The term “cliffhanger” is thought to have originated from Thomas Hardy’s 1873 novel A Pair Of Blue Eyes. Hardy ended the story with one of his protagonists hanging off a cliff edge, staring down at impending death. Cliffhangers have since become ubiquitous with serialized television and, more lately, film series (the ending to Marvel’s recent blockbuster “Avengers: Infinity War” caused much public excitement). They are a medium to bridge audience suspense from one episode to the next. Credits roll, and a question is left hanging: Will our hero triumph or fall?
Taking this concept to its fullest, Free Solo is a documentary about American rock climber Alex Honnold, who lives his life, quite literally, as one continuous cliffhanger.
Alex is a figurehead for an extreme style of climbing known as “free soloing.” He ascends enormous walls without safety gear. No harness, no rope, no margin for error. Whilst most soloers will climb comparatively simple routes, Honnold is captivating the climbing community through his dedication to navigating some of the most technically difficult and arduous routes on the planet without a lifeline.
As climbing partner and fellow professional Tommy Caldwell puts it, “People who know a little bit about climbing are like ‘Oh, he’s totally safe,’ and then people who know exactly what he’s doing, are freaked out.”
Alex’s career objective, and the subject of Free Solo, is to climb “El Capitan” in California’s Yosemite National Park, a gargantuan effort for any seasoned climber in normal circumstances, but Honnold aims to do it without a rope. In his own words, “El Cap is the most impressive wall on earth. It’s 3,200 feet of sheer granite and the center of the rock climbing universe.” To put El Capitan’s difficulty into context: It’s first ever ascent in 1958 took a team of climbers 47 days over a 16 month period. With ropes.
The film crew documenting this task are all seasoned climbers themselves, leading to some breathtakingly intimate shots as Alex hangs to his life by the tips of his heavily calloused fingers. Co-director Jimmy Chin (his wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is credited as well) has made numerous films for National Geographic and admits that he’s always been conflicted about shooting a film about free soloing for the exact reason that it’s so dangerous: “It’s hard to not imagine your friend falling through the frame, to his death.”
This ever-present risk dangles in the air throughout. Everyone in Alex’s circle is asking themselves, and at times each other: What kind of person puts himself in that degree of peril? Voluntarily? Honnold has his brain scanned through an MRI, which shows little-to-no activity in the section for regulating danger. Deep-seeded issues of inadequacy and perfectionism are examined, as are tendencies for thrill seeking and a clear lack of intimacy with those closest to him. Alex appears to actively shun an open channel of love from his girlfriend Sanni McCandless, instead viewing such a connection as an impediment, a danger to his perfectly poised zen temperament.
Overall, Free Solo is more thrilling and horrifying than any fictionalized story currently on the big screen. My own viewing experience left me with sopping wet trousers — the result of wiping sweaty palms on my thighs for 100 minutes straight.
It’s a must-watch, but make sure you’re ready and clipped in.