Jimmy Chin’s idea to make a high-budget, high-gloss National Geographic-produced film about his buddy Alex Honnold seemed like a no-brainer. Chin, who co-directed the 2015 film Meru—considered one of the finest climbing documentaries of all time— is perhaps the world’s most preeminent photographer/videographer/mountaineer.
[Editor’s Note: Free Solo won an Academy Award for the Best Documentary at the 2019 Oscars. The film also won seven awards at the 2019 Creative Emmy Awards, including outstanding directing for a documentary/nonfiction program, outstanding cinematography, sound editing, sound mixing, picture editing, music composition and best achievement in interactive media. It won all 7 awards it was nominated for.]
Honnold is likely the world’s most famous climber. But when Honnold told him that the only objective worthy of such a collaboration would be a never-before-attempted rope-less ascent up the merciless 3,000-foot granite face of Yosemite’s El Capitan, Chin paused—for nearly half a year.
“I told him ‘I don’t know if I want to make that movie,’” Chin says. If Honnold fell in the process, Chin would spend the rest of his life wondering if the very act of filming somehow contributed to Honnold’s death—either by disturbing his concentration or by persuading him to override any preclimb second thoughts.
Chin’s eventual answer was yes and, Honnold, as you’re probably aware, is alive and well, having pulled off the greatest rope-free climb in the history of the sport. The resulting documentary, Free Solo, co-directed by his wife, filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, opened in theaters across the country in October. It is almost certainly the most gorgeous—and scariest—climbing film ever made.
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During three months spent filming in Yosemite Valley, Chin worked with four members of his team rigging fixed ropes alongside Honnold’s Freerider route so they could shoot him as near as 10 feet away—close enough to see the dirt under his fingernails, not close enough to save him if he slipped.
Maybe the most remarkable thing about the movie is the reveal that things could have turned out drastically differently. Honnold’s first attempt in the autumn of 2016 was a botch. He had badly sprained his ankle in a fall a month before, but, as he says now, because the camera crews were in place, “that was the day I had to try.” He called a halt to the climb after only a couple hundred feet. When Honnold and Chin regrouped in Yosemite Valley for a second go in the spring of 2017, lessons had been learned.
“I was very clear with our crew,” Chin says, “‘You are invisible.'” The crew avoided hanging out where Honnold could see them. Under no circumstances would a video camera be left in plain sight. And, says Chin, “we would never ask, ‘When do you think you’ll do it?'” For the climb itself, on the two most touch-and-go pitches, robo-cams captured the action, so Honnold wouldn’t feel the pressure of a live audience. Says Chin, “Nothing mattered more than preserving Alex’s headspace.”
If Chin achieved his fly-on-the-wall ideal by making his crew scarce, Vasarhelyi took the opposite track to get the intimate footage that she and a separate film crew shot on the valley floor. Free Solo devotes a surprising amount of time to documenting the burgeoning romantic relationship between Honnold and Sanni McCandless, a young woman he met on his book tour. We see Alex and Sanni waking up in Honnold’s van, shopping for a home in Las Vegas, and finally, Sanni weeping as she drives out of the valley, leaving Alex to his fate. These are the kinds of scenes that play out the lives of elite climbers all the time. But it’s rare, if ever, that you see them in a climbing film. “But this isn’t a climbing film,” says Honnold. “It’s more like a film that has a lot of climbing in it.”
The only time Chin broke the fourth wall was high up on El Cap, where he was stationed to film a crucial pitch. As Honnold passed by, Chin had to quickly jumar up the rope to capture the finish. But Honnold was moving too fast, so Chin asked if he could hold up for a minute. Honnold simply said, “I’m on track to break four hours!” Chin didn’t say another word and sprinted to the top. “I had my own race to run,” he says. Fittingly, he was there as Honnold reached the summit and celebrated.