On June 2017, Alex Honnold made history by climbing El Capitan without ropes or harness—a discipline of climbing known as free soloing. This in itself is a tremendous feat of athletic achievement. Such acts of athleticism walks a thin line between probable victory and certain death. Such acts always push the boundaries of human achievement.
The feat got a lot of well-deserved press and garnered accolades in the sporting world in general and the climbing world in particular. One of the things that helps any commoner understand the magnanimity of the feat—and this is in Alex’s own words—is the fact that almost anyone understands the style of climbing. It’s just the human and the wall.
Lucky for us, Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi—a husband-wife director-duo—wanted to make a movie on Alex Honnold’s achievements but was instead asked by Alex himself to film a project that he had been working on for quite some time.
On Alex Honnold and his journey
Alex Honnold seems like a guy who is unfazed by anything that doesn’t fit into his lifestyle. Needless to say, the lifestyle is very carefully designed. In his interviews, he comes across as a very smart guy. It is almost as if he has used some form of systems thinking to come to the minimalist-essentialist kind of lifestyle he leads.
It could be his upbringing (I am not sure) but for whatever reasons, his range of emotional response is pretty limited when compared to most normal people. I can relate to that. I am acutely aware of the limited range of emotional response that I exhibit myself. Still, it is broader than Alex’s. This makes me appreciate his thought-process even more. Such behavioural outcomes are often caused by a lack of impulsive actions and escalating the decision-making process to the logical part of the brain. There is nothing random. Nothing is left to chance. It’s all meticulously planned.
For him, the planning lasted almost twenty years.
One of the things that gives a narrative structure to the film is the presence of his girlfriend. When the filming started in early 2016, she was with him for, maybe, only six months. Through his interactions with her, we get to see his growth in terms of aptitude in inter-personal relationships. Many people may think that he doesn’t empathise as much as others. I would disagree. He actually empathises a lot more and possibly more deeply than a common person. The outcome of that introspection is often a pragmatic solution rather than an action of moral support—the latter being what is often expected of him as a listener when responding to most people. There is a hilarious scene where his girlfriend asks him to respond in a certain way. He struggles. Finally, he responds in the most robotic way as possible. For him, overcoming that is also a meticulous and slow process that requires mindful practice—a quality that he has used successfully over his entire life to up his climbing game.
There is also a scene where he is buying a house and shopping for furniture with his girlfriend. He was super uncomfortable in those scenes. His demeanour renders those scenes almost like a comic relief in an otherwise serious film.
In contrast, his relationship with Tommy Caldwell is a pleasure to watch. Tommy—who has scaled (free climbed) El Capitan innumerable times—acts as his mentor and climbing partner during the practice runs. This is where we get to know of Alex as a climber and a partner. Unlike his romantic relationship, this relationship is effortless. (They hold the current speed climbing record on the El Capitan.) They also share a lot of commonalities. The answers to a silly Q&A game by La Sportiva—their shoe sponsor—has both of them give similar answers. What I would have also loved to know is Alex’s view of Tommy. Co-incidentally, a film documenting Tommy’s free climbing of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan came out at the same time—it’s called The Dawn Wall.
The most underrated interactions would be with Peter Croft—a free soloist like him. Of all the people, he conveyed the most to Alex with the least amount of words. Just check the exchange between him and Alex after the abandoned attempt in Fall 2016.
On making of the film
Unlike many other documentaries, the crew is also a part of the cast of the narrative. Thus, the making of the documentary is also covered in the documentary itself. As such, a lot of decision making process is exposed to the viewer. The carefulness in placing themselves as well as the cameras, the minimisation of interference during the climb itself, the logistics of the two-year-long operation are all bared on the screen.
Yet nothing tops the ethical dilemma that the crew had to face. Do they film him at all? If he fell through the frame, the entire crew would forever bear the burden of Alex’s death on their shoulders. It’s a touchy subject and had to be tackled carefully. Alex did not want people to be there in the difficult places. The reasoning is not that he would be nervous climbing in front of a cameraman—something he has done innumerable times and is comfortable doing it—but that the person who would see him fall to death would forever be burdened by his death. And these crew members were his close friends—all accomplished climbers and people with whom he had worked with for over a decade.
The actual event takes place in the last fifteen or twenty minutes of this hundred-minute-long film. One thing that I appreciated was the existence of a narrative—a story if you will—without which the viewer is presented with nothing more than a collage of events. This philosophy of having some form of narrative drive a documentary is more evident in Meru. Directed by the same husband-wife duo, it features a narrative structure woven around two sets of footage of their attempts at scaling the shark-fin of Mt. Meru. The footages were shot for the climbers themselves and was never meant for a movie.
I have no idea how Jimmy Chin—one of the directors and the principal cinematographer—took care of the logistics and the finances. I wonder how he managed the expenditure when neither the timeline of events nor the outcome could have been predicted.
If there one thing that I would personally take away from the film, it would be focus and discipline. With Alex, these traits are visible on screen. For the crew, it may not be as apparent. I doubt if they would have been able to make this film without exhibiting either of those values.