Free Solo

Casen posed a question on The Dihedral, a climbing blog I follow (see “Blogroll”). It is based on the film “Free Solo” so, if you haven’t seen it, you might want to look here or here first, and/or go see the film, now playing at a theatre near you.

I went to the movie thinking I was seeing a film about free soloing; rock climbing alone and without ropes. The film is about Alex Honnold, considered by many to be the greatest free climber alive. “Alive” is an´important distinction.

Alex speaks of free soloing as a “high reward/low risk” occupation. By this, he means he gets great rewards (he loves it) and he minimizes the risk by his care in preparation, as well as his ever-present awareness that a mistake means death (ed: or badly-broken survival and wishing he were dead).  It could equally be seen through another lens: low risk/high consequence. By that, I mean that, while the risk may be low (and that is debatable), the consequence of  failure is high (death).

What constitutes high risk? I think it is relative. When I worked in Nicaragua, I realized that most people in the US thought of Central America as a war zone. In Central America, Nicaragua was seen as a war zone. In Nicaragua, the Matagalpa Region was seen as a war zone. In Matagalpa, the area around Muy Muy and Matiguás was seen as a war zone. Where I worked (between Muy Muy and Matiguás), the war was always over the next ridge. We were not in the war zone, but close. We were safe, but it didn’t look that way to folks in the US. In a similar vein, what Alex does is not nearly as high a risk as it would be for you or me. Sure, he could die. You or I could die crossing the street tomorrow morning. 

While I thought it was a film about climbing, it is at least as much a film about relationship. Early on you meet his girlfriend Sanni. She approaches him at a book signing and gives him her phone number. He calls, they go out, they become involved. Mind you, this is a guy who lives in his van and makes a living traveling the world to climb rocks. His quest is to climb El Capitán in Yosemite National Park, considered the pinnacle of free climbing by those who think about such things. It had never been done.

As their relationship develops, she fears that he could die in the attempt, leaving her.  My initial reaction was “you get what you pay for”. She went into this relationship knowing that this is what he does. She is attracted to him as a free climber – that’s how/why they met. To try to get him to stop is a recipe for relationship disaster. Can you say “resentment”?

On the other hand, these are feelings she has a right to, and a right to express. They are likely feelings she didn’t know would develop as she became closer to him. Now here they are: what does one do? The film becomes at least as much about dealing with this as about climbing El Capitán. Does relationship change acceptable risk?

It also becomes a film about physics and metaphysics. Free soloing is, by definition, a solitary endeavor. Does the observation of a phenomenon change it? Will he climb differently when he is being watched, being filmed? Does a solitary endeavor become a performance? The filmmakers grapple with this and question whether they should even make the film. If he dies, will they be responsible? Did their presence and interference lead to his death? What do they do with the film footage if he does not survive the attempt? How do they make a great film without interfering? And how do they live with what they have witnessed, burned into their retinas and their brains, as well as their film stock?

The questions Casen asks include: What constitutes success? and What is the balance between performance and happiness? I realized I had more to say than I felt comfortable saying in the comment section of someone else’s blog. I read another blog in which someone does take over via the comments. My internal response is “get your own blog”. Since I have my own, I won’t usurp The Dihedral. I’ll invite them to come over here.

PS: Even if the only thing you ever climb are the stairs to your room, I recommend this film. A co-worker (and climber, who hasn’t seen the film) asked if I thought the film would encourage others to try this and die in the attempt. I doubted it. The cinematography is so amazing that it is clear that this is not something for mere mortals to try. You see Alex squeezing a handhold the size of a pencil. You see him doing pullups with his fingertips. You see him standing on footholds that you wouldn’t have seen if the narrator hadn’t pointed them out. It seems pretty clear that this is an elite athlete and this is not something to try at home.

PPS: Don’t try this at home (or on El Capitán).

PPPS: No mention of bikes here.

Author: halffastcyclingclub

We are a group of friends who ride bikes. Some of us are fast, some of us are slow, all of us are half-fast. In 2018, one of us is riding coast to coast across the US. If we meet Sal Paradise, we'll let you know.

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