Free Solo

FREE SOLO, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, 100 min­utes, Vi­o­let Crown, 3.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

Ris­ing over 3,200 feet above the val­ley be­low, El Cap­i­tan at Yosemite Na­tional Park in Cal­i­for­nia at­tracts mil­lions of visi­tors from all over the world. But few would even think twice about climb­ing the gran­ite slab’s north face with­out ropes. Some­one will­ing to do that is clearly out of his mind.

En­ter thirty-three-year-old Alex Hon­nold. He en­gages in “free-solo­ing,” or rock climb­ing with­out ropes and sup­ports. He claims to have done more than 1,000 rope-less, har­ness-free climbs on scary-look­ing crags. Ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­men­tary Free Solo, fewer than 1 per­cent of climbers are that dar­ing. The doc­u­men­tary, pro­duced by Na­tional Ge­o­graphic Doc­u­men­tary Films and co-di­rected by El­iz­a­beth Chai Vasarhe­lyi and Jimmy Chin (Meru), leaves the cam­eras run­ning as Hon­nold uses all his strength, fo­cus, and dexterity to be­come the first climber to free-solo El Cap­i­tan. Other than a suc­cess­ful as­cent, the only thing he can ex­pect is sud­den death. That doesn’t stop him.

Chin and his fel­low cin­e­matog­ra­phers cap­ture the nat­u­ral wonders of the Yosemite land­scape for this doc­u­men­tary, as well as the more in­ti­mate con­ver­sa­tions Hon­nold has with his climb­ing bud­dies, girl­friend, and other fam­ily mem­bers. There are pan shots of the lower val­ley, with El Cap loom­ing omi­nously in the back­ground. Hon­nold climbs along­side breath­tak­ing, rain­bow-en­crusted wa­ter­falls. In one scene, he sits down in a patch of stout emerald-green grass, note­book in hand, and works out his cal­cu­la­tions in prepa­ra­tion for the dar­ing as­cent. Tommy Cald­well, a pro­fes­sional climber and idol of Hon­nold’s, may think Hon­nold a lit­tle off his rocker, but that doesn’t mean he can’t help his fel­low climber pre­pare. “Imag­ine an Olympic gold medal-level ath­letic event that, if you don’t get that gold medal, you’re go­ing to die,” Cald­well says. Some mu­tual climber friends of theirs have al­ready met their fates.

Per­haps Hon­nold should have his head ex­am­ined. An MRI scan proves that he doesn’t have much ac­tiv­ity in his amyg­dala, the brain’s fear cen­ter. That could ex­plain why, in the face of en­deav­ors that should tell him to ex­er­cise cau­tion, he fol­lows the road far less trav­eled. “You face your fear be­cause the path de­mands it,” Hon­nold says. He stares up to­ward the sum­mit of the tow­er­ing struc­ture with the au­dac­ity to be­lieve that he can make it, unen­cum­bered, un­af­fected by fear, and un­moved by the opin­ions of oth­ers.

“I’ve al­ways been con­flicted about shoot­ing a film about free-solo­ing just be­cause it’s so dan­ger­ous,” Chin says. The cam­era crew ex­presses reser­va­tions about film­ing at times, won­der­ing if they will have an im­pact on the climber’s fo­cus. But in the end, they did film Hon­nold’s as­cent, and the re­sult will leave view­ers speech­less and on the edge of their seats — per­haps even cling­ing to them for dear life. A must-see for hard­core rock-climb­ing en­thu­si­asts, Nat Geo-philes, and ad­ven­ture seek­ers, the un­der­ly­ing theme of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion makes Free Solo’s ap­peal far more universal. — Thomas M. Hill

White-knuckle as­cent: Alex Hon­nold

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