Weekend Warm-Up: Two Generations Bond on El Cap in ‘Free as Can Be’

Don’t meet your heroes. That’s how the old saying goes, and it’s stuck around because it carries an unimpeachable nugget of truth. It is, almost always, a disappointing experience.

But the day up-and-coming climber Jordan Cannon met Yosemite climbing legend Mark Hudon? That’s an exception.

What happened when the two men meet — each representing a distinct generation of climbers, each with his own techniques, tools, and strategies — is the subject of Free as Can Be, a powerful documentary from the filmmakers at Arc’teryx.

Mark Hudon

Mark Hudon. Photo: Screenshot


The two connected at a climbing event in Truckee, California, and quickly formed a connection.

“I was very aware of the climbing he did in the 70s,” Cannon says in the opening moments of the film. “I thought it was like the coolest thing ever. He was the man because he started a movement of free climbing in Yosemite 40 years ago.”

Jordan Cannon and Mark Hudon

Photo: Screenshot

Free climbing Yosemite

To avoid getting bogged down in climbing jargon, it’s worth pausing here and summarizing Hudon’s Yosemite career: he and partner Max Jones tackled some of the hardest routes in the world at the time.

They did it “free as can be,” meaning they tried to make each ascent without bolts or cams as artificial handholds. It’s called free climbing, and it’s pretty darn tough — especially on the rock Hudon and Jones were tackling. And though they were climbing at a level on par with the greats of their day, they didn’t get a ton of recognition. These days, you have to be a pretty obsessive climbing nerd to geek out over Mark Hudon.

But Jordan Cannon? He’s a pretty obsessive climbing nerd.

Jordan Cannon and Mark Hudon

Photo: Screenshot


“I love the movement of climbing and challenging myself on hard things. But it’s the history and the tradition and the mentality from the past that inspires me to go outside and have these adventures of my own,” Canon says.

Legendary free soloist Alex Honnold agrees with Cannon’s self-assessment, though he takes it a step further in a typically blunt fashion.

“He cares about climbing history in a way that I find sort of refreshing,” the climbing phenom says. “Though it might be to his detriment a little bit too. Because if he didn’t care about climbing history and just trained in the gym all the time, he’d probably be a stronger climber.”

It’s this love of climbing history that prompted Cannon to ask Hudon if he had any project he’d always regretted not sending. Hudon mentioned Freerider, a ferociously difficult, 975m line on El Cap that Hudon’s tried and failed to free climb for decades. Hudon told Cannon it would take a year of his life to prepare for the attempt and he’d need a partner willing to commit to such a thing.

And then, to Hudon’s surprise, Cannon said he’d be that guy.

A year of training. A week of sending.

The two strangers quickly developed a powerful friendship that reached across climbing eras to get to the core of what it means to trust someone on a big wall. Cannon gave Hudon his year, with the two traveling all over the American West to train on some of the hardest problems around.

Jordan Cannon on a wall.

Photo: Screenshot


And then, finally, it was time to tackle Freerider.

For Hudon, the crux of the attempt would be The Teflon Corner. This 5.12d slick-as-hell nightmare requires the climber to, as one interviewee put it, essentially levitate upwards. It would be one notch more difficult than anything Hudon had ever achieved in his long and illustrious career.

Jordan Cannon and Mark Hudon climbing.

Photo: Screenshot


No spoilers here. I’ll tell you this though, the film’s final ten minutes had me wiping at my eyes. And as the below picture shows, I wasn’t the only one.

Jordan Cannon and Mark Hudon.

Photo: Screenshot


I’ll leave you with a final quote from Hudon, a line that perfectly summarizes the legend’s outlook.

“I’m not going to have a tombstone because I’m going to get cremated. But if I did have a tombstone, and on it, it says ‘as free as can be,’…that would be all right. That would be good. As free as could be. And he had a lot of fun.”

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
You can find more of his work at www.andrewmarshallimages.com, @andrewmarshallimages on Instagram and Facebook, and @pawn_andrew on Twitter (for as long as that lasts).