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Documentary 'Free Solo' Makes You Feel Like You're Climbing A Mountain -- Without Ropes

Rock climber Alex Honnold in front of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, in a scene from Free Solo. (Photo courtesy of National Geographic Documentary Films)
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By Monica Bushman with Marialexa Kavanaugh

If you're afraid of heights, new documentary Free Solo's as terrifying as any horror movie you've ever seen. Even for the non-acrophobic, it's scary.

The name of the movie refers to "free solo climbing" or "soloing" -- that's when rock climbers don't use a harness or any ropes to catch them if they fall. It's the climber's version of performing without a net.

Last year, professional adventure climber Alex Honnold became the first person to free solo climb the 3,200-foot sheer granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

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What makes soloing El Capitan so impressive: most professional rock climbers wouldn't dare attempt it. Legendary climber Tommy Caldwell (who's also a friend of Honnold's) puts it this way in the film: "I've spent 20 years of my life climbing El Cap, but I'd never do it without a rope."

"There's no margin for error. Imagine an Olympic-gold-medal-level athletic achievement that if you don't get that gold medal, you're going to die," Caldwell said. "That's pretty much what free soloing El Cap is like. You have to do it perfectly."

Alex Honnold making the first free solo ascent of El Capitan's Freerider Route in Yosemite National Park. (Photo courtesy of National Geographic Documentary Films)

But Honnold said that requirement for perfection is partly what made free soloing El Capitan such a draw for him.

"I don't want to fall off and die either, but there's a satisfaction to challenging yourself and doing something well. That feeling is heightened when you're for sure facing death," Honnold said in Free Solo. "If you're seeking perfection, free soloing is as close as you can get. And it does feel good to feel perfect, for a brief moment."

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When documentary filmmakers (and husband and wife) Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin set out to make a documentary about Honnold, even they didn't know that he was seriously considering free soloing El Capitan.

Chin, also a professional climber, had known Honnold for a decade. But he said that Honnold hadn't ever told him he wanted to climb El Capitan without ropes."

All of his friends were hopeful that he wasn't thinking about it," Chin told KPCC'sThe Frame.

Free Solo co-directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. (Photo courtesy of National Geographic Documentary Films)
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"The thing is, I'd been dreaming of soloing El Cap for maybe eight years at that point," Honnold told us. "Each season I would show up in Yosemite and think, 'This is the year that I'm going to solo El Cap.' And then I'd drive in, look at the wall and be like, 'Oh my god this is not the season I'm going to solo El Cap.'"

He said the movie offered him an opportunity to finally buckle down and do all the work needed to prep for the climb.

"[With] a lot of my solo [climbs], I just sort of get fit and get ready, and then at some point I just feel it and I just do it," Honnold said. "But I realized that with El Cap, I was going to have to do a ton of work."

But filming the climb presented another set of problems. When Vasarhelyi and Chin learned that Honnold wanted to free solo El Cap, they immediately hit pause on the documentary.

First, there was the question of how to film it -- they ultimately hired a crew that largely consisted of experienced climbers.

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But there was also the risk that the project might become a filmed record of their friend's death.

After a lot of discussion, they set out to make the film and followed Honnold for two years as he prepared for the climb. To help work against the concern that the presence of the film crew would cause Honnold to lose focus, there was always the understanding that Honnold could abandon the project at any time or set out to climb the route on his own without telling the filmmakers.

Eventually, all the questions about whether or not it was a good idea to film Honnold's free solo attempt became a part of the movie as well. As an experienced documentarian, Vasarhelyi said she knew there was no way that the presence of the film crew wouldn't have some sort of effect on Honnold.

"How you film, your interaction, will definitely affect your subject. And also the film itself has a real impact on their lives, so it was a constant conversation," Vasarhelyi said. "I feel like ultimately, we all went through this together, and that's why it was important to include it in the movie."

Luckily for the filmmakers -- and especially for Honnold -- Honnold was, as you can see, still around for interviews.

Free Solo plays at the L.A. Film Festival on Thursday, Sept. 27. The film opens in theaters on Sept. 28.

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