I was delighted to see documentary filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin take home the Oscar last night for Best Documentary for Free Solo, the breathtaking portrait of free soloist climber Alex Honnold, as he prepares to achieve his lifelong dream: climbing the face of the world’s most famous rock — the 3,200-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park — without a rope! Celebrated as one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind, Honnold’s climb set the ultimate standard: perfection or death. Succeeding in this challenge places his story in the annals of human achievement.
Free Solo is an edge-of-your seat thriller and an inspiring portrait of an athlete who challenges both his body and his beliefs on a quest to triumph over the impossible, revealing the personal toll of excellence. As Honnold begins his training, the armor of invincibility he’s built up over decades unexpectedly breaks apart when Honnold h begins to fall in love, threatening his focus and giving way to injury and setbacks. Vasarhelyi and Chin succeed in beautifully capturing deeply human moments with Honnold as well as the death-defying climb with exquisite artistry and masterful, vertigo-inducing camerawork. The result is a triumph of the human spirit. I sat down with Alex Honnold and filmmaker E. Chai Vasarhelyi to talk about the film and his remarkable achievement.
Danny Miller: This was such an awe-inspiring film in every sense of that word. Alex, I feel like I’m a member of a different species when I see you and the other climbers in this film. When you talk to us civilians, do you understand why we have to first move through our fear-based thoughts such as “Are you insane? Why would anyone do something so dangerous?!”
Alex Honnold: Oh yeah, I totally get that. I mean, that’s how I feel about big wave surfing or extreme downhill biking or other human endeavors that I see that I don’t totally understand. But then I just assume that within the context of what those people are doing, it must make sense to them. You know, like if I spent my whole life in the ocean, then maybe surfing a 50-foot wave would feel kind of natural even though it seems totally crazy to me now.
That’s reassuring to hear — I don’t feel quite as inferior as I did a few minutes ago!
(Laughs.) I think one of the main points of the film is that anything like this is an enormous process of preparation. I’ve been climbing for over 20 years, I’ve gone up El Cap more than 80 times, and I dove very deep into one very specific thing. That that doesn’t make me better at anything else, as you can see in the film!
I was a little surprised early on to hear how many times you used the word “scary” to describe some of the stuff you were doing but then then word that disappeared later on. Is it that when you finally commit to such a huge thing as free soloing El Capitan you just banish all thoughts of fear from your head?
Well, I think for the actual free solo of El Cap, I wasn’t really that scared because I’d spent so long preparing for it. But talking about climbing in general? I mean, it’s always kind of scary! Nobody wants to fall to their death. And certainly any time that you think about that possibility, it’s hard not to think, “Oh, this is scary!”
It’s inspiring to see you move through that, and also inspiring to see people like your mom and your girlfriend Sanni deal with their own fears about it. It’s moving to hear them talk about how they would never try to stop you, that it’s just who you are, no matter how fearful they are about what could happen. Chai, you could have made a whole documentary just on the making of this film, I can only imagine the complexities of getting your crew out to where they had to be. Was there a lot of discussion about how much your presence would be felt in the film?
E. Chai Vasarhelyi: Yes. We were always very reluctant to become part of the story because it felt like that was calling too much attention to the process, but it soon became clear that we had to be present to a certain extent. For starters, we had to have people responding to Alex since these free solos usually happen in such a vacuum. Our crew was almost entirely made up of climbers who were very close friends with Alex. They lived through what he was doing and it was important to show some of that.
And they were accomplishing amazing athletic feats in their own right, just getting their cameras to the right position on that wall! I could watch a whole film on the activities of the camera people alone.
Totally. And we were also continually grappling with the existential question of whether or not we should participate in this, given the risks. I remember one conversation between Jimmy and John Krakauer when John asked, “Is Alex going to free solo El Cap anyway, even if you’re not making a film?” The answer was yes. “And are you guys the best people to do it in a meaningful way and do justice to that story?” Yes. But even after we decided to do it, you have to make yourselves imagine the worst because that’s part of your responsibility. It was difficult, but the bottom line for us was knowing that Alex lives a life of total intention He’s thought a lot about it, he’s very mindful, and this is the life he wants.
When I first heard the term “free solo,” I thought that meant that you just start going up a mountain and see what happens. I was relieved to learn that it’s a lot more planned out than that!
Alex: Yeah, that’s a very common misconception. We just did a screening in Yosemite, which was great, but a lot of tourists there say, “Oh, I just saw a YouTube video of you climbing some cliffs without a rope,” and they think you just climb up any way you can. That never happens. There’s a whole history and culture to climbing. I’ve spent many years learning about El Cap and planning every move. There is a huge amount of knowledge involved.
I could see that meticulous training in the film. But then, when we see the actual climb, it looks like there are times when you’re making some split-second decisions in the moment about what you’re going to do.
Not really. At least not for anything difficult. I know exactly what I need to do at every step.
Chai: I think he’s remembering that one foot move everyone talks about.
Alex: Oh yeah, the backwards foot thing. Some things may look tentative but they’re not. But then there are some parts to the climb that I don’t need to practice as much. Like there’s this one 200-foot section of crack that once you get inside, you just kind of shuffle along and engage the whole way. But at the more challenging points you definitely have to remember every single move, like your left hand grabs this one thing, your right foot goes here, but for the rest of it you just kind of grind it out.
In addition to the unbelievable achievement of getting up that wall with no ropes, I was surprised at how fast you did it. Was that a deliberate goal of yours, too?
No, that’s just a byproduct of a free soloing, but it was nice, I was excited to break four hours! For me, climbing the wall without a rope was great, it was everything I was looking for — climbing it quickly was just a bonus.
Chai: It was complicated for us, though.
Alex: It was? Why?
Chai: Once we began to realize how fast you were going, we had to adjust a lot of our plans.
Watching your group, even knowing that you’re all climbers, I have to say that you all looked pretty terrified watching Alex!
I’m not a climber myself, not at all. But yes, it was utter terror for everybody!
Alex: Really? I mean, not for everybody, was it? Was Jimmy horrified?
Chai: Oh, yeah.
And I loved that guy who said, “Okay, that’s it. I’m never going to go through this again.”
Alex: That was Mikey. Mikey was pretty horrified. I’ve known him for a long time and one of the first times I worked with him he was holding lights for Jimmy for a photo shoot of me climbing and I remember Mikey would just hold the lights steady with one hand and look away, he couldn’t watch!
Which shows how much they all love you, of course, and don’t want to see anything happen to you. Even though I knew you were going to succeed, I burst into tears when you made it to the summit of El Cap. Can you even put the kind of euphoria you felt in that moment into words?
Just delight. Deep satisfaction.
Chai: You can see it in his face.
Alex: I was very happy. Watching that part of the film is always pretty exciting because I think it really does justice to that feeling I felt when I got to the top and knew that I had lived my dream.
When you watch the climb now, are you ever critical? “Why did I move my left foot that way?”
No, actually, which is interesting, because I can be very critical. No, I watch the footage, and I’m like, “That looks great!” Of course, that’s after many years of practice, I’ve put a lot of effort into it. But I think the execution was great, I’m pretty pleased with myself.
Chai: It was perfect.
Alex: It was well done. I wouldn’t say perfect but it was pretty freaking good!
When you show the film, do you get a markedly different reaction from climbers versus non-climbers?
Oh yeah, for sure. For one thing, they laugh at totally different things — like me eating out of the pan with a spatula. At the New York premiere, everybody laughed at that. In Yosemite, nobody did because they all eat out of the pan with a spatula, it’s completely normal! And people usually laugh at the scene with me and Sanni buying a refrigerator.
I wondered about that scene. Chai, I’m sure you had a massive amount of footage of Alex in his regular life, I was very interested that you chose that one.
Alex: Yeah, why DID you choose that?
I can tell you my interpretation and you can let me know if I’m close. The key to that scene for me was seeing them walk past all these gorgeous, expensive refrigerators and Alex heading towards the smallest, cheapest one. The simplest thing to do the job, no frills.
Chai: That’s exactly why we included that! It was so true to character, such a real character moment. I also think that this is such an intense story, I loved finding moments of humor that endears Alex to people.
Alex, do you cringe at that one moment after Sanni let go of the rope which caused you to injure your ankle and you said that you wanted to break up with her after that? I could hear audiences gasping at that.
Alex: No, that was all true, I did want to break up with her at that moment. We hadn’t been dating that long when that happened and I was thinking, “Well, this is a great girl, I think she’s awesome, and I think this relationship has a lot of promise, but if it’s bad for my climbing, I don’t know if it’s worth it.” I remember this lunch we had after that where I basically was trying to dump her and she said, “What are you doing? Will breaking up with me make your life any better?” And I thought about that and said, “No, not at all.” And thankfully, we stayed together!
It’s so fascinating watching you go through this new territory of a committed relationship. On the other hand, I do understand the people in the film who say that to be as committed as you were to achieving that one goal, being in a relationship really isn’t very helpful to that.
It’s not! I mean, it would make a lot of sense to just be totally single, and live a kind of monastic life when you’re in this kind of quest. But, I met Sanni and we thought there’s no reason to throw away a great relationship. As you see in the film, it was challenging, but I think we managed to find the balance!
Well, thank you so much for this film. It made me think about my own passions and how watching you can inspire me to move deeper into those even if I can never get anywhere near any of your physical accomplishments.
Oh, I don’t know, it’s never too late to start.
Ha. Thank you for looking at me and not saying, “Yeah, you’re right, don’t try that.”
Hey, my mom started climbing at 58 because she really wanted to go climbing with me. She’s enjoying it a lot and having great experiences outdoors.
You’ve definitely inspired me to want to spend more time outside and see more of the beauty in this country. We went to Bryce Canyon in Utah this summer and it was spectacular watching the sun rise over the rim at six in the morning.
I used to hike there as a kid. And I love Zion National Park which is close to there. Have you been to Yosemite?
No, not yet.
Dude, you have to go! It’s only a five-hour drive from here. I just did two days of interviews sitting in the meadow underneath El Cap so I spent days staring at that wall. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, it never loses its grandeur. You look at it and you’re like, that is one immense piece of stone. It’s a magnificent wall.
In terms of climbing, are you done with El Cap now, or do you still want to go back to it?
Oh, I’ll be back, there are tons of different things you can do. Earlier this summer I did a speed record on El Cap with Tommy, who you see in the film.
So you might even free solo a different part of it again?
Oh, I don’t know about that. I doubt it, but time will tell.
Chai: I think it would okay if he didn’t.
Alex: (Laughs.) I think I’d be fine, too, if I didn’t — but we’ll see!