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Free Solo

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

I watched the new documentary Free Solo yesterday. It’s one of the most powerful movies I’ve ever seen. Alex Honnold is driven to climb. With ropes, yes. But then without them. Free solo. Up sheer cliffs. For hours. Hours during which the tiniest slip in focus means you die.

The movie tracks his two-year preparation to do something no other climber has ever seriously considered: free solo El Capitan, a granite slab twice as high as anything he’s ever climbed.

Why does he do it? Part of the movie explores this. We get some sketchy details or impressions about what his life was like as a kid. A dad who called him a bozo when he messed up. A mom who never hugged him. He was a shy kid, a loner. But there is nothing the movie tells us about Alex’s background that feels extreme enough to have driven Alex to such extreme achievement.

However it came about, Alex wants to achieve something amazing more than he wants to be happy. Or achieving something amazing is the only thing that makes him happy. It’s impossible to disentangle. Free soloing, he says, is the closest thing there is to being perfect. You have to be perfect or you die. Is that what it feels like inside him?

There are scenes with his girlfriend, Sandi, who is teaching Alex how to be human, how to listen to and express feelings. He has avoided intimate relationships. It seems only fair. All the other famous free solo climbers have died. (Another one, Ueli Steck, dies while the movie is being made.) There is an amazing scene when he has just done the impossible—scurried up El Capitan, willfully placing himself a half inch from death for four hours straight—and he calls Sandi to tell her the news. (She fled Yosemite that morning to clear space for both of them.) He tells her he may cry, but that he doesn’t want to. He jokes that it would probably be better for the movie if he did. It struck me. This man may be more afraid of crying than of climbing a sheer cliff for four hours with no ropes.

Alex’s accomplishment is so complex. On the one hand he didn’t have to do it. And it’s partly annoying, or even enraging, that he feels he needs to. Because people around him—mom, girlfriend, friends—don’t want him to. They also know they can’t stop him.

But if his drive to spider up the side of cliffs were only to prove himself worthy, he wouldn’t be such a compelling person. There seems to be something more going on here. Some amazing light comes through his huge deer eyes. There is no hint of machismo or arrogance in this quest. There is, rather, an unearthly innocence and purity about Alex.

For me, that’s what the movie is about. Our yearning to be pure, innocent, perfect. My spiritual teachers tell me that I am perfect. That I deserve to have what I want. Everything. They tell me that it’s a human idea that we must earn our rewards—our love—and that in fact the opposite is true. The belief that we must earn what we want actually holds it away.

I sometimes know this. I sometimes can convince myself that I am perfect and perfectly deserving. Things always go better. I’m better to other people too, because I’m not trying to prove myself. They get to be perfect too. Interesting, new, good things happen effortlessly.

Other times, I believe the voice that says, “Who are you to believe you’re perfect?” Surely this will annoy others and isolate me. At these times, I don’t know what is more stunning, the idea that we are all perfect right now or Alex Honnold’s four-hour climb up the face of El Capitan.

To believe you’re perfect is a tall order. It requires ignoring so many voices that swirl around and within us, and holding instead a stubborn focus on some deep wish, some deep insistence, some deep tenderness.

So maybe Alex can’t accept that he’s perfect without doing something incredible. Maybe it’s easier for him to accept that he can climb El Capitan. I wouldn’t blame him. But I’m going to try the other route.

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