On June 3, 2017, Alex Honnold became the first person to free solo El Capitan. It took him 3 hours and 56 minutes. The filming of his exploit won the 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Climbing is an extreme activity. It’s a big challenge, to nature and human strength, which maintains something ancestral and savage, an ascent, a desire to reach the gods.
Normally, people use to climb a rock wall following a route in stages called “pitches”. You climb a pitch and then you fix the ropes that will guarantee your safety for the next one. The length of a single pitch varies from 6 to 49 meters, so when the length is big you have to place some anchors (intermediate fixings) along the pitch, to diminish the length of your drop if you fall. It could save your life.
Even with ropes and anchors placed, falling from an height of 10-15 meters can be dangerous and painful.
Some people decide to climb the mountain without any ropes or equipment, relying only on their own individual strength and skills. This form of climbing is called free soloing.
El Capitan: an obsession
El Capitan is a giant rock located on the north side of Yosemite Valley. A granitic monolith of 914 meters from base to summit. It’s the Mecca of climbers. There are several routes you can follow to reach the summit, but none of them were ever free solo climbed.
Until Alex Honnold arrived in the valley.
This skinny guy, extremely talented and shy, whose brain had been tested just to find out that his amygdala activation (the fear center of the brain) was practically zero.
In 2014, Alex free solo climbed El Sendero Luminoso (7b+, 500 m) in Mexico, in 2 hours, Heaven (7c) and Cosmic Debris (8a) in Yosemite (presented here are the climbing grades, which give an idea of the severity).
But El Capitan was something unreachable. No one had ever done it that way. 914 meters of steep rock, where one wrong move can be the difference between life and death.
The preparation was maniacal, a real obsession for Alex, involving some of the finest climbers and sports filmmakers in the world, like Tommy Caldwell and Jimmy Chin, to help him reach the goal. The main concern was to make sure not to disturb him or make the slightest pressure on him while he climbed. A great responsibility and also a big ethical question, considering the fact that they had to be ready to watch a friend falling.
On June 3, 2017, Alex decided he was ready to do it. After 3 hours and 56 minutes of ascent, he reached the summit.
An Award-winning experience
Through the beating hearts of his fellow climbers who were watching or filming him, it is easy to understand the level of pressure and nerves the mission required.
Free Solo, the documentary that won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2019, shows it all with the right distance, with breathtaking footage. It also tells the private side of Alex Honnold, an amazing climber, and an unconventional man.