A free climber takes on the as­cent of his life in NatGeo’s ‘Free Solo’

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - On Tv - BY GE­ORGE DICKIE

El Cap­i­tan was al­ways Alex Hon­nold’s great white whale.

In­deed, the 33-year-old rock climber has been think­ing and dream­ing about the iconic 3,200-foot gran­ite mono­lith in Cal­i­for­nia’s Yosemite Na­tional Park since he be­gan climb­ing 23 years ago. Its stark sim­plic­ity and beauty have cap­tured the imag­i­na­tions of pho­tog­ra­phers and artists and made it a des­ti­na­tion for rock climbers from all over the world for decades.

Now it was Hon­nold’s turn. Ex­cept he would be do­ing it with­out ropes, just his hands and feet. No safety equip­ment.

The story of his record-break­ing June 6, 2018, as­cent of El Cap­i­tan with friend and climb­ing part­ner Tommy Cald­well is told in the doc­u­men­tary “Free Solo,” pre­mier­ing Sun­day, March 3, on Na­tional Geo­graphic.

“It has the per­fect com­bi­na­tion of his­tory and majesty be­cause it’s also one of the most sig­nif­i­cant walls in the climb­ing world,” Hon­nold ex­plains. “So it’s some­thing I’ve been read­ing about since I was a lit­tle kid. You know, it holds a cer­tain spot in climb­ing cul­ture. But then once it ac­tu­ally comes time to climb the route, then mak­ing lists is very im­por­tant. You know, keep­ing track of which sec­tions are dif­fi­cult and how to work through them.”

The Os­car-win­ning two-hour doc­u­men­tary from di­rec­tors Jimmy Chin and Eliz­a­beth Chai Vasarhe­lyi that de­buted at last sum­mer’s Tel­luride Film Fes­ti­val, fol­lows Hon­nold as he pre­pares for the climb while liv­ing out of his van with girl­friend Sanni McCand­less, who is none too pleased that her sig­nif­i­cant other’s life could end at any time with one mis­take.

And El Cap tol­er­ates no mis­takes from a free climber, so Hon­nold care­fully planned his route. Among the chal­lenges, there was the mon­ster of­fwidth, a grad­u­ally widen­ing 200- foot crack; en­duro cor­ners, three sus­tained pitches that of­fer no op­por­tu­ni­ties for rest over its 360 feet; and the most treach­er­ous part, the boul­der prob­lem, a nearly ver­ti­cal wall with very thin hand­holds.

In the film, Hon­nold men­tions that free climb­ing is prob­a­bly the only sport where you have to be per­fect or you die. Nat­u­rally, he doesn’t pre­oc­cupy him­self with thoughts of his own mor­tal­ity but he does ad­mit that for years, he did let El Cap psych him out.

“I was dream­ing about climb­ing El Cap but never ac­tu­ally act­ing on it be­cause it was too scary,” he says. “... You know, driv­ing into Yosemite, look­ing at the wall and be­ing like, ‘Oh no, that’s not hap­pen­ing this year.’ And that hap­pened prob­a­bly six or eight times. We’d think like, ‘Oh, this is the sea­son,’ and then I would drive in and look at the wall and be like, ‘This is def­i­nitely not the sea­son.’ Yeah, I mean it’s pretty easy to get psyched out, for sure.”

Alex Hon­nold stars in “Free Solo” Sun­day on Na­tional Geo­graphic.

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