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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