NEW YORK — Some people like to go on mountain hikes. Alex Honnold ups the volume just a little bit louder.
The 33-year-old climber last year undertook a free solo climb up Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan — essentially a multi-hour ascent up a sheer rock face with nothing to help him. No equipment to aid in his quest; no ropes to prevent him from plunging morbidly to the valley below. Just his arms, legs and wits to guide him up 3,000 vertical feet.
"The trick is being so comfortable with what you need to do that you’re not really thinking about it while you’re up there,” Honnold told The Washington Post with a low-key nonchalance as he took a break at a climbing gym here recently. Then he added ruefully, “I have probably spent more time thinking about death than most people.”
Getting Honnold’s story out there will also require its own net-free maneuver. This weekend, National Geographic opened a nonfiction film about Honnold’s landmark achievement in four theaters. Titled “Free Solo,” after the ropeless style of the sport he practices, it will seek to achieve its own unlikely feat.
Theatrical documentaries are a notoriously difficult business; it’s a steep climb to convince audiences they should tear themselves away from all those Netflix and Hulu series available at home.
But Nat Geo, which often puts its movies directly on television, will probably delay the airing until at least the spring, betting people will want the large-screen and communal experience of seeing the film in theaters, and shell out for the privilege. Even in a climate in which a trio of documentaries took the box office by storm — “RBG,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and “Three Identical Strangers” tallied a combined $40 million this summer, all three now ranking in the top 20 all-time for documentaries not counting concert or nature films — this will not be easy. Those movies remain more exception than rule.
“Free Solo” has the added challenge that audiences will be asked to watch someone hang from the side of a mountain teasing death like it’s a pesky little brother. At least 19 million Americans, it should be noted in an entirely unrelated fact, are thought to be afraid of heights.
Still, “Free Solo” offers something crucial in this age of peak content: a chance to share a unique experience.
“Every time I go see it — and I think it’s been six times — I’m watching the audience around me as much as the screen,” Courteney Monroe, chief executive of National Geographic Global Networks, told The Post. “There’s something about watching it in a communal space. Maybe it’s because what Alex is doing is such a solitary activity.”
Shot with multiple cameras from numerous altitudes — note the series of vertiginous overhead shots that captures the thousands of feet of nothingness below the tiny figure clinging to the rock face — the movie will leave some viewers awed and make others never want to take an elevator again.
“I’d just never seen anything like it,” Jimmy Chin, another veteran climber who directed the movie with his wife and collaborator Elizabeth Chai Vasarhalyi, said of Honnold’s feat. “He was an anomaly even among anomalies.”
Chin, it should be said, had a slight ethical concern in signing on. “The first thought was Alex falling. Because he’s also a friend, and do you really want to put yourself in the position of capturing your friend’s death? But I’ve seen him do incredible things, and he’s done them by making very calculated decisions to the degree that isn’t normal, almost like he’s hyper-rational. That made me a little more comfortable. A little.”
Because Honnold didn’t know when he’d feel ready to undertake the challenge — if ever — both the climb and the film chronicling it were kept secret. “Imagine not knowing when your movie is going to happen, or whether it’s going to happen,” Chin said of National Geographic’s position (and his own).
Honnold prepared for nearly two years to make the climb; at one point he even scrapped imminent plans because he didn’t feel mentally prepared. He figured out every last cranny of the rock face over the course of many roped dry runs, solving the mountain’s challenges by trial and error. (One example: a particularly dicey spot known as “The Boulder Problem” — it basically requires a karate kick midair thousands of feet above the ground to secure the next foothold.) Every time he lost his grip, he tried not to think about what it meant if that happened on the real climb.
“One of the things you need to do when you’re soloing is to make it feel as natural as possible so you’re not aware it’s high-consequence,” Honnold said. High-consequence is climber-speak for “you can plunge to your death.” Euphemisms.
“And really, it is relaxing,” Honnold said, after being stopped for at least the third time in climbing gym for a selfie. “There’s no speed. It’s a lot like I imagine hang-gliding is. From the outside it looks very extreme but there’s something very methodical and intentional about it.” He does not say what the specific appeal of free soloing is compared to traditional tethered climbing; it’s one of those if-you-have-to-ask things.
The film also focuses on Honnold’s relationship with his girlfriend. Relationships aren’t easy for free soloists like Honnold, who prefers to live an emotion-lite life out of his van and think about climbing most of the day. A certain “mental armor” is required of free soloing, the fellow climber Tommy Caldwell says in the film, and that isn’t conducive to the candor and vulnerability required in a relationship.
“But I think one of the things I learned making the movie is that it is possible, if you work on it, to free solo and have a relationship. It’s just not easy,” Honnold noted, as said girlfriend worked out at a nearby wall on the climbing gym.
Like many extreme athletes, Honnold eschews figurative meanings to his undertakings; metaphor is a luxury for people not clinging to the side of a 3,000-foot rock. Still, Chin said he believes the larger meaning is in the film and will be located by the audience.
“What I hope we show is not just how climbing is physically and athletically challenging but the spiritual part of it. You know, the idea that there’s a singular objective, and that no matter how scared or awkward you are — and Alex was as a teenager — you can just put one foot in front of the other and achieve one of the greatest athletic feats of all time. How if you don’t take shortcuts,” he added, “you can achieve something great.”
The early indications from the audience are encouraging. “Free Solo” opened on one screen each in New York, Los Angeles, Denver and Boulder this weekend, averaging a whopping $75,000 per screen. But that figure is tempered by the small number of screens and savvy choice of several climbing-friendly cities, where Honnold is a rock star. The real test will come in the weeks ahead, when the film opens in dozens of cities around the country, theatrical releasing without a net.
National Geographic executives are optimistic. “The first time I saw a cut of the film I thought ‘I can’t believe we did this. I can’t believe he did this.'" Monroe said. "I think others will feel the same way.”
And Honnold? “It’s fun to watch it with an audience because I know there are all these people out there taking these lessons from it. But I don’t see any of that. I just see all the little things I did on the climb, and all the things I can do better.”