Free Solo – a review of an Oscar winning documentary

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By Mark Davey

This year’s Oscar winning best documentary feature Free Solo screened for one night only at Campbeltown Picture House.

The film is about rock climber Alex Honnold’s obsession with solo climbing, without ropes, El Capitan’s 3,200ft route named Freerider in America’s Yosemite national park.

Humans have always pushed their boundaries in many fields of endeavour and constantly look for innovative ways to do things differently.

In conventional sport, such as athletics and cycling or in team games like football, hockey and netball, advances nibble away at the impossible.

Before Roger Bannister broke the four-minute-mile, it was considered a step too far.

Endeavour which risks human life though falls into a different sphere and can polarise opinion.

Into such categories must fall the space race. After his first two space launch attempts ended in failure, it is no surprise that Elon Musk’s SpaceX recently took a dummy to the International Space Station.

Solo ocean crossings in a sailing boat are another example of a sport that seems too risky to many.

Free Solo tells of Honnold’s perfectionism but ultimately he relies on  practice, friction, magnesium carbonate chalk for his sweaty palms and his wits.

Throughout the ascent, and the preamble which leads to it, including romance and his girlfriend’s struggle ‘to understand’, Honnold is filmed by his friends, some of whom cannot bear to watch the final solo.

Extreme solo feats have existed as long as humans. The marathon developed in Ancient Greece as a solo running challenge and people still die in the 21st century emulating those barefoot warriors.

Climbing and mountaineering has a long history of solo risk taking and many of its protagonists live relatively short lives.

Some though, such as legendary Italian Walter Bonatti, were hard wired for solitary ascents. He shot to fame in the 1950s with a solo ascent of a climb on the Dru, renamed the Bonatti Pillar, in the French alps.

Bonatti finished his hard climbing career in 1965 with a solo in winter of the north face of the Matterhorn for the centenary of that mountain’s first attempt. He passed away, aged 81, in bed.

Up till Free Solo, many films about climbing have only been of real interest to climbers and have not made it into mainstream cinema.

Using the latest techniques including drones, remote cameras, huge telephoto lenses on digital cameras from the valley floor and cameras wielded by dangling climbers has created a National Geographic movie which has transfixed audiences.

Even climbers emerge after an-hour-and-a-half with sweaty palms after the glimpse into Honnold’s seemingly nihilistic world.

A still of Alex Honnold during his climb. NO_c10freesolo01_Alex_Honnold A royalty free image by National Geographic.