‘Free Solo’: Alex Honnold Says It’s Scarier to Watch Someone Climb Without a Rope Than to Actually Do It

The acclaimed National Geographic documentary played as part of the IDA screening series.
"Free Solo"
"Free Solo"
Nat Geo

The crowd at the International Documentary Association’s screening of the heart-stopping documentary “Free Solo,” knew that climber  Alex Honnold would be there for a Q&A — but that didn’t keep them from being on the edge of their seats as they watched Honnold prepare to climb the 3,000-foot vertical rock face without a rope.

“I think [the film] makes clear that it takes a little more to trigger my fear [than the average person],” said Honnold, who became the first person to complete a free solo climb of Yosemite National Park’s famed El Capitan. “I think I have the same fear of death that everybody else has.”

In fact, Honnold feels the same terror when he watches some of his fellow professional climber friends free solo. “Free solo is always fundamentally scarier for you to watch,” he said.

Directors Jimmy Chin, a fellow professional climber, and E. Chai Vasarhelyi worked on the National Geographic film for three years in secret. For Vasarhelyi, the hardest part was living with the idea that Honnold could fall and die — and she would be watching. Ultimately, though, she and Chin knew they had to document their friend’s climb.

“Alex is a human being who lives every day with intention and has thought a lot about his own mortality,” she said, adding that everyone involved was committed to documenting his feat.

While Vasarhelyi filmed most of the vérité scenes, Chin handled the high-angle team comprised of elite professional climbers who intimately understood the pressure faced by their subject .

Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi on location during the filming of Free Solo. (National Geographic/Chris Figenshau)
Chai Vasarhelyi andJimmy Chin on location for “Free Solo”National Geographic/Chris Figens

“It’s easier to go from being a very good climber to a very good cinematographer than the other way around,” Chin said. “Putting this team together was really critical to making the film…we had to really move efficiently and be single one-man units, basically.”

Making sure to cover all angles without being intrusive was a real challenge, especially since Yosemite does not issue permits for drone filming. Added to their burdens: Each cameraperson carried about 35 or 40 pounds of gear including a camera bag, spare batteries, food and a headlamp.

“The real weight was actually the ropes,” Chin said. While Honnold didn’t have any, the shooters were “working with thousands of feet of line” so they could be as fast as Honnold.

Now that Honnold has completed his climb, he doesn’t necessarily have another goal in mind.

“I don’t think there are any other cliffs that are as inspiring to me as [El Capitan],” he said. “But we’ll see. You never know.”

The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.

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