Josh has started rock climbing recently. Mostly that means hours spent in a gym with a large wall and climbing with harness and ropes. For me there are moments of panic about the safety gear coming undone. But my fears for Josh paled when I watched “Free Solo”, the Academy Award winning documentary on Alex Honnold climbing El Capitan without ropes and safety gear.
It’s rare that I watch a movie that grips my brain for hours afterwards with amazement, fear, and joy. I gravitated towards the movie primarily to understand the roots of Josh’s passion. I came away stunned.
El Cap is touted as the center of the climbing universe and Honnold is the first person (demigod?) to climb the 3000+ feet granite wall - a structure he calls "the greatest wall in the world" - with nothing but climbing shoes and chalk.
His success didn’t happen overnight, of course. It took decades of climbing, free soloing smaller heights, ten years of wanting to climb El Cap, and a year of practicing every step, every grip, every pivot, and every kick with ropes and safety harness. He recorded the difficult movements of the choreography in a journal and committed these steps to memory. He left nothing to chance because the price of a mistake was certain death. Consider that only two other climbers have ever considered free soloing El Cap and both died in climbing accidents or that one of the hardest spots on the wall only has a 1/8th inch grip and requires a forceful karate kick to get to the next point and then the documentary will take on a different shade.
Honnold has been featured in the global media and has given a Ted talk. His brain has been studied and it is known that his amygdala does not react to fear like yours or mine does. That’s a great start! Was he born this way or did he train himself? Perhaps a bit of the former and heavy doses of the latter. To say he is inspiring is an understatement.
A product of a father with Asperger and a mother with complete devotion to his climbing quest gave him the ingredients he needed - unique social fabric and the freedom to pursue his dreams. His childhood experiences are woven into the documentary to shed light on his journey from climbing gyms to living in a van, vegetarianism, and compelling passion. Watching him scale El Cap gave me an aerobic workout from the couch. Heightening the emotions was incredible cinematography from a team of National Geographic filmmakers who are also professional climbers. They hung with ropes and safety gear at gravity defying positions and angles while carrying heavy equipment. They needed to be as unobtrusive as possible to give Honnold the physical and mental space he needed. And they needed to overcome their own fears of potentially watching their friend plummet to the ground while they filmed. Even though you know that it all ends well, these are the ingredients of a thriller!
I came away with admiration of what Honnold calls his "warrior" mentality. He set out to achieve a goal and scaled it one finger grip and step at a time. The movie made my troubles insignificant and inconsequential. Not that I can ever achieve a fraction of what Honnold has achieved but I do recommend the documentary to watch the journey of a remarkable young man who resets the bar on what the human body and mind can achieve.
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