What to book: ‘Free Solo’

An exhilarating documentary about a rock climber’s historic achievement

Everybody makes mistakes but free soloists – the rock climbers who scale mountains without any safety equipment – simply cannot afford to do so. This death-defying sport is the subject of the upcoming National Geographic documentary Free Solo, which follows the athlete Alex Honnold as he makes history by becoming the first person to ascend, without ropes, the 3,200-foot El Capitan rock in California’s Yosemite National Park.

Captured by a camera crew of four professional climbers, the nail-biting trek is rendered from every conceivable angle, with extreme close-ups of Honnold’s fingers gripping onto crevices and wide shots of his whole body dwarfed by the enormity of the surrounding rock. “The stakes are life and death the entire time,” says the film’s co-director and cinematographer Jimmy Chin. “It’s just you and the rock with no margin for error. You have to be perfect. And he was.” 

All images courtesy of National Geographic 

Free Solo compiles Honnold’s family photographs and talking-head interviews with him and his loved ones to create an engaging character study. He originally started the sport as a shy child and favoured free soloing – a practice so dangerous that fewer than one per cent of climbers do it – because it allowed him to avoid social interaction. It was the precision of this activity that eventually hooked Honnold. “Look, I don’t want to fall off and die either,” he confesses in a voiceover. “But there’s a satisfaction to challenging yourself and doing something well. If you’re seeking perfection, free soloing is as close as you can get.” The documentary dismisses the widespread notion that Honnold is merely a thrill-seeker, probing the reasons why he is attracted to free soloing (among them a lack of amygdala activation in his brain, meaning a reduced fear response).  

The film-makers are self-reflexive about the ethics of their mission in Free Solo, speaking to camera about fears that their presence will trigger “Kodak courage” (the phenomenon whereby people do something they wouldn’t usually because they’re being filmed), which would endanger Honnold. “We wrestled with including the meta-conversation around our film-making process,” says the co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. “Ultimately it was clear that the film-making itself was an important part of the story. Every day presented ethical questions of risk.” Equal parts anxiety-inducing and affecting, Free Solo is a fascinating examination of an intrepid athlete’s determination to achieve his lifelong ambition.  

‘Free Solo’ is released in cinemas on 14 December.  

***

MORE CULTURE

Cliveden House to star in a new TV show

What to watch: ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’

Is this the best Christmas gift ever?