A pursuit of excellence: My biggest takeaway from Alex Honnold and ‘Free Solo’

Alex Honnold was the subject of what many consider one of the best climbing films ever, “Free Solo.”

When I went in to see “Free Solo” on the big screen, I had high expectations. Alex Honnold’s feats in big-wall rock climbing are incomparable. Given the filmmakers involved, including pro adventurer Jimmy Chin, I figured the production quality would be somewhere on a “Meru” scale, which is in my eyes, pretty damn good.

We all knew Honnold succeeded in becoming the first person to free-solo El Capitan. That’s news from awhile back. But seeing it unfold on the big screen? That’s a whole other thing.

The film delivered. I got sweaty palms watching it unfold. I was given his backstory. All of it was beautifully filmed, expertly told and compellingly arranged. You don’t have to be a hard-core climber to enjoy “Free Solo.”

But there is something else I got from “Free Solo” that I wasn’t expecting, and in my eyes, it was probably the most revealing part of the movie: Honnold is driven by a desire for excellence.

I think it’s forgotten by most of us just how much preparation, practice and study it takes to do what he does. “Free Solo” makes sure you know.

There is a montage about midway through the film in which Honnold is shown reading from one of his climbing journals. Every entry is about a specific part of the Freerider route he planned to climb, sans rope, from base to summit. It’s loaded with climber jargon, route locations and descriptions of specific obstacles he’d have to work though to finish the route. Each step is detailed, complete with what sort of technique and move he’d apply. There’s nothing colorful or emotive about his writings. It’s all business.

His meticulous attention to detail is matched by the hours he spent “practicing,” or in other words, time spent climbing the route over and over again. He climbed Freerider a number of times in the traditional roped style while also climbing big walls elsewhere and hitting the climbing gym often.

Pro athletes are seen spending hours in the gym or on the practice field, and hours more in film rooms, and hours more still hitting the weights. It’s no different for Honnold, except when it’s game time for him, the price of losing is fatal. To succeed – which is to live through it – is to be as close to perfect as a human can get. Getting yourself ready to be perfect is an exercise in discipline and work ethic that’s hard to fathom.

I left the theater wowed, just like everyone else. But more than that, I walked out hoping that in some fashion, I’d reach a level of excellence in something – anything – that Honnold achieved when he topped out on Freerider in the spring of 2017. It won’t happen in climbing for me, and in reality, it probably won’t happen in anything I do. But if it did, we’re talking about Hall of Fame/Pulitzer/Nobel-level stuff. Maybe climbing doesn’t have the gravitas of all that, but if you want to see what being the best at something looks like, watch the film.

As it turns out, the dirtbag climber community has more to offer than high stoke, big views and an adrenaline rush. The best of them can show us what it takes to be great. Or in Honnold’s case, the greatest.

Bob Doucette

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Everest, moviemaking, and scratching the surface of what happened in 1996

Everest-1

Anyone who has read Jon Krakauer’s signature work “Into Thin Air” knows just how good a story can be when you combine the elements of adventure and tragedy. Krakauer is a skilled storyteller and an excellent reporter, and his bird’s-eye view of the disaster that unfolded on Mount Everest in the spring of 1996 gave him that much more perspective on one of the saddest — and most important — days on the mountain.

So it’s no surprise that “Into Thin Air” was the main source material for the new film “Everest,” which premiered last week in IMAX theaters across the country. Filmmakers used other sources, too, but “Into Thin Air” was definitely the foundation for the cinematic version of this story.

Krakauer didn’t pull any punches, trying hard to tell what he saw and learned as evenly and thoroughly as possible. The result, from a literary perspective, is solid.

Hollywood, however, has its own ways of storytelling. When forced to choose between telling it like it is and presenting it in the most easily digested fashion, it’s simpler to go with the latter.

I saw “Everest” last weekend. No way I was going to miss that one. It was worth the price of admission, although I’m an eternal skeptic when it comes to 3-D movies (I have yet to see a 3-D film that couldn’t be told just as well in 2-D, and for less money out of my pocket).

The film features an all-star ensemble cast, excellent cinematic special effects, and a well-crafted feel about how bad things can get on the world’s highest peak. More than any non-documentary film on mountaineering I’ve seen, “Everest” gives you a sense of scale and awe. Filmmakers have to take a little license here and there (we can’t have brightly colored mummies talking through goggles and oxygen masks the entire time). But generally speaking, this is a decent portrayal of mountaineering for general consumption.

But there are aspects of the fashion in which the story is constructed that are a bit too formulaic, and it has much to do with how the characters are portrayed.

Every adventure-disaster movie has to have a central good guy, a cocky fella begging for some humble pie, a wild card, and a few others who have varying shades of good and bad that push the story forward. It’s a cookie-cutter way of doing it, and that’s the one flaw with this film. To wit:

Is it fair to paint Scott Fischer as the somewhat resentful loose cannon — lamenting the crowds of commercial clients on the mountain — reluctantly going along with plans made by Rob Hall?

Did Beck Weathers really carry that much Texas swagger into the climb, to the point where’s he’d snap at his guide and talk smack to other climbers?

Was Anatoly Boukreev rightly portrayed as 100 percent heroic, or were Krakauer’s criticisms (he’d written how the Russian mountaineering pro could have gone up to rescue climbers higher on the mountain, but refused) more in line with the truth?

I can’t say I know everything about this incident, but it would be plausible to think that there would be some rivalry between Fischer and Hall. They were competitors, after all, chasing the same dollars guiding amateurs up the mountain.

And Boukreev did a lot of heroic things as the disaster unfolded, searching for stricken climbers who were wandering near-dead in a whiteout on Everest’s South Col.

And hell, every non-Texan in the world could believe that someone from the Lone Star State might show up with, shall we say, a little bit of self-confidence (kudos to the filmmakers digging deeper into Weathers’ multi-faceted character as the film progressed, though).

But the overall formula didn’t help tell the story. It hindered it, making it a little too easy to swallow without getting deeper into the people involved. There’s only so much you can do in two hours, I get that. And the star of the film isn’t any of the actors. It’s the mountain.

So I suppose what I’m saying is if you go see “Everest,” see it for the right reasons — to be entertained. The deeper lessons of the good and bad of climbing Mount Everest are only hinted at here. The movie is good (there are some scenes that will rip your heart out, emotionally speaking). But the written accounts about life and death on Big E are numerous, as are the lessons about the troubles that have plagued it dating back to that infamous day in 1996. If you want to go beyond being entertained, those are also worth a look.

Bob Doucette