El Capitan was always Alex Honnold's great white whale.
Indeed, the 33-year-old rock climber has been thinking and dreaming about the iconic 3,200-foot granite monolith in California's Yosemite National Park since he began climbing 23 years ago. Its stark simplicity and beauty have captured the imaginations of photographers and artists and made it a destination for rock climbers from all over the world for decades.
Now it was Honnold's turn. Except he would be doing it without ropes, just his hands and feet. No safety equipment.
The story of his record-breaking June 6, 2018, ascent of El Capitan with friend and climbing partner Tommy Caldwell is told in the documentary “Free Solo,” premiering today on National Geographic. It won best documentary feature at last weekend's Academy Awards.
“It has the perfect combination of history and majesty because it's also one of the most significant walls in the climbing world,” Honnold explains. “So it's something I've been reading about since I was a little kid. You know, it holds a certain spot in climbing culture. But then once it actually comes time to climb the route, then making lists is very important. You know, keeping track of which sections are difficult and how to work through them.”
The two-hour documentary from directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi that debuted at last summer's Telluride Film Festival, follows Honnold as he prepares for the climb while living out of his van with girlfriend Sanni McCandless, who is none too pleased that her significant other's life could end at any time with one mistake.
And El Cap tolerates no mistakes from a free climber, so Honnold carefully planned his route. Among the challenges, there was the monster offwidth, a gradually widening 200-foot crack; enduro corners, three sustained pitches that offer no opportunities for rest over its 360 feet; and the most treacherous part, the boulder problem, a nearly vertical wall with very thin handholds.
In the film, Honnold mentions that free climbing is probably the only sport where you have to be perfect or you die. Naturally, he doesn't preoccupy himself with thoughts of his own mortality but he does admit that for years, he did let El Cap psych him out.
“I was dreaming about climbing El Cap but never actually acting on it because it was too scary,” he says.
“You know, driving into Yosemite, looking at the wall and being like, 'Oh no, that's not happening this year.' And that happened probably six or eight times,” he added. “We'd think like, 'Oh, this is the season,' and then I would drive in and look at the wall and be like, 'This is definitely not the season.' Yeah, I mean it's pretty easy to get psyched out, for sure.”