Alex Honnold recites every step like a carefully crafted dance, narrating his routine of small handholds and foot placements with meticulousness and grace. Taking a deep breath, he extends his left leg across a gap and, solidifying his grip, pulls himself through the Boulder Challenge, a particularly difficult pitch on his route up Yosemite’s El Capitan.
He pauses, knowing he has made it past a clutch point, and turns to smile at the camera. Here in the Boston-area theater where I’m watching Free Solo, the new documentary on Honnold’s journey up Yosemite’s monster wall from filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the audience erupts into laughter and applause.
Honnold is perhaps the most famous among the growing community of free soloers—those who rock climb alone, without the use of ropes or a harness. Already known for his speed records and for tackling some of Earth’s most fearsome climbs (Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome, Zion’s Moonlight Buttress), Honnold solidified his place in climbing history on June 3, 2017, as the first person to free solo El Capitan, one of the most challenging natural rock walls on the planet.
Towering some 3,000 feet over the pine forests of Yosemite, El Capitan is a fierce foe for even the most experienced of climbers. But to free solo such a landmark, relying fully on one’s own ability, is a risk with terrifying odds and unprecedented rewards. “I’ve been dreaming about free soloing El Cap for years,” Honnold says in an interview with AMC Outdoors. “But it had proved to be too daunting and big, so I sat on the idea for a while.”
Confidence and practice were key. Honnold spent nearly two years climbing El Capitan over and over to memorize his route, keeping a journal of footholds and trouble spots along the way. “The interesting thing about free soloing is that it is all psychological,” he says. “If someone doesn’t care if they live or die, they could just walk up and do it. Obviously, I was not willing to take those odds.”
For the filmmakers, who are all climbers and longtime friends of Honnold, producing the movie brought its own set of risks. If Honnold failed, the crew would have faced the reality that the project contributed to his death. “We never talked about [what we would do if Honnold died] with Alex, but we always wanted the film to be about Alex and his legacy,” Vasarhelyi says at the Boston screening.
For his part, Honnold says the biggest challenge was adjusting to the cameras.
“We had the film crew hanging in certain places,” he says. “A few moved as I moved, but for the most part, they were posted up in specific places. They had been with me through all my rehearsals, so they knew where to go without their ropes getting in my way or impacting my route at all.”
So, what’s next for Honnold? While on tour with the film, he has managed to fit in visits to indoor climbing gyms. While he hasn’t climbed extensively on the East Coast, he mentions that parts of the Appalachian Trail have caught his attention, despite the humid climate compared to his home in Las Vegas.
And what about the future of El Capitan? Honnold expects more climbers will free solo the wall one day.
“Climbing standards are rising so much that, at some point, it might just be physically easy for people,” he says. “The industry has changed so much. We’re on this second generation of suburban and urban climbers who are taking it to a whole different level. I think it’s great. It’s such a nice community sport, and gyms are so good now, that I think everyone should just go out and have fun with it.”