Fabled rock climber faced steeper challenge than 914m rock face in 'Free Solo' documentary

The important thing to rock climber Alex Honnold is that the movie screen be big. IMAX, whatever. But big.

It's shortly before the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of "Free Solo," the documentary that chronicles Honnold's legendary, ropeless ascent up Yosemite's El Capitan, a 914-metre wall of sheer granite and possibly the world's most fabled rock face. Honnold has just come from free soloing — climbing without safety gear — a 69-story luxury apartment building in Jersey City, New Jersey.

From a hotel window he scans the Toronto skyline but doesn't see anything much appealing. "It has to be inspiring aesthetically," he says.

Honnold, 33, is widely acknowledged as the greatest free-solo climber in the world. And in a sport that demands absolute perfection from its strivers — death is the only alternative — Honnold's feat on El Cap is his masterpiece. An almost unfathomable climbing achievement, the four-hour climb is still spoken of in hushed reverence. The New York Times called it "one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind, ever."

PICS: Yosemite climbers on the rise as they smash El Cap climb record for the third time

But whether scaling El Cap was Honnold's greatest challenge, though, is an open question. Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's "Free Solo," in theatres Friday, not only chronicles Honnold's famed ascent, and the months of preparation and anguish leading up to it, but also an arguably steeper challenge for the 33-year-old Honnold: moving out of his van and maintaining a long-term relationship.

el capitan, el cap, yosemite, mountain climbing, m

In this photo, climbers Alex Honnold, from left, and Sanni McCandless, subjects of the documentary film "Free Solo," pose with co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin at the InterContinental Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto. (Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

"Anybody, if you took two years of their life, you would see some growth, hopefully," Honnold says. "But it's easy to see growth when you're starting at zero."

WATCH: SA free climber dangles off iconic mountains in real cliffhanger

After settling whether "Free Solo" would screen on IMAX (it wouldn't), Honnold was joined by Sanni McCandless, his girlfriend of several years. Just as Chin and Vasarhelyi, the filmmaking couple of the celebrated "Meru," were beginning their film three years ago, McCandless slipped Honnold her number at a book signing. The exceptionally dedicated but goofy and boyish Honnold (in the film, he sums up the fearsome spectre of El Cap with the phrase "I mean, dude") is at first almost comically inept at making room for someone else in his life.

"When we started he was online dating, or on-phone dating, on his book tour. And then he met her. We were not expecting that," says Vasarhelyi.

The two make an appealing and revealing match. McCandless, articulate and assertive, pushes back against the less mature, bluntly honest Honnold, long a bachelor adventurer. Vasarhelyi shakes her head. "It's painful at times," she says, smiling. "Extremely painful."

Case in point: When Honnold, shortly after meeting Sanni, is shown saying that she will come and go like previous girlfriends. Later, they buy a place in Las Vegas and are seen refrigerator shopping.

"How do you feel about that line, Sanni?" Honnold asks.

"How do YOU feel about that line?" she retorts.

"That's just one of many lines in the film I'm slightly horrified to hear back," says Honnold. "That's kind of the nature of two years of filming. They just have so much material of me saying terrible things."

el capitan, el cap, yosemite, mountain climbing, mIn this photo, climbers Sanni McCandless, left, and Alex Honnold, subjects of the documentary film "Free Solo," pose for a portrait. (Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

SEE: One-armed rock climber adds mockumentary thunder to the Reel Rock Fest

What makes "Free Solo" so fascinating is how these developments influence Honnold just as he preparing to take his biggest risk as a climber. Just the slightest distractions can be potentially lethal for a free soloist, making both the onset of love and the presence of film cameras unpredictable factors in a zero-sum game.

"Soloing always come from some kind of particular mental space. And it has taken some effort to cultivate the right space for a relationship, the right space to still climb at a high level and just try to balance it," says Honnold.

The high stakes also transferred to the film crew. Chin, himself an expert climber, estimates that he and the team of veteran climbers spent more than 30 days rigging and shooting on El Cap. The danger is very real. Many renowned solo climbers have died; just in June, two experienced climbers, Jason Wells and Tim Klein, fell to their death while "simul-climbing" El Cap with ropes.

"You're a pro, but when you have that much exposure and you're moving that much equipment and you're filming on top of it and thinking about your friend, it's a tremendous amount of physical and mental exertion," says Chin. "The crew was tortured by the idea that maybe you'll be filming your friend's death."

Vasarhelyi says the tension was highest when Honnold made his first, aborted soloing attempt of El Cap despite a recent injury. She felt he wasn't prepared.

"But I don't think our role as filmmakers was to tell him not do it," she says. "And that's weird, right? Especially when there's a life on the line."

WATCH: Climber plunges to his death from skyscraper in crazy 'rooftopping' stunt

McCandless has also had to come to terms with Honnold's obsessive pursuits.

"I don't think I ever wished that he wouldn't do it. I wanted him to not want it, but I never wanted him to not to do it," she says. "Knowing that he does want it, you realise he's going to be so bummed if he never brings it to fruition."

el capitan, el cap, yosemite, mountain climbing, mIn this photo, climbers Sanni McCandless, left, and Alex Honnold, subjects of the documentary film "Free Solo," pose for a portrait at the InterContinental Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto. (Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

"Free Solo" in some ways demystifies soloing which, to some can sound like lunacy. Honnold's preparation is extreme. He doesn't go until he's thoroughly mapped out every foothold of a climb. Also worth noting: a brain scan revealed that Honnold barely registers fear.

"It's a crazy-seeming thing. I get that," he says. "I just think: Why does anybody seek out anything challenging? Humans do so many interesting and difficult things."

Honnold calls his El Cap solo the best climbing experience of his life. "Glorious," he says. For all their months of anxiety, witnessing the climb left the filmmakers mesmerised.

"I remember standing in the meadow being totally terrified, trying to get myself under control," says Vasarhelyi. "Then there was a certain moment where I was like: This is absolutely beautiful. It's exquisite."

Find Your Escape by searching and comparing flight prices here. You can also sign-up for the Traveller24 Weekly Newsletter – Subscribe here. Or download the News24 App here, to receive expertly curated travel ideas and deals directly to your mobile. 

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
DAYS
HRS
MINS
Voting Booth
When assisting your child with remote learning this year, did you:
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Results
Follow the school's comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) curriculum?
13% - 105 votes
Adjust the CSE curriculum to suit the family's morals?
25% - 194 votes
Ignore the schools CSE programme and do your own teaching?
62% - 480 votes
Vote
ZAR/USD
15.25
(-0.09)
ZAR/GBP
20.29
(-0.13)
ZAR/EUR
18.23
(-0.10)
ZAR/AUD
11.25
(-0.23)
ZAR/JPY
0.15
(-0.04)
Gold
1787.51
(+0.09)
Silver
22.67
(+0.11)
Platinum
965.22
(+0.30)
Brent Crude
48.27
(+0.96)
Palladium
2413.01
(+0.60)
All Share
57822.50
(-0.17)
Top 40
53021.58
(-0.12)
Financial 15
11577.71
(-0.58)
Industrial 25
79894.95
(-0.12)
Resource 10
52804.55
(+0.03)
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes morningstar logo