OPINION: Free Solo is a Great Movie, but is it Irresponsible?
Recently I watched Free Solo, a movie about climber Alex Honnold, who is known for completing many dangerous free climbs (rock climbing with no harness or other safety precautions). The movie was enjoyable and featured great camera work as well as an interesting story-line that followed Honnold’s attempt to be the first person to free solo El Capitan. Admittedly, I was impressed that someone could pull off a feat like this, as the climbing route is nearly 3,000 feet and Honnold completed it in just under four hours, becoming the first ever to do so. The film is certainly worth watching and is my personal favorite documentary of the year, but it’s important to recognize that free soloing is extremely dangerous and this movie could encourage others to attempt similar or even more dangerous climbs. This leads to the question: is this film dangerously glorifying free soloing?
Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless appears in the documentary, showing the emotional toll that Honnold’s risky climbing takes on her. In a conversation between the two in which McCandless asks if her presence would affect how willing he is to risk his life free soloing, Honnold responds by saying he doesn’t feel obligated to take fewer risks. McCandless is later shown crying and visibly distressed thinking about Honnold falling to his death, which is a likely possibility that free climbers face.
Throughout the film, there are mentions of other free climbers who died attempting to free solo certain areas such as Ueli Steck, considered one of the best free solo climbers in the world until his sudden death in 2017 as a result of free soloing. This is notable because people who Honnold knew personally as experienced climbers have fallen to their sudden deaths by attempting free climbs. There is a mention of the film’s subject matter by crew members who were hesitant to make a movie about free soloing, given how dangerous it is. Throughout the entire film there is the possibility that Honnold will fall to his death while free soloing, even causing crew members to look away from the camera while he attempts to climb certain parts of El Capitan. The film doesn’t shy away from this dangerous possibility, showing footage of a climber fall to what appears to be his death while free soloing before he opens a parachute and safely glides to the ground.
There is no failure to mention the risks and real examples of climbing accidents as a result of free soloing, but it’s important to note that the main focus of the movie is on Honnold. He acknowledges the risks of free soloing, yet appears unafraid of the possibility of death. He mentions that some climbers free solo in part because they may be suicidal or indifferent to death. At one point, Honnold sprains his ankle and takes just several weeks to return to climbing (although this injury occurred while climbing with his girlfriend, not during a free solo). Again, there is a risk that he could hurt himself even more climbing with this injury, but he continues. So what example is this setting for other climbers who may look up to him and consider free soloing? As previously mentioned, multiple experienced climbers are mentioned in this film after falling to their deaths. However, the film focuses on Honnold and how he moves past these deaths and continues to free solo.
Free Solo brings forward several dangers of free soloing, but in the end doesn’t try hard enough to stop people from attempting to free solo. After successfully climbing El Capitan, Honnold is interviewed and praised for completing such a feat. However, he acknowledges that this will not be the most impressive free solo forever, as someone will likely one up him, further pointing out that this film may encourage people to free solo. Overall, I would recommend Free Solo, but it’s important to recognize the risks Honnold took in completing this climb and the many other climbers who have faced serious injury or death as a result of attempting to free solo.