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The story behind ‘Free Solo,’ which documents one of the most dangerous climbs ever completed

Alex Honnold holds all of his climbing gear atop the summit of El Capitan,in Yosemite National Park, becoming the first person to climb the soaring rock face without a rope. The documentary “Free Solo” follows Honnold as he trains for and attempts the 3,000 foot climb.
Alex Honnold holds all of his climbing gear atop the summit of El Capitan,in Yosemite National Park, becoming the first person to climb the soaring rock face without a rope. The documentary “Free Solo” follows Honnold as he trains for and attempts the 3,000 foot climb.(Jimmy Chin/AFP/Getty Images)

Professional climber Alex Honnold did it: He was the first person to successfully scale El Capitan, the 3,000-foot rock face in California’s Yosemite National Park, without any ropes, harnesses, or climbing partners. Among climbers, this ambitious and often dangerous feat is known as a “free solo.”

A documentary about the adventure, called “Free Solo,” now in theaters, intimately chronicles Honnold’s training and successful climb, thanks largely to co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. The notoriously shy Honnold knew Vasarhelyi and Chin before filming began, which gave them unique access into his private life.

“There’s a story about Alex that he began climbing without ropes because it was more intimidating and scarier to talk to another person and ask them to be his partner,” Vasarhelyi said. “And I think both of us were very moved with the story, and I think that a lot of people feel that type of fear.”

But the familiarity also came with a cost for Vasarhelyi and Chin: The knowledge that they could very well end up capturing the death of Honnold, a friend.

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“I mean, they’re trusting me not to,” Honnold was quick to assure.

When Honnold first brought up El Capitan, Vasarhelyi was interested in the story, but Chin, also a climber, thought it was too risky. Initially, they stepped away from the idea, but then they began to consider whether Honnold was going to do it anyway (he was), if they were the right people for the job (they were), and if it was a story worth telling (“absolutely”).

“That still doesn’t let us off the hook, so I think at the end of the day we had to get our head around the idea that Alex lives every day with intention and we believe and respect that,” Vasarhelyi said. “And so this is what he’s chosen to do, and he’s clearly thought a lot about his own death, but he doesn’t want to die, and our main thing was that we’re not going to mess him up.”

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While having cameras and a crew around him did certainly change some things, Honnold said the situation might have made him safer.

“Because of the whole process of filming, I wanted to put more time into preparation than I maybe otherwise would have and put more effort into it,” Honnold said. “And so ultimately I think I was better prepared and wound up having a better experience because I put so much time into it.”


Lillian Brown can be reached at lillian.brown@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @lilliangbrown.