National Geographic (DStv channel 181)
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Alex Honnold is 33 and likes to climb mountains ... particularly without any ropes or safety gear. He’s a “free soloist climber” – which means each ascent has to be perfect or he dies.
When I showed my colleague the picture of Alex climbing the 2 307m-high El Capitan mountain in Yosemite National Park on the cover of this month’s National Geographic magazine, she said “that’s so Caucasian”.
And yes, doing things that can get you killed is a much-loved trait of the white boy.
Take Mount Everest, for instance. Tibetans had been living next to the mountain for hundreds of years and never once thought “let me risk my life to climb this mountain”. Then some UK explorers came along and thought “this is a brilliant idea”. More than 293 people have died climbing Everest.
Trying to understand Alex’s psyche is difficult, but it is attempted with much gravity and empathy by award-winning documentarian E Chai Vasarhelyi and world-renowned photographer and mountaineer Jimmy Chin in the documentary Free Solo.
The film has won reams of awards, most recently this week – an Oscar for best documentary. It is being shown on the National Geographic Channel tomorrow.
What you learn is that climbing the mountain is no longer a choice for Alex. If he doesn’t climb it, he will not be at peace. “It’s really hard for me to grasp why he wants this,” says his girlfriend at one point. “But if he doesn’t do this stuff he’ll regret it.”
“I think when he’s free soloing is when he feels the most alive. How can you even think of taking that away from somebody?” says his mother.
And, of course, there’s the allure of making history. His climb will go down as one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind.
Free Solo is a breathtaking film that not only delves into Alex’s motivations, but the feelings of the people around him. They, after all, will be the ones left to grieve if his climb goes horribly wrong.
But, most of all, it makes one individual’s outrageous idea relatable by linking it to an emotion some of us might understand – the pursuit of perfection.
Does the image of Alex gripping a tiny ledge of rock hundreds of metres above the ground still make me mad? Sure. But do I understand it a little better after watching this documentary? Yes. Maybe you will, too.