“When he’s free soloing, it’s when he feels the most…” Honnold’s mother starts saying to the camera and pauses, so that I think something else is coming: …the most alive, the most excited, the most successful. “It’s when he feels the most,” she then reiterates, and leaves it there. “How can you take that away from someone?”
At least this is the way I remember the scene in the film, Free Solo, in which rock climber Alex Honnold’s mom describes her son’s singular passion. The movie is promoted as documenting Honnold’s incredible 2017 rope-free ascent of El Capitan, a sheer vertical 3,000 foot wall in Yosemite, a physical and psychological achievement considered to be one of the most impressive in all of climbing history, and it does that — stunningly — but it does a bit more, which I appreciate. The story also goes into who he is, how he was raised, why he wants/needs to do this, offering insight into the man behind the sinewy frame and cool demeanor, as well as a perspective from those who care about him: his girlfriend, his climbing partners, the film crew, his mom. “I’m glad he doesn’t tell me when he free solos,” she ends.
I’m curious about all of this because I lost someone to risk in the wilderness, my big brother David, who fell from the top of a mountain in Colorado. For the past decade, I’ve explored what is so satisfying about accomplishing an extremely challenging feat in the middle of nature because I need to understand why the possibility — and even the likelihood — of dying can be worth it. It’s safe to say that no one can bring that into sharper focus than Honnold, whose climbing attempt that day was described by a fellow athlete as an Olympic event in which you either win gold or you die.
If you see this film, you will be up close on Honnold’s knobby hands, thoroughly dusted with white chalk, clinging to to smallest lip of rock imaginable, his toe tip dug into an invisible divot, suspended thousands of feet in the air, miniature green trees dappling the floor of the canyon below. If you see this film, you will tremble in your movie seat along with his friends at the base looking up — and looking away — in both abject terror and tremendous excitement, as he shimmies inside a crack scarcely wider than his frame, knowing they will witness either the worst thing or the best thing ever, and that the chance is kind of 50/50 either way. If you see this film, your heart will nearly burst out of your chest with equal parts shared glory and relief (despite knowing going into the theater that this ends well) at the moment when Honnold reaches the top and says over and over, “How delightful.”
After reading more adventure stories than I can count and watching dozens of documentary films about elite athletes, I can easily say that nothing before quite captured the duality of the brilliant satisfaction of achieving pure excellence — of reaching perfection, as Honnold puts it — as well as the maddening, horrifying incomprehension for those who love this person. I feel like I am finally “getting it,” the why of it all.
His drive is clearly insatiable any other way, and the payoff is enormous, something my own mother fails, for reasons of her own, to recognize about my brother and who he was. As I wrote last year when Honnold pulled this off, I both admire his tenacity, his singular focus, and his willingness/need to sacrifice anything for what he does, and I hate him for being so clear-eyed, wonderfully charming, and brave because it makes me like him, care for him, worry about him — just like my brother. But even those in the movie during the prep for his climb regularly echo his sentiment that any one of us could die any day doing anything, so why not chase your dream?
It’s a somewhat dire, unsentimental perspective, but one that resonates with me. When your brother dies at 47, it’s only natural to feel a certain urgency because life is indeed short and that there is much I want to do. I’m surprised that overall, after the credits roll, walking past the popcorn concessions and out to the parking lot, I am feeling more inspired than anything. The movie gave me a personal butt kicking about my own goals. The risks in my life are so minuscule by comparison to Honnold, and wouldn’t it be something to even feel a tiny bit of greatness, if not, actually, the most?