Weekend Warm-up: Alex Honnold on Free Soloing El Cap

Free soloing a 1,000-metre wall – and not just any wall, but the legendary El Capitan that commands over Yosemite valley – could be either a climber’s ultimate dream or worst nightmare. Mainstream audiences trend towards the second opinion, but can’t avert their eyes. Although that we know that the feat shown in this documentary ended successfully, we still cringe when a slab breaks under the weight of a rubber sole or a squawking bird disrupts the athlete’s concentration.

Most big-budget films involving climbing are so hokey that the real climbers in the audience either laugh or wince. (A classic of this genre was Vertical Limit, known by those who worked on it as riggers and stunt doubles as Vertical Dimwit.) But by any standard, Free Solo is a very good film — perhaps the best climbing feature since Touching the Void — and it wasn’t entirely surprising that it was nominated for an Oscar as best documentary feature. Internationally, Free Solo is not widely distributed, although residents of the U.S. and Canada may find a local screening here.

This year, the Academy Awards take place on February 24. In the build-up, it’s worthwhile considering the thoughts of Alex Honnold himself about his remarkable feat. During a TED talk, Honnold analyzes his process for achieving the right mindset, managing fear and turning the bitter feelings left by his first major free solo, up Half Dome, to what he calls “the best day of his life”, tackling the sheer Freerider route on El Cap in a four-hour, all-or-nothing bet, ropeless, gearless, and seemingly fearless.

In this entertaining talk, Honnold makes his point clear: While the venture on Half Dome succeeded in spite of a lack of proper preparation, the El Capitan project involved years of meticulous training and didn’t begin until he managed to find the right mindset. Honnold’s talk includes a few notes of black humor: As he wryly points out, certain things were not supposed to be funny, but they were.

Finally, if the talk awakens your curiosity about his climb of Half Dome, below is a second (older) video on the feat:



On June 2017, Alex Honnold made climbing history as the first person to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite. Honnold left all ropes and gear behind and rocketed up the Freerider route in 3 hours and 56 minutes. Free Solo, the film about the climb, produced by National Geographic and directed by Jimmy Chin and his wife, Elisabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, has been nominated as best documentary feature in the 91st Academy Awards.

Related stories:

Free Solo Nominated for an Oscar

Alex Honnold Free Solos El Cap

The Strange Brain of Alex Honnold