'Free Solo' in IMAX: Thinking Twice About the Social Implications of Alex Honnold's Death-defying Climb

Palms are sweaty, knees weak, chalk is heavy, he's halfway up El Cap already, emotionally unsteady...

Alex Honnold climbs through the enduro corner on El Capitan's Freerider. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)
National Geographic

I have never sweat so much during a film. Hell, I’ve never sweat that much sitting still in any scenario. And I’m not alone. That’s the kind of effect Free Solo has had on its viewers since its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in late August. Critics and audiences have been raving about it for months now. Yet, here we are in January 2019 and the National Geographic documentary is uncharacteristically (for documentaries) still playing.

On December 20th, soon after being shortlisted for the documentary prize for the Oscars, Nat Geo announced that they would be bringing the documentary to domestic IMAX screens for one week in January. Plainly speaking, no documentary is more deserving of the gargantuan screen, because no documentary has captured a superhuman achievement so comprehensively.

El Capitan is a 3,200-foot rock face in Yosemite National Park that is a near-impossible climb for anyone who isn’t a paid professional. It took Alex Honnold three hours and 56 minutes to climb it alone with no safety gear — what’s referred to in the rock-climbing community as “free solo climbing” — a feat that had never before been attempted, much less completed.

To put that accomplishment into perspective, the first people to climb El Cap trekked an easier route and it took them 47 days to accomplish the climb over a period of 18 months. Again, Honnold got to the top in less than four hours without any help, ropes, or safety gear. As in, if he fell, he died. And the whole thing was spectacularly caught on film by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi.

If, on paper, the concept alone doesn’t seem to justify an IMAX release, consider its imagery, its stunning views of the Yosemite Valley from a myriad of perspectives. It’s not like they just shot Honnold’s iconic climb from the ground. There is flying drone footage, footage from camera folks hanging on the sides of mountains thousands of feet in the air, bird’s eye view footage, microscopically zoomed Planet Earth­-like footage of Honnold’s holds, and more. The cameras investigate Honnold’s moves with patience and sharp attention to detail. In being filmed, Honnold’s command over his profession is strictly undeniable. His skills are irrefutable. His devotion is unquestionable. He is the best of the best and absolutely stunning to watch.

I had seen Free Solo before — on a laptop, unfortunately — and was completely wowed the first time around. But, seeing it in IMAX was like witnessing something entirely different. In IMAX, you are on the rock face with him, glued to the gripping climb with feverous anxiety. Just writing about it is making my hands sweaty again. It is as thrilling as any thriller, as emotionally engaging as any drama, and as real as film has ever felt.

Hence, the reason it repels those who are afraid of heights in the same way horror repels those that are afraid of the dark. IMAX strips away another layer of separation and reveals with more clarity how utterly terrifying the climb is. But all of this is to be expected from an IMAX viewing of the film. That’s why it’s in IMAX in the first place. That’s why my late afternoon matinee was nearly sold out. What I didn’t expect from an IMAX viewing was a new, disturbing perspective on the film’s star.

After an In Memoriam-esque montage of dead free solo climbers gravely passes on screen, we’re shown footage of a free solo climber falling to his death, offering us the breath-stealing image of what it would look like to see Honnold careen to a splat amidst the filming of the documentary. But just as it seems like the man is going to hit the ground, a parachute emerges and the audible gasps in the theater turn into nervous sighs of relief. Then, we’re informed that the man we almost watched die did end up dying later, during a climb in 2015.

That bit comes early in the film — way before Honnold begins his ascent — for a reason. After a larger, more perspective-altering screening, I couldn’t stop thinking about the filmmakers’ desire to show us how foolish Honnold’s groundbreaking effort truly was and how antagonistic the protagonist could be to those around him in his pursuit. It became painfully evident how little Honnold cares about anyone in his life.

“Climbing with Alex is like a vice,” close friend and champion climber Tommy Caldwell tells the camera as if we, the viewers, are parishioners on the other side of the screen in a confession booth. “I think everyone who has made free soloing a big part of their life is dead now,” Caldwell continues starkly. The film interviews plenty of Honnold’s friends and family who all wish he wouldn’t attempt El Cap. But, that’s understandable from the perspective of loved ones. The reality of what’s going on doesn’t click until Caldwell and other legendary climbers (free solo climbers among them) all confirm that Honnold’s goal is erroneous bullshit that will likely get him killed.

Yet, Honnold is deceptively aware of this, at one point admitting, “Maybe I’m too close to [free soloing] and can’t tell that I’m speeding toward a cliff.” I couldn’t give you a time stamp, but in some moment on that massive screen, his big, beautiful, beady eyes suddenly seemed sinister. His furious will to climb seemed pointedly suicidal.

So much of the film is focused on the time between Honnold’s two attempts to climb. After spraining his ankle a few weeks before the original climb date and showing the tiniest trace of fear, he backs out, delaying production for a year while he waits for the right season to come back around. In the meantime, he gets closer to his girlfriend, Sanni. They buy a house together, we learn more about his tendency to shirk emotional attachment, he gets a CAT scan of his brain that reveals his inability to chemically register fear most of the time, Sanni becomes more open about her disapproval of his momentous death wish climb. But Honnold doesn’t care about any of that.

As he sees it, he is someone with nothing to lose. Up until 2017, he lived alone in a van. He tells us that he “had to teach [him]self to hug when [he] was like 23 or something,” triggering suspicions of sociopathic behavior, though that’s probably going too far. He’s so intelligent but so detached, hardened, callous (as he calls himself), stark, and stubborn. He routinely chooses climbing over humans. He refers to himself in childhood as “A bit of a dark soul…maybe melancholic is the word.”

He reveals, “I’ve done all my solo projects without telling anybody because I don’t want the extra pressure.” Imagine your partner or child or best friend leaving without saying goodbye knowing that they might never see you again. It’s cruel. But Honnold doesn’t feel that way because he doesn’t really feel anything. After he bails on the first attempt, everyone is shocked, and Caldwell jokes with serious concern all over his face, “In some way, it would be reassuring that Spock has nerves.”

In a sense, my fear the second time around was not for Honnold, but for Sanni and their community — those who would undoubtedly drown in the regret and self-loathing that would flood their souls if he died at their allowing hands. Though they shouldn’t feel that way, because he threatens deep resentment if they don’t let him, they probably would. All of these concerns feel silly and hypothetical in knowing that he isn’t going to die. If he was, the movie wouldn’t be playing. We would have heard about it. But that doesn’t matter. He chose to do it knowing the odds were against him. He blatantly tells the camera that he cares more about climbing than those he loves and doesn’t even hesitate in saying so.

“Free soloing mentality is pretty close to warrior culture where you give yourself 100 percent to something because your life depends on it,” Honnold says in justification of himself. But, even if he’s being true to the way he feels about it, he’s wrong. His life does not depend on whether he climbs El Cap or not. In essence, he is describing jingoism, not justifiable warfare. He is like a religious zealot or a bloodthirsty general atop the American military-industrial complex.

They think everything depends on their inane actions, so they live accordingly and, in result, wreak havoc. I’m not pretending like the emotional havoc he wreaks on friends and family is akin to the cold-blooded murder and abuse attributed to people like Dick Cheney and Jim Jones. But I also don’t want to ignore such flagrantly illogical justifications just because he’s an astonishing success story who donates a third of his income to non-profits.

He flaunts his inability to compromise when he claims that “Nothing good happens in the world because people are happy and cozy. Nobody has ever achieved anything because they were happy and cozy.” I understand what he means, of course. We grow when we step out of our comfort zone, yes. But also, we grow when we learn how to understand and empathize with and love our communities. That certainly happens in cozy, happy environments. There is a difference between not being a rock climber (something no one is asking him to do) and not submitting yourself to probable death with a thin hope of survival.

He can still live out his dream of climbing the most dangerous rocks with harnesses. He can even free solo other rocks where the likelihood of survival is much greater. But his unwillingness to draw the line is reminiscent of belligerent, emotionally detached workaholism. It’s healthy to draw boundaries in challenging ourselves to grow. He acknowledges that in several revealing one-on-ones with the camera in which he details his attempts to be a better boyfriend, a more compassionate friend, and a more considerate human being overall. But he doesn’t act on it.

I admire his talent, devotion, heart, etc., but the relationships around him matter, and I couldn’t get that off my mind when the screen two times the square footage of my apartment was broadcasting the anticipatory tears of everyone around him and the sorrowful moments of film crew reflection in 180 degrees of my vision.

There’s something about a balls-to-the-wall movie that threatens imminent death being relatable on an exaggerated socio-political level in 2019, but my mind was chained with concern and I still haven’t really addressed that aspect of the film. I heard others reveling in it though after the film ended.

If it isn’t clear yet, I had a very different experience than most of the people in my theater. They were hooting and hollering and spilling popcorn all over the place while compulsively clapping when Honnold reached certain checkpoints. People were laughing, the enormity of the mountain in comparison to the dot of Honnold climbing it probably overwhelming their emotions into complete mental absurdity.

But I just kept sweating. First, at the thought of his wild attempt. Then, at the concern for the well-being of those around him. Then, in frustration of how inhumanely he justified it all. Then, in even greater frustration of the fact that we have unabashedly celebrated everything about him. Then, finally, once again, at the disbelief of what he accomplished. Because, at the end of the day, he did it.

Shout it from the mountaintops: Alex Honnold is an American hero, a fitness anomaly, a living witness to previously unimagined human endurance. His confidence was well-founded, and I am forced to be at least partially wrong in my judgments. In his success and widespread international praise, I am pressured to reconsider every serious ethical question I pose about his social and relational behavior.

Or, I could recognize that human beings are complex and do both. I can be concerned about the ease with which we look past his social and relational apathy and simultaneously wonder in awe what it might be like to be that fucking good at climbing rocks.