Living dangerously, one foot at a time, in ‘Free Solo’

February 15, 2019

By Jane Ross

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Alex Honnold lives life dangerously.

One of an elite group of “free solo” rock climbers, he scales sheer vertical cliffs thousands of feet high, alone and without a rope.

Now his death-defying ascent in 2017 of the towering El Capitan granite rock formation in California’s Yosemite National Park is taking him to the Oscars, where a film about his feat will compete for the movie world’s highest honor.

“Free Solo,” nominated for best documentary, is an intimate look at Honnold’s experience of preparing for and climbing the 3,000 foot high (900 meter) wall, where a tiny slip of a foot or misplacement of a finger could send him plummeting to his death.

The extreme danger of the ascent and the constant prospect of death terrifies those around Honnold in the film, but it gives the climber an equanimity he finds liberating.

“What’s so satisfying about free soloing is having that feeling of focus and not being self-conscious, losing that sense of self, just being fully present in what I’m actually doing, just doing the moves,” the 33 year-old told Reuters.

At the heart of the documentary is the dilemma filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi struggled with during production: whether documenting Honnold’s climb would make it more dangerous for him or cause him to take risks he would not otherwise take.

“Alex is someone who has thought more about his own mortality than mostly everyone. And he has chosen this life,” Vasarhelyi said.

“We trusted him. We also trusted our own judgment that we would always treat our subject with respect and the film’s interests would never trump those of Alex. But, you know, we had to address the ethical question. And that’s why we include the filmmaking, so that audiences can understand what we were struggling with,” Vasarhelyi said.

The filmmakers installed remote-controlled cameras at the most difficult points of the climb to avoid distracting Honnold, and also set up zoom-lens cameras on the ground.

Camera operators still had to film much of the ascent while suspended on ropes on the side of the rock face.

Vasarhelyi said the comment she hears most is how inspiring the film is.

“We’ve been just humbled by this outpouring from audiences saying that Alex’s courage gives them courage and that they’re inspired to pursue their dreams,” she said.

The Oscars will be handed out on Feb. 24 at a ceremony in Hollywood.

(Reporting by Reuters Television; Editing by Chris Reese)

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