essays

Alex Honnold’s “Free Solo” as aesthetic experience

While with my father over Thanksgiving, a mutual friend came forward with a strong opinion about a certain brand of professional athletics: “I am sick of seeing wealthy white men throwing their lives away and calling it brave.”

Surprising myself, I volunteered Alex Honnold as a counter-example, saying that to me there was something about his risk in the documentary Free Solo that elevated itself to the level of the aesthetic, even the spiritual. That is, for me these qualities validated the otherwise careless act portrayed in the film.

127 Hours: Aron Ralston Talks Survival | Dazed
Aaron Ralston, who amputated his own arm to escape a boulder which had pinned him to a rock wall; Ralston carried minimal equipment and had informed no one where he was going

My father’s and my mutual friend did not disagree, but differentiated other, less notable professional athletes as somewhere on a spectrum which eventuates in figures like Aaron Ralston and Christopher McCandless–products of privilege who tossed themselves into dangerous situations in order to fabricate struggle, and paid for this bravado with lifelong injury or worse. Mirroring my friend’s response to my own point, I conceded the truth of this spectrum while maintaining Alex Honnold as somehow anomalous.

For me, there is a feeling that arises in watching the closing thirty minutes of Free Solo that borders on the unspeakable. It is not exclusively sadness, although there is sadness that Alex Honnold felt the need to climb in this manner, that for his own fulfillment he felt called to roll dice with his girlfriend’s and family members’ lifelong mourning. Neither is my feeling exclusively celebration, although there is celebration of the glory of Honnold’s achievement, his seemingly impossible ability to execute a multiple-hour, high precision climb all before cameras and without ropes. And there is something more: when watching these final minutes of this film, there is a feeling that approaches the sublime, a sense of wonder that is simultaneously frustration, rebellion, and radical autonomy.

A comparison of Alex Honnold’s brain scan with that of the “average” individual; the highlighted regions showcase activity associated with the amygdala

I would be remiss to deny that nihilism is part of the equation which produces an Alex Honnold, as can be seen most clearly in the Free Solo scene where Honnold’s brain is scanned, and he remarks to the documentarian that numerous girlfriends have decreed Honnold has serious psychological problems. Here, we glimpse the climber’s self-loathing, his sense that there is something wrong with the way in which he needs to put his life up for grabs–and yet he cannot choose otherwise. Additionally, the quality of nihilism is visible in an interview Honnold gave post-Free Solo and before his once-girlfriend, now-wife delivered their first child. In the interview, Honnold is asked whether he will cease free soloing once he enters fatherhood, and he responds with a long-form answer to the effect of, “Maybe, but probably not.” As above, Honnold’s desire to test fate seems to supersede his obligation to any human community.

And yet free soloing is not just about testing fate, as otherwise Honnold would undertake no preparation prior to climbing. Instead, at least in Honnold’s mind, free soloing is about demonstrating what is possible when humankind rigorously and intensively disciplines itself: this is a realm in which fate, caprice, is absolutely minimized, and the only variable responsible for death is unforced error. That is, in Honnold’s daring ascent in Free Solo an unforeseen event could kill him, such as weather or a disintegrating rock, but he is unlikely to die through lack of skill; he has already repeated the climb ad nauseum and with a rope. For Honnold, Free Solo’s aesthetic achievement is in part demonstrating what humankind is capable of when divorced from forces outside our control.

Alex Honnold free soloing Yosemite’s El Capitan in the documentary “Free Solo”

Too, the film and climb constitute an aesthetic statement in that they declare our ability to do what we want with our lives, up to and including forfeiting those lives. Through performing a long and dangerous climb without a rope, regardless of the fact that he has tested out that climb on innumerable occasions, Honnold isolates the contingency of all our lives, the fact that in the end they are the only possession we can truly call our own. If we manifest our own end through doing something “stupid,” then who in their right mind can blame us? Our life is to do with it what we will, just as theirs is to do with it what they will–a divine right if ever there was one. 

Finally, and as I suggested earlier, the climb displayed in Free Solo seems a sort of test of God, though I highly doubt this is something which consciously enters Alex Honnold’s mind. I used the word “rebellion” above, and Honnold’s climb seems to raise its fist and scream at the sky, “Dear God, if you are there, then show me! I am doing something I am not supposed to be able to do, and which all my peers tell me is idiotic! If I cannot do this, then strike me down! Tear a rock from the wall! Damage my shoes! Alight my nerves in a way that renders me unable to complete the climb!” Etc, etc, etc. And yet no rock rips loose, Honnold’s shoes survive the climb, his nerves appear unperturbed… God does not speak, and the film becomes an exhibit of humanity’s skill, its courage, its dilemma in lieu of such a creator. 

Marc-Andre Leclerc, deceased subject of “The Alpinist”

These are the reasons Free Solo speaks to me more as a work of art than as an athletic achievement, and I am not sure I would defend any of Honnold’s peers in the same way as I mantle the defense above. For instance, a more recent documentary, The Alpinist, shows us the young man from whom Honnold himself took inspiration, and I find it to be no coincidence this man is no longer with us: unlike Honnold, he did not rigorously prepare for his climbs; and unlike Honnold he did not see fit to accommodate camera crews on his journey. For this man unlike for Honnold, climbing was about testing himself before God but without any tangent to human community, and perhaps God’s requirement is that what we do, we ultimately do for others than ourselves. 

I also accept that Honnold exists on a continuum including the figure immediately above, as well as Aaron Ralston and Christopher McCandless, and perhaps Honnold himself would agree with this assessment; perhaps that is why he no longer free solos. In Honnold, we see the cautionary, but also inspiring tale of one who found his limit, and who rather than transgress that limit was able to respect and step back from its edge. For this reason, he may yet grow to old age as a father, bequeathing wisdom in ways beyond the aesthetic, beyond the existential, beyond the solitary.

1 thought on “Alex Honnold’s “Free Solo” as aesthetic experience”

  1. I love this blog.
    We agree that Alex Honnold’s “Free Solo” of El Cap was, perhaps, the greatest physical sporting achievement in history. Honnald’s mix of mind, body, and spirit; combined with his extraordinary discipline, finely honed skill, mentors, and family support may never again be rivaled. His ascent was transcendent in its perfection.
    In the Jimmy Chin “Edge of the Unknown”, amidst a cast of many world-renowned extreme athletes at the pinnacle of their abilities, all but Honnold seem to be there for ego, fame, and riches.
    And, to be fair, your father’s “friend” made their “privileged white male sport” comment after seeing several “Edge” episodes, and the pilot for the ultimate “privileged white male sport” Nat Geo series “Limitless” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OY1GRHc2rs

    Like

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