Oscar-winning 'Free Solo' documents death-defying solo rock climb

  • TV
  • Friday, 05 Apr 2019

Alex Honnold holds all of his climbing gear atop the summit of El Capitan. He just became the first person to climb El Capitan without a rope. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)

On June 3, 2017, American rock climber Alex Honnold scaled the 3,000ft-tall (900m) El Capitan, a rock formation in California, alone and, get this, without using a rope, harness or any protective equipment.

It’s called free soloing and calling it dangerous would be an understatement.

Honnold spent two years memorising and mastering every handhold and foothold on El Capitan (some were just the slightest indents on the rock’s surface) before the actual ascent.

The 33-year-old completed the climb in under four hours and became the first person to free solo El Capitan.

The history-making climb was chronicled by husband and wife directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi in a nail-biting documentary, Free Solo. It went on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary this year.

In a phone call from Jackson, Wyoming, United States, Chin – who is a professional climber himself – tells StarLifestyle why free solo climbers choose to undertake such a perilous task.

“I think it’s about finding what you’re passionate about in life. Whether you’re a writer, a musician or a scientist, you feel lucky to be able to find something that moves you in life. I hope people understand that,” Chin says.

One of the biggest things Vasarhelyi and Chin agonised over in the documentary is the ethical question of whether filming Honnold would affect his climb.

“We have a lot of open conversations with Alex about it and we have a very honest and trusting relationship. I’ve known Alex for over 10 years and we’ve climbed all over the world,” Chin explains how he arrived at the decision to film Honnold.

“Ultimately, it was about trusting Alex’s decision and trusting he was doing it for the right reasons. We’ve always known Alex was going to climb (El Capitan) whether or not we were going to film him because he wasn’t climbing it to become famous or to make money. This was what he loved.

“If I had any inkling or thought that he was doing it to become famous, then I wouldn’t have done it,” Chin adds.

Aside from the project being very dangerous for Honnold himself, the documentary posed significant risks to the filming crew as well.

The crew spent a total of 12 to 14 hours a day on the wall filming at times, with various heavy ropes and filming equipment strapped to their bodies.

“Putting the right team members together was very critical,” Chin shares. “We had elite professional climbers on the film crew. All of us have climbed El Capitan many, many times. There must never be an instance where I had to worry about them being safe or if they knew what they were doing.”

The experienced crew members also had to prepare themselves extensively for the shoot.

“We were essentially practising how to shoot the climb while Alex was practising how to free solo it.”

Besides witnessing the climb itself, the documentary also captures some intensely personal moments.

In one scene, Honnold received the news that a friend and fellow climber, Ueli Steck, died while attempting to climb a peak near Mount Everest. In light of the tragic event, Honnold’s girlfriend voices her concern for him and a heated conversation ensues.

“It’s very, very hard to film those scenes. But that’s also our job as storytellers. Those are the scenes of real life that we spent years working to get to a point where your subjects trust you,” Vasarhelyi offers.

“And when those moments transpire, of course, your heart goes out to both of them but it’s also your job to chronicle it.

“It’s very difficult but it’s also a privilege we have to be trusted by the people we’re filming.”

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, winners of the award for best documentary feature for Free Solo. Photo: AP
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, winners of the award for best documentary feature for Free Solo. Photo: AP

Vasarhelyi also recounts the recent Oscar win: “When you make documentaries, you never dream of the awards because it’s such a remote chance. We’re so honoured and humbled that Free Solo has captured the hearts and minds of audiences.”

Chin, along with Honnold, has actually been to Malaysia and climbed Low’s Gully, Mount Kinabalu (this time with a rope!) back in 2009.

“That was a very special expedition. It was the first time I climbed with Alex and I think it was Alex’s first international expedition.

“It’s very special to be climbing up there above the South China Sea and I got to see how talented Alex was as a climber,” he recalls the experience.

Asked what goes through a climber’s mind while making their way up, Chin shares: “We’re mainly focused on what’s in front of us. We’re usually very present and in the moment.

“And that’s one of the things I love about climbing.”

Free Solo premieres April 6 at 9pm on National Geographic Channel (Astro 553/ unifi TV 508).

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