There’s something endearing about people who have a mission in life: an obsession so integral to their being that it defies all rationale. There are not many – not even many rock climbers – who would look at the sheer cliff face of Yosemite’s El Capitan and think, ‘Yeah, I’d like to scramble up that. On my own. Without a rope. Without anything, except a good pair of shoes and a light dusting of climbing chalk on my hands.’
But Alex Honnold is as single-minded as they come, and free-solo-ing means the world to him. He knows the dangers. Ironically, within the parameters of what is undoubtedly a hugely risky business, he’s actually pretty risk-averse. He plans carefully. He practises. He doesn’t let the fact that there’s a film crew following him influence his decision about when to climb. But still… There’s no denying that his death is only ever one unlucky slip away, and the tension generated by this movie is almost unbearable.
It’s a fascinating story, actually, despite the narrow focus. Honnold is an engaging character, good-humoured and self-aware. An extra layer of human interest is added when Alex hooks up with Sanni McCandless, and finds himself negotiating a serious relationship for the first time, testing the boundaries between his compulsion and his love.
The crew are an active part of this documentary, present on film, serving almost as a Greek chorus: commenting on the action and offering their opinions. They’re all climbers; they’d need to be – and so they understand the enormity of the undertaking. Their responses inform ours, and we spend a lot of time sharing their awe and disbelief.
The landscapes are stunning, and we are left in no doubt as to the scale of this feat. I will never understand what motivates someone to do something like this, but there’s no denying how impressive Alex’s success is. It looks like something beyond human capability. And yet there he is, just doing it.