Monday, October 1, 2018

Free Solo Movie Review

Saturday night at 6:30 I had a call from my friend and climbing partner T in Denver. “Hey, L got called into work tonight, and I have two tickets to Free Solo at 10 PM in Denver, do you want to go?” 
I replied, “Yes…” and then we talked for ten minutes about possible things to do before 10. 

We get there, go into a packed theatre, and just before the move starts a guy gets up on stage. As he started talking I had the thought, ‘This is really unusual. I’ve never known a theatre owner or manager to say something about above before a showing. This guy seems kind of attached to the project. It couldn’t be Jimmy Chin could it?” And by that time in my thought processHe said he was Jimmy Chin!!! Real and in person standing there on the stage! As he walked out he was shaking a few hands and shook my friend T’s hand! I’m not as starstruck as I might have been years ago, but still, with the movie playing on dozens of theaters, he was at the 10 PM showing at the Mayan in Denver!
Jimmy Chin at the Mayan Denver 10 PM, September 29th, 2018
In summary, Alex Honnold free soloed, which is to say climbed entirely without a rope or rock climbing gear except shoes and chalk on June 3rd, 2017 the climb Free Rider on El Capitan. It was in the news so for my climbing friends this is very old news. The movie is about Alex’s process leading up to such a climb. I really recommend you read that National Geographic article linked above, because if you are only focused on the four hours of him climbing the thing, you’re missing the much larger picture. 

In many ways I related to the film. The comment that struck me hardest was when Alex said maybe he was not the person to do it. He said something like, “Maybe it will be someone in the next generation, or someone that doesn’t have anything to live for.” Most of the theater laughed after that line, but I didn’t because I related to it on a different level. Before every expedition I go on, I prepare myself for the possible outcomes, including death. I don’t want to die, but there is a real possibility it could happen. I imagine it’s something like going into battle. You hope to survive, but there are no guarantees. Some might even say that you will be more effective (in battle) when you give up hope of surviving. I’ve seen that in movies, not sure that successful soldiers really have that attitude. Point being, when I go to these mountains, and dying is a realistic possibility, the desire to climb the thing outweighs my desire to preserve my life. And I don’t know how you tell people that. They didn’t really get into that fatalism in the movie, but after seeing it I am sure that in the decade leading up to the climb Alex spent time thinking, ‘would it be better to free solo El Cap and die immediately after, or live a long life without trying?’ Of course, that’s a hypothetical, and in the years he spent thinking about it he of course realized absolute hypotheticals rarely exist in real life. 

It was interesting to see that his amygdala doesn’t really react to fear like a normal person. I have a lot more fear in my life than I did ten years ago, but I would be curious to see where I stand. Of course, Alex is on another level, like multiple levels beyond anywhere I am, but I think that this movie might help non climbers understand most climbers a bit more. 

Side note, Mark Synott taught me aid climbing back in December 2008 in New Hampshire and it was interesting to see him in the movie. I have been in his house, met his wife and seen his three kids getting ready to go ski. I bring this up to show how small the climbing community is. Also, I think people might watch this movie and try not to relate to it at all, or distance themselves from the characters, but these people have families, and their kids go to public school, and they shop at the same grocery store as you. 

Again, the movie is mostly about Alex’s process leading up to the climb and less about the actual climb. Frankly, Alex was a super professional about the climb. I’ve never prepared for something with the specificity and intensity that he prepared for this climb, it was inspiring! I felt a bit inadequate after watching the movie, and if it wasn’t 50 degrees and misting today I would go out and climb something!

Finally, what’s next? Trango Tower! I mean, it’s obvious to me. However, that is less of a pure athletic feat and much more of an objective risk than climb Yosemite’s dry sunny walls. In other words, in Yosemite the granite is solid and accidents due to the rock falling apart are rare, but Trango Tower is not solid. Other possible options include The Nose on El Cap. It’s a little harder. El Cap, and Yosemite, is unique because the weather is so good and the rock is so good too. The obvious next steps, more alpine, taller, like stuff Ueli Steck did, but more rock climbing have such higher risk factors. So I don’t know what is next for Alex. I hope to run into him at Red Rocks near Las Vegas now that he has a home there. 

It’s a good movie. You should see it. Sure to be one of the best documentaries of the decade. 

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