gear on, for practice. His confidence is beyond belief; so far, he has simply never fallen. But now he falls, falls again, then again. There seems to be no way that he could survive a “free solo” climb.

Why would a person want to do such a thing? As the documentary gets closer to Honnold the man, it only gets harder to understand what drives him. He has enormous brown eyes and a fidgety affect. He has a reasonable income, presumably from sponsorships (it’s not explained), but he lives in a van and calls himself a “dirtbag-climber.” He’s committed to environmental issues, but finds it hard to relate to people.

Over the course of the film, we see Honnold fall in love with a woman named Sanni. He worries that she is melting away the mental armor he needs to pull off the inhuman task he’s set himself to. Sometimes he’s downright crass about her. “I will always choose climbing over a lady,” he says.

His attitude stems from his single-mindedness as a climber. In a Q&A sent to journalists by the movie’s distributor, he locates his confidence in “rationalism, in a basic evaluation of objective reality.” Why shouldn’t he ditch the safety equipment? “If I’ve done something on a rope over and over and over, then obviously I can physically do it, so there’s no real reason why I shouldn’t be able to do it without the rope.”

Fear does not seem to enter the equation. And when Honnold receives an MRI of his brain, it turns out that his amygdala seems not to activate in the same way that other people’s do. He’s on “the fairly dull end of the spectrum in terms of a fear response,” as he puts it.

So Free Solo is an intimate screen portrait of a man whose brain just does not work like the rest of us. It makes him hard to relate to: I’m terrified of heights, Honnold can barely conceive of fear. But when his humanity flashes out, it’s all the more touching. When Honnold stares up at the cliff face in front of him, it’s beautiful to look at. He might not experience fear but he’s more than capable of wonder.

When it finally comes to the climb itself, we are essentially prepared to watch Honnold fall. The filmmaker Jimmy Chin appears on screen several times himself, describing the problems innate to his project. He might disturb Honnold—an old friend of his—with his camera drone, or with a wrong movement. What if Chin kills his subject with his art? Everybody close to Honnold tries to do the difficult moral math around enabling his ambition. It’s impossible to know if they are ushering him towards the void, or to the top of his own personal mountain.

It’s almost impossible to watch the actual ascent. Honnold is a speck of T-shirt floating against a completely flat rock face. The rock itself is gorgeous, streaked with ochre and red. At one moment he is hanging on by a thumb. At another, he must lurch one leg far over to his left, essentially standing in the splits in mid-air. Incredibly, while hanging to the rock by fingertips and leaning way backwards over the abyss, he looks down.

In probably the most famous nonfiction movie about mountaineering, Touching the Void (2003), the climber Simon Yates describes the appeal of his sport. The world has become so safe, he explains. Tough mountain climbing is risky. It makes you feel “more alive.” Filming a person battle a mountain, or some other serious peril caused by rocks and snow, automatically generates a meditation on life, death, and the sublime. 127 Hours, Alive!, Seven Years in Tibet, the Herzog movie Scream of Stone: They are dramas about pure joy, pure white snow, pure pain, and pure oblivion. The surreal enormity of the mountains reduces the human drama down to its essential components.

But there is something about the climbing movie that feels particularly interesting now. Free Solo, in fact, is not even the only documentary about climbing El Capitan coming out this season. Coming soon is a film called The Dawn Wall, showing the struggles of two climbers—including Honnold’s friend Tommy Caldwell—as they scale the part of El Capitan the sun hits first in the morning.

One possible explanation is new, widespread interest in the sport. As a 2017 piece in The New York Times explained, rock climbing as an indoor sport was once niche. But between 2015 and 2016, the number of indoor rock climbing gyms in America went up by over a quarter. This may have had the effect of making rock climbing more safe. There’s an odd kind of masculinity to intense rock climbing, even though its devotees tend to be wiry, nerdy, and dressed in brightly colored technical gear. A movie like Free Solo, or even Tom Cruise’s rock-climbing scenes in the Mission Impossible movies, reclaim the sport for its outdoorsy, lone wolf–style men.

Honnold’s fierce independence is the narrative engine of Free Solo. (He doesn’t even like Halloween, since he doesn’t like “being told” when to have fun.) The classic movie model of man versus mountain makes the heroic climber into a masculinized symbol of humanity, brave in the face of nature’s cruelty.

Honnold is such an intense version of the character that he pushes the archetype past its ordinary boundaries. He isn’t just fearless; he doesn’t know fear. He doesn’t just risk his life; he cares almost nothing for it. The classic tension between the sublime and the human spirit breaks down. Man, rock, camera: they’re old suspects, but here they seem made anew.