Last weekend I had the opportunity to sit down with my family to watch the film “Free Solo.” This Academy Award-winning documentary has been one of the most talked-about adventure films of the last few years and I was eager to see what all the fuss was about. The film, produced by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, chronicles Alex Honnold and his successful quest to climb El Capitan, one of the most iconic climbing walls in Yosemite National Park, California, without the use of any safety gear. Filmed over two years between 2016 and 2018, “Free Solo” features beautiful camera work, incredible execution, and an inspiring human story. In short, “Free Solo” is a stunning depiction of a simply extraordinary human achievement.
While the film itself stands alone as an incredible drama, I found myself reflecting on a deeper part of the film that made it so provocative. As the events of the film unfold, we become more and more immersed in the relationships in Alex’s life and the ways in which those relationships define and support who he is and what he does. While the climb itself is certainly a solo effort, I found myself looking back on the film with the realization that he could not have done it without the support of his girlfriend, mentor, and friends, including the filmmakers themselves!
Sanni McCandless, Honnold’s girlfriend of several years, provides an excellent backstop for the protagonist. At first, it seems as though Alex has little room in his life for relationships and yet, as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that through Sanni’s naturally supportive inclination and her instinct to push back against Honnold’s stubbornness, she becomes an integral part of the team.
Along with McCandless, one of Honnold’s climbing partners who is also a mentor of sorts, the famed Yosemite climber Tommy Caldwell, features prominently in the film as both an inspiration to Honnold and a check on his brashness. Their relationship is presented as a somewhat complex one as Caldwell clearly knows both Honnold’s talent and limitations and yet cannot necessarily influence them beyond the scope of their bond. As such, Caldwell also becomes an invaluable cog in the Honnold climbing machine.
Finally, the filmmakers themselves, and particularly Jimmy Chin, himself an accomplished climber, play a role in Alex’s choices. At one point while Honnold openly questioned the need for a film crew to document his quest, Chin helped him realize that he could simply do the climb and not tell anybody about it to avoid any outside pressure. However, Honnold realizes through Chin’s urging that the presence of an external influence, even one as seemingly ego-driven as a film crew, could provide both motivation and limitation along the journey.
Following the film, I had an extensive discussion with my wife and sons and we couldn’t help but compare the relationships we’ve built over years of participating in ultramarathons to the social network surrounding Honnold. While running a 100-mile race is nowhere near the kind of achievement depicted in “Free Solo,” the people around me have been invaluable in my career as a runner. From my wife Shelly and the checks she has placed on my stubbornness and exuberance to my sons Carson, Logan, and Tully and their willingness to call me out on many of the stupid ideas I’ve had over the years, I realize that, in spite of myself, I have become dependent on others even as I’ve pursued what I believe to be one of the most important solitary things in my life. The truth is, even out alone deep in the mountains, I am never truly alone just as Honnold had his friends, loved ones, and mentors right there with him as he soloed El Cap.
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week is Yosemite Pale Ale from Mammoth Brewing Company in Mammoth Lakes, California. A simple and crisp American Pale Ale, Yosemite Ale has been a mainstay in the Sierra Nevada region for years. Gently hopped and slightly sweet, Yosemite Ale is an excellent summer beer to be enjoyed after a long day in the mountains.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Who is in your support network and how does it help you in running and in life?
- Do you play a role in the support networks of other people? What people do you closely support and what are your roles?