When Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan — the 3,000-foot rock formation in Yosemite National Park — without a rope, the climbing star became a national sensation. Back in June 2017, however, the world just had to take his word for it; with “Free Solo,” the riveting documentary from “Meru” co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Honnold’s achievement receives the big-screen closeup it deserves. When the movie premiered at Telluride, Honnold received a rock star’s welcome, and National Geographic is releasing the tense crowdpleaser into the fall as an instant awards contender.
While the filmmakers managed to capture every stage of Honnold’s climb in 2017, “Free Solo” also explores the years leading up to that big moment, including the evolution of Honnold’s relationship with his girlfriend Sanni McCandless and Honnold’s childhood. In recent weeks, the 33-year-old Honnold has taken a break from his globe-trotting routine to promote “Free Solo” as it gathers momentum for its release. He sat down on a rooftop at the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss his experiences with the project, his favorite climbing movies, and why he was willing to accept that he might die on camera.
You’re friends with the filmmaking team on this movie, but you don’t have a producing credit.
For all the work I did carrying ropes up and down, at least I should have a rigging credit.
How much of a say did you have in the final version of the movie?
None. I didn’t even want to see the draft at all. The film is so deeply personal that it wouldn’t even be my place to have an opinion on it. I can’t even state whether they’re doing a good job of portraying me.
What surprised you?
It’s a very honest reflection of the last two years of my life, so none of that surprised me. I remember all the scenes, all the climbing moments. It was more beautiful than I anticipated. It has a nice pace.
How do you feel about the way people are baffled by your willingness to do these sort of climbs?
It makes sense. If I wasn’t a climber, if I wasn’t a soloist, I’d wonder the same thing. It is very unusual. Not that many people do it. The consequences are so obvious and stark. I wonder the same thing about big wave surfing — a sport I have no knowledge about that looks totally insane. When I see somebody dropping down the front of a 50-foot wave, I’m like, “That looks so crazy! That person’s going to die for sure! How could they do that?”
And you wouldn’t be willing to try it?
No, not at all. I don’t even like the water that much. But I’m sure that for somebody who likes going into the ocean, it’s totally normal. At the heart of it all, I love climbing — I love the movement, I love swinging around, the feeling of climbing. That’s kind of the core of everything. The free soloing is just sort of the extension of this love for climbing.
What is it about free soloing that appeals to you?
It’s a small part of climbing to me, but it’s an important part, because it’s higher consequence so higher reward. It demands a lot from you, so it gives you a lot. If I could only do one style of climbing the rest of my life, it wouldn’t be free soloing. I’d be climbing with a rope because it’s so much more fun. Having the high consequences of free soloing makes it more rewarding but you wouldn’t want that all the time. The added intensity isn’t something you need all the time.
It’s clear from the movie that they were planning to keep shooting even if you were unsuccessful. How did you deal with the possibility that this could be a record of your death?
Obviously, there was a possibility of death, but I never really thought it like that. I thought about this: Either I solo it because I’ve done all the preparation and it seems normal, or I won’t solo it, because I never feel quite ready. I saw it as on or off. I didn’t really see trying and failing as an option.
You never even considered that you could fall off that mountain?
Well, my rational brain considered it. But with enough preparation, you get to the point where it’s possible you might fall off, but you know you can do it.
If the movie had been a filmed record of your death, would you have wanted it released?
If I’d fallen and died, and they’d released a movie about the process of getting there, I think I’d rather it not be made. But I would have been gone. Who cares? And if they still made a good film that showed the journey…I don’t know. It’s hard to imagine it being a very uplifting film.
How nervous did you get about the cameras?
When we actually climbed El Cap, we’d all learned where the best positions were and what the best angles were, but it didn’t feel like it was in the way at all. Nobody was too close. A pretty good analogy is running a marathon and you have friends on the sides with signs. You run by and it’s like, “It’s good to see you!” but it doesn’t change how you’re performing, and that’s what it felt like every time I passed one of the cameramen.
My experience with climbing is that, at some point, your muscles just give out.
That means you’ve got to condition your muscles more! [laughs] With enough conditioning, there isn’t a point where you just fail; you gradually decline. But there’s a certain threshold where you can maintain a degree of climbing forever, and I make sure that I have that. I had already completed that climb with a rope many, many times. I knew that I could physically do it. In a lot of ways, doing it without a rope is slightly easier because you don’t have the weight of the rope. After 3,000 feet, that starts to add up. If the weight of the rope and the gear is an extra 10 pounds, that starts to really contribute to fatigue. That’s sort of balanced against if you don’t have a rope on, you’re really tense. It’s all a balance. I’d prepared for all that very extensively.
How did you deal with the immediate media attention?
I barely followed it. We were still in Yosemite for a couple more days and then I immediately went on this trip to Alaska for a few days, right below Denali. I was climbing these 4-5,000-foot granite walls. That had been part of my strategy for free soloing El Cap, to not think of my whole life as building up to this moment, but to have other trips. I was already scheduled to go on an expedition to Antarctica this last winter. Going to Alaska was a good way for me to prepare for Antarctica. I just hadn’t been on skis for a while, I hadn’t climbed on glaciers. Even though El Cap was the most significant thing to me in climbing, it was good for me to look past that. It’s still just one of many climbs.
It was a big national story when you pulled this off, and some people felt that your accomplishment would inspire lesser imitators, who could die.
That’s a common concern. I don’t think it’s totally founded. Free soloing is not the type of sport that’s easy to emulate, like skydiving or big ski jumps. If you get psyched enough, you just point your skis downhill and it’s going to happen. But with climbing, you have to choose to lift your hands and stand up. You’re making all these choices over and over. For the average person, if they’re not totally prepared for something, once they’re 15 feet off the ground it suddenly feels very scary. It’s difficult to get 60-70 feet off the ground. It’s hard to get into — I hate to call it “The Death Zone,” but high enough that if you fall off, it’ll mean death. You have to be physically and psychologically willing to get into that position. Whereas I feel like other sports you don’t necessarily need other training.
But thrill-seeking has intensified in recent years. People are armed with smartphones and recording themselves doing all sorts of crazy things.
But that’s kind of the point. Like that whole Kodak courage thing, where you put the camera on and you’re like, OK, I’m gonna backflip off this roof onto the pool! And then you totally don’t sink it. That just doesn’t affect free soloing as much. It’s so slow, thoughtful, and scary. To climb El Cap took me thousands of moves and four hours. You can’t just get psyched up for four hours.
Your girlfriend doesn’t try to persuade you to give up climbing, but you tell her at one point that you wouldn’t give up climbing if she asked. How do you feel about watching that aspect of your relationship in the movie?
There are definitely scenes in the film that are extremely hard for me to watch, because I sound extremely callous or unduly harsh. I think my perspective on some of that has changed over time. Part of that is because the relationship is so much stronger than it was. I met Sanni basically right after we started filming, so our entire relationship literally plays out over that film. At some of the points in the film, we’d only been dating for a couple of months. By the end of the film, we’d been dating for two years and had a super-solid relationship. With a 90-minute film, it’s hard to show that depth, but I definitely think there’s been change. I think El Cap still means enough to me that if I were to do it all over, soloing El Cap would be worth it to me. But looking ahead to other objectives, we’ll have to have conversations about them. That’s purely hypothetical. I don’t want to be douchey, but it’s hard to overstate how rad El Cap is. Yosemite has such a core space in climbing mythology. El Cap, to me, is the culmination of all things climbing.
Your story has these positive connotations that a lot of well-known climbing stories don’t, because they have to do with rescue missions.
Right, or where it’s all about sacrifice. I think that’s one of the great things about my relationship with Sanni. As she says, she’s always rejected the idea that you had to choose between climbing or the relationship. When I met her, I was like, that’s a groundbreaking idea. And we’ve made that work for three years.
What did you make of the movie “Everest”?
It was a lot better than I expected. Hollywood climbing movies are often horrendous. I’d refrained from seeing it for quite some time because I thought it would be terrible. When I finally saw it, I actually found it quite moving and really beautiful.
You must have seen “Cliffhanger” as a teen.
I fucking love “Cliffhanger,” and “The Eiger Sanction,” the classic ones. They might be over-the-top and grossly inaccurate, but there’s pretty awesome. I’ve seen “Cliffhanger” many times over the years. But I always just loved climbing in gyms. It wasn’t pop culture. I just liked playing on things, then my parents took me to a climbing gym, and I really liked it. Then I just kept going. People always ask, “When did you decide to be a professional climber?” I never decided. Day in and day out for the last 22 years, I’ve always just preferred climbing to doing anything else.
Would you ever free solo El Cap again?
If I had a reason to. Now I know that it’s possible. I know what it takes. Someone asked me, “If somebody offered you a billion dollars for your foundation to solo El Cap, would you do it again?” I was like, “Yeah, for sure,” because I know I can do it with a year of work.
But what if you had to do it tomorrow?
No, but if someone had a gun to my head I could probably do it.