Free Solo and Human Achievement

This past weekend, my son and I saw the documentary ‘Free Solo’ at a theater in Knoxville. I’ve been looking forward to this film since I saw the preview months back. The fact that it was actually showing at a theater within thirty miles of me was surprising enough to make me consider that possibility that stars aligned. If you’re not into climbing, the term free solo means to climb alone and with no protective equipment. Now imagine climbing like that for more than half a mile, straight up the most iconic rock face in the world.

To call this movie a documentary is a misnomer. It is more than that. I’m not sure what to call it other than a beautiful, thrilling, epic achievement that just happened to have a video crew on standby. It may be one of the best films I have ever seen. Certainly one of the most intense. Here, watch the trailer if you haven’t seen it already:

-Not recommended if you have a heart condition

This movie is about human achievement and all the complexity that entails. Especially achievement that requires singular commitment to a goal, even if it costs you everything. Alex Honnold is an amazing climber and perhaps the most unconventional badass that I’ve ever seen. Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi do an amazing job of capturing both the stunning, visceral imagery of this achievement while telling a very human story. This is the most remarkable human achievement to happen in my lifetime and it was captured beautifully.

While telling a great story, the film highlighted what made this achievement possible. The years of considering the possibility. The months of practice and repetition. Note-taking, visualization, experimentation. Commitment to craft that makes all things secondary. The self awareness to know when the time isn’t right and when it is. And once it is right, the intense amount of focus that must be brought to bear. The fear that must be contended with and the mindset that thrives in the face of such challenge.

In the event that I haven’t sufficiently conveyed the magnitude of this, let me try one last time. Imagine you are a world class athlete. You have been focused on the sport for decades and you are training for the greatest challenge of your life. Your routine requires perfect execution. Literally perfect, there is no almost here. If you fail, you die. And you have to maintain the physical endurance and mental focus to sustain this effort for four hours. Just watching the highlights of this gives the audience surges of adrenaline that they don’t know what to do with.

At one point in the movie there is a reference to the warrior ethos and I think there might be something to that. Not all warriors are found on the battlefield. Some are found on granite cliffs at heights that make the rest of us step back in awe. Or they weave a story that allows us to touch the sublime and take inspiration at what we can accomplish. It could have gone very differently. On some future climb, that might very well still happen. But on this climb, on that day in June of 2017, Alex Honnold accomplished something amazing that may never be repeated.