Free Solo: Alex’s Incredible Journey is Inspiring and Disturbing

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s Oscar Winning documentary Free Solo is about how Alex Honnold made a historic climb up ‘a freaking-big wall’ without ropes—and lived to tell about it. He has his own verb—'to honnold’ which literally means ‘to face fear.’

Free Solo: Alex’s Incredible Journey is Inspiring and Disturbing Free Solo: Alex’s Incredible Journey is Inspiring and Disturbing Source : National Geographic|Agile


Free Solo portrays athletic achievements that can't be explained by anything but human condition. The extraordinary pursuit that Alex embarks on is both ridiculous and relatable at once, as the director duo of Vasarhelyi and Chin try to find a sense of fear and everything human that fuels his passion.


The cinematography by Jimmy Chin, Clair Popkin, and Mikey Schaefer is breathtaking to say the least. They let the natural, imposing mountains and forests showcase the overwhelming splendor. They used ultra-wide to ultra-telephoto lenses to recreate Alex's El Capitan endeavor. Free Solo is visually immersive and together with Marco Beltrami's energetic score, the experience is spine-chilling, edge of the seat and in the middle where the documentary stagnates a bit, Free Solo forces us to contemplate.


In Free Solo, Alex speaks about his childhood. Her mother says that he was always a lonely kid. When he would do weird things, they would call him names and that hurt his self-esteem. Alex says that her mother used to say to him that no matter what he did, he will never be perfect in his life. Alex is striving for perfection, for tremendous amount of mental and physical strength and unwavering focus and persistence.


He holds that no one in the world has ever achieved something extraordinary while striving for happiness. After a few girls leaving him because of his straight-up, honest attitude, but the same thing attracted Cassandra "Sanni" McCandless to Alex. From a joke among the girls, things between the couple escalated quickly and Sanni fell in love with Alex. As for Alex though, he says "I love you" to her and he is happy that she is "small and lightens up the atmosphere", but such is his condition that nothing has so far come in the way of his monumental ambitions, which is what he lives for. In Honnold, scientists saw the possibility of a more remarkable quality-the super sensation seeker, who pursues experiences at the outer limits of danger, yet is able to tightly regulate the mind and body's responses to them.



He is a classic case of high sensation seeker. The neuroscientist spotted no activity in the region of fear center of Honnold's brain. He says that he definitely thought about how he processes fear. He has been in same positions so many times that it has become normal for him. There is nothing left to process for him as this is what he has become. "This is not scary because this is what I do", Alex says to himself.


Each year, Honnold devotes several months to climbing Yosemite National Park's iconic walls and boulders. "Yosemite is my favourite place in the whole world", he says. Free solo is a type of rock climbing where the climber climbs alone relying on their ability alone without any rope support, accessories or protective equipment. The heights free soloists climb is beyond safety, and any minor misjudgment will certainly prove to be fatal. On the most difficult pitches (length of a rope) of the climb, his fingers have as much contact with the wall as people have with the touchscreens of their smartphones, while his toes press down on edges as thin as sticks of a gum. Honnold himself has acknowledge that his palms sweat when he watches his climbing footage.


Some in the climbing world view free soloing as something that isn't meant to be. Critics regard it as a reckless showmanship that gives the sport a bad name, noting the long list of those who've died attempting it. Others recognize it as the sport's purest expression. Such was the attitude of an Austrian alpinist named Paul Preuss, considered by climbing historians to be the father of free soloing. He proclaimed that the very essence of alpinism was to master a mountain with superior physical and mental skill, not "artificial aid." By the time he was 27, Preuss had made some 150 ropeless first ascents and was celebrated throughout Europe. Then, in 1913, while free soloing the North Ridge of the Mandlkogel in the Austrian Alps, he fell to his death.


Alex Honnold is a 33-year-old doe-eyed rock climber who is famous for his free solo rock-climbing ascents. He hails from Polish descent and he grew up in California, USA. He started climbing at a very young age and in his teenage years participated in the climbing championships. Before he accomplished the feat on June 3, 2017, Honnold spent nearly a decade thinking about the climb and more than a year and a half planning and training for it. It was a Saturday morning, Honnold succeeded in free soloing El Capitan to become the first and only person to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. His ascent of the 3,000-foot Yosemite monolith took only four hours, but the preparation behind the feat took over a decade which required thousands of hours of practicing on easier terrain and many hours of visualizing of the performance on El Capitan with nothing more than a pair of shoes and a chalk bag. Honnold draws his inspiration from climbers like Peter Croft, John Bachar and Tommy Caldwell, and the beauty of El Capitan also helps in lifting up his spirits.


Alex says that he was an average climber as a kid; neither the best, nor the worst. He recognized that there were better climbers than him who were freakishly stronger and more agile than him and had started climbing much earlier and they were naturally gifted unlike him. He says: "I just loved climbing, and I've been climbing all the time ever since, so I've naturally gotten better at it, but I've never been gifted." Alex never spoke to anybody and didn't make any friends at college, where he dropped out after a year.


Apart from the Academy Award for Best Documentary, Free Solo also won the BAFTA award for Best Documentary; People's Choice Documentary at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF); Audience Choice Prize, Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography, and Outstanding Achievement in Production award at Cinema Eye Honors; and won Best Sports Documentary, Most Compelling Living Subject of a Documentary, Most Innovative Documentary, and Best Cinematography at Critics' Choice Documentary Awards. At Satellite Awards, Free Solo came second to Minding the Gap in Best Documentary Film category. Free Solo also made the top 5 documentaries of the year in National Board of Review.



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