Thursday, August 6, 2020
‘Free Solo’ Makers Describe the Moral Dilemma of Their Film
Camera men hung out in some uncomfortable positions, knowing they had just one chance to capture the shots they needed.
Thursday, January 3, 2019



“Bambi’s going for it!”

The message, relayed by filmmaker Jimmy Chin, electrified eight photographers listening in on their walkie-talkies on the evening of June 2, 2018.

Alex Honnold was given the code name Bambi by the film crew because of his boyish face and big brown eyes.

It meant that the world’s greatest free solo climber--Alex Honnold--was about to attempt climbing the 3,000-foot granite face of Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan without a rope or safety gear

And it meant each photographer had just hours to climb up parts of the wall while lugging 50 pounds of camera gear, then rappel to key spots along the route to capture the historic climb.

Filmmakers Jimmy Chin and his wife Elizabeth “Chai” Vasarhelyi took the stage of the Sun Valley Opera House this week as the Sun Valley Film Festival showed “Free Solo,” the film they’d made of Honnold’s climb.

They conducted a post-film conversation during which they described the questions they struggled with  while making the film. Then they phoned Honnold, catching him at dinner, as they asked him to say a few words to the audience.

“This is a special year for documentaries—I think because there’s a hunger for honesty and truth,” said Chai.

The showing, designed as a thank you for festival patrons, attracted a full house, including actor/director Clint Eastwood, Ketchum mountain climber Ed Viesturs, who has climbed all 14 of the world’s eight-thousander mountain peaks, and Chris Albert, National Geographic Channel’s vice president, who sprang  for popcorn and Cokes for the crowd.

It also brought out young filmmakers supported by the likes of Lisa Holley, and Bex Wilkinson, who has long championed the festival’s Future Filmmakers competition.

“I like to support up-and-coming filmmakers—kids under 18 are so creative, so innovative,” said Holley.

In fact, Albert noted, one young man named Filipe DeAndrade had won the Nat Geo Wild’s annual competition at the Sun Valley Film Festival, then gone on to become Nat Geo Wild’s “Untamed” host.

Jimmy Chin, who is based in Jackson, Wyo., has done some pretty remarkable climbs of his own.

Albert said that National Geographic’s “Free Solo” had the best theater opening of any documentary and has now grossed $11 million at the box office.

Not only is it being touted as one of the best documentaries of the year, but some are calling it one of the best films of the year. And it will have an IMAX release the week of Jan. 11.

What makes it all the more extraordinary is that you have to live it to make it, said “Sully” producer  Allyn Stewart.

Indeed, Jimmy Chin is a rock climber who first climbed with Honnold in 2009 in Borneo. It was shortly after Honnold had become rock climbing’s darling for free solos that included Yosemite’s Half Dome,   Pipeline at Squamish, B.C., and the Moonlight Buttress near Zion National Park.

The emotion revolving around Alex Honnold’s success prompted all the cameramen to break out sobbing during the initial screening.

“I met him when he was 22 and even then I could tell there was something special about him,” said Chin, who once climbed Mount Everest, skiing down its vertical face.

Chin and Chai began filming Honnold soloing climbs in such places as Morocco and approached him about filming a character study.

“He told Chai, ‘I’m thinking about climbing El Capitan.’ She said, ‘Oh, great.’ When she told me, I said, ‘No way!’ because I understood what that meant,” Chin recounted. “I said we can’t make that movie.”

But, then Chin talked with Jon Krakauer, a mountaineer known for writing such books as “Into Thin Air,” an account of the Mount Everest disaster in which some of Everest’s top guides lost their lives.

“If he’s going to do it anyway, do you trust him?” Krakauer asked.

“And I had to say I did,” Chin said, acknowledging he was sure Honnold would turn around if he needed to. “I knew he wasn’t a daredevil. He’s very methodical.”

Chin and Chai started the film in the fall of 2016.

“It was hard making the film, knowing that we could put undue pressure on him to do something and he could fall to his death,” said Chai. “At the center was an ethical question: Because of us is Alex more likely to fall? That became the critical question we were dealing with every day. For two years we lived with the weight of that. 

“But we thought it important to see what that process looks like. “The movie’s about ‘Free Solo’ but it’s also about the process.”

And during that process, Honnold talked frankly about the possibility of death.

“He lives a life of intention,” said Chin. “He’s thought about his own mortality and makes me think: Are you living every day the way you want to live it?”

The Alex Honnold the two filmmakers captured was a whiz kid in the international baccalaureate school he attended in Sacramento. But he was so shy that he began climbing solo because that was less scary than asking someone to be his climbing partner.

By the time Chin and Chai caught up with him, he was so consumed by climbing that he lived in a van, scrubbing his clothes with his feet as he took showers. He ate his dinner of canned chili mixed together with spinach and fried potatoes from the fry pan with a spatula.

He was nicknamed “No Big Deal” for his seemingly casual approach to things. And at one point he allowed a research scientist to thread him through a large white magnetic resonance imaging brain scanner where his non-reaction to 200 images meant to disturb or excite him showed that his amygdala—the part of the brain that governs a person’s fight-or-flee response--wasn’t firing.

He was online dating when they started the film, which prompted them to ask him, “When are you going to tell these women what you do for living?”

Then he met a gregarious blond at a book signing who was self-confident enough to tell him, “This makes me incredibly uncomfortable but I love you, anyway,” as she considered how he could be taken from her in an instant.

With the introduction of Sanni McCandless, the film became about connection, as opposed to Honnold being alone.

“It would’ve been a lot more boring watching Alex alone in his van,” noted Chai, who met Chin at a conference in 2012 and then took the footage he’d shot of his, Conrad Anker’s and Renan Ozturk’s expedition to 21,000-foot Mount Meru in the Himalaya to the 2015 Sundance Audience Award and the Academy Award’s shortlist for Best Documentary Feature.

Chai and Chin capture Honnold sitting in a meadow staring at El Capitan and scribbling voracious notes as he studied the possible routes to the top.

“Because it had never been done before, he was his own coach. He had to makes the roadmap,” said Chin.

 “It’s unfathomably huge,” fellow climber Tommy Caldwell tells Honnold, likening the climb to the quest of an Olympic athlete for perfection—with one notable difference.

“If you don’t get the gold medal, you’re going to die,” Caldwell adds.

On the evening of June 2, Chin found Honnold doing finger raises from a hangboard above the door of his van.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we go climbing tomorrow?’ ” Chin recounted.

“What about if I go scrambling tomorrow?” Honnold said, using his euphemism for free soloing without a rope.

“Well, I think some of the guys are going climbing,” Chin replied.

“I really want to go scrambling,” Honnold responded. “How soon can you get your team in place?”

Chin had never asked him when he thought he might attempt the climb because he didn’t want to pressure him. So, he continued to make small talk, trying not to let on his excitement even as his heart was racing. Finally, at 5:30 p.m., Honnold asked, “Don’t you have to go?”

Chin walked away slowly. As soon as he was out of sight, he ran like a bat out of hell.

Quickly, the eight cameramen he had assembled went into action. All well-versed in climbing in Yosemite National Park, they were the only people in the world who could have filmed it, Chin said.

”The pool of professional climbers and great cinematographers is very small. Only a few can handle that kind of pressure,” he said.

The cameramen made their way to key spots, setting up hand winches where necessary to keep pace with Honnold as he climbed.

They set up two remote-control cameras in the most problematic areas.

Chin and two others took their places near the top third of the granite face, knowing they had to be careful not to dislodge a rock or even sneeze, which could have created a distraction and thrown Honnold off his game.

Honnold climbed up Freerider, a 2,900-foot 5.13a route on the southwest face of El Capitan that often takes skilled climbers using ropes multiple days. He climbed the Huber Boulder Problem pitch and a series of other 5.10 and 5.12b pitches.

At times, his fingers had no more contact with the rock than those touching their iPads do. Still, he averaged a hundred vertical feet every seven and a half-minutes.

One of the cameramen stationed on the valley floor couldn’t bear to watch.

And then—four minutes shy of four hours from the time he had started—Honnold stepped onto the top of America’s most famous rock face. The audience at the Sun Valley Opera House applauded, cheering what Tommy Caldwell called “the moon landing of free soloing.”

The movie has inspired viewers, making us believe we can capture our dream,” said Albert.

Chai agreed: “The most amazing part besides Alex surviving is his endeavor to make the impossible possible. It’s inspiring. Alex makes you want to be a better person in every way.”


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