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Exclusive: Alex Honnold of Free Solo on the climb of a lifetime, Nat Geo award-winning doc airs Sunday

Alex Honnold right after the epic climb. Picture credit Jimmy Chin/National Geographic Channel
Alex Honnold right after the epic climb on Free Solo. Picture credit Jimmy Chin/National Geographic Channel

Academy Award-winning documentary Free Solo is a film event like no other. It is about the complex layer of human achievements, both physical and mental whilst set against a backdrop of a burgeoning love story involving the film’s subject, Alex Honnold.

His love interest is his relatively new girlfriend Sanni McCandless, whom producers thanked profusely at the Oscars for “making the film interesting.”

What you must know is that this heart-stopping and mind-blowing doc gives all viewers a chance to sit shotgun with Alex, a young man whose clear vision of who he was, is and wants to be remembered for is writ large and will never be forgotten once seen.  The impossible is possible, but not without a caveat.

This fiercely intelligent young man worked hard for that epic climb of El Capitan without safety equipment. Man versus mountain. The cliffs of insanity some might say, but Alex prepared like a motherf****. That’s no joke.

This was no eleventh-hour stunt.

It took Alex years of planning and daily practice. Living an aesthete’s stripped-down life of just the basics in a tricked-out van, Honnold was always aware that the uncertainties that were out of his control would be there. But, he really sewed up what he could and he had never been in better mental and physical shape for the climb of the ages.

No one on record has accomplished what he has done. Regardless if you think this was a dangerous, foolish idea or you are in awe of this young man, one thing is for certain, filmmakers give you a true sense of the work, the scares, the exhilaration of what this sport of rock climbing offers, and it is truly joyous in the end.

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s award-winning (BAFTA, Oscar) film follows Alex Honnold as he attempts to summit El Capitan without ropes or safety harnesses.

That’s the one-liner but this film is so much more than that and serves proof that if you work hard enough, plan, do the homework, and give it your all, amazing things can happen.

And all the unplanned for out-of-left-field events, like an unexpected new love, added to the ride.

Free Solo will air commercial-free on National Geographic on Sunday, March 3, at 9 p.m. EST. It will also be available on iTunes and other services, including Google Play, Amazon Prime Video, and Vudu, beginning Tuesday, February 12.

We spoke to Alex right before Oscar weekend.

Monsters and Critics: First of all, congratulations on your BAFTA [and also now your Oscar!]; we’re thrilled for you! At the BAFTAs you got to meet Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge!

Alex Honnold: Yup, yup!

M&C: Do you enjoy promoting the film with Nat Geo and attending these posh events, or do you just kind of wish you were climbing into your van?

Alex: A little bit of both! I mean, it’s certainly a … I mean, it’s amazing going to all the events, I mean, the whole show, promotional tour’s been a rather remarkable life experience! But, you know, that said, sometimes it’s too much of a good thing. I’m ready for a slightly slower pace of life and a little time at home, but…

M&C: Your fame circle is getting bigger and, you know, of course, your circles of influence are too, and I know that you’re devoted to your Foundation.

Alex: Yeah.

M&C: Since you’ve got this worldwide platform now and the same influence — are you going to kind of focus your energies more with the Foundation?

Alex: Yeah, it’s hard to say; I feel like that my work with the Foundation has steadily grown over the last five or six years, and I’m sure it will continue to do so. And like you said, [being in] in the film has really elevated the platform, and there’s certainly a lot more opportunity to do good through the Foundation. We’ll see; honestly, in the next few months, I might swing back towards just climbing because I’ve been away from it so much.

You know, but yes, certainly, I’m doing more and more through the Foundation.

M&C: I watched your film twice, and I was trying to decipher if there’s any point during the ascent of El Cap which gave you a moment where you were really scared that you might fall off?

Alex: No no, on the day of the actual climb there definitely wasn’t a moment like that at all — it went very smoothly, everything, everything felt great!

But that’s after, that’s after two years of work, you know.

M&C: A huge part of getting this documentary made was the talents of Jimmy Chin, and tell us about him as a friend to you, and what do you like about working with him as a filmmaker?

Alex: Well, yeah, Jimmy certainly brought incredible expertise as the co-director and the handler and photographer. We’ve been friends and we’ve worked together for twelve years or so. We’d already spent a lot of time in sort of extreme places together.

In a lot of ways, the film felt like an extension of that, just like normal, like we’re going on a climbing trip somewhere; we’re shooting climbing.

But, honest, I think it was [Elizabeth] Chai Vasarhelyi, the Co-Director, that really brought the more documentary feel to the whole experience.

In a lot of ways, filming with Jimmy just felt like a normal climbing expedition. But Chai’s the one that really brought a strong filmmaking background to it.

M&C: I noticed especially with Mikey how they struggled morally with the implications, what they were doing filming you, and the concern. You could see they were sweating it! And I’m sure you saw that, too, as you watched the film. Did they express anything to you in person? How did you justify it in your mind?

Alex: No, so they actually did a remarkable job inflating me for that in person, and some of that was a bit of a revelation when I saw the film. That said, I certainly knew that they weren’t totally comfortable with it, just in the way that — like Mikey’s been my friend for over a decade as well, and he’s filmed me for so long in the past for other projects and a few commercial shoots and I know that he hates watching that kind of stuff.

So even though the crew did a really good job inflating me, from their emotions I still knew how they feel about it, just because we are friends.

M&C: Sanni kind of came in after the beginning, the documentary was already in play before Sanni was in your life, and then she’s inserted into the drama of the documentary.

 

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What a way to finally end the @freesolofilm tour! We won an Oscar!! Technically, @sannimccandless and I didn’t win anything since we were only the subjects of the film. But we kept the awesome envelope anyway :) The actual Oscars go to directors @chaivasarhelyi and @jimmychin and producers @peconic21 and Shannon Dill. They each did an incredible job in helping to craft Free Solo into the Best Documentary of the year! Of course there’s an enormous team of talented people who worked on the film (many of whom I got to hug last night and celebrate with). I guess I just want to say thank you to everyone who worked on the film. And thank you to everyone who’s watched and enjoyed the film. It’s been a wild ride. Thanks.

A post shared by Alex Honnold (@alexhonnold) on


Alex: And then she got thrown into the fire!

M&C: Was her being there a part of why you called it off the first time around or did her leaving Yosemite the second time help you finally do the climb?

Alex: Maybe! But it’s hard to say. I think that I would’ve eventually done the climb, either way, I think that she just knew that it was good for my process to have a little more space, a little more time to myself.

She was with me the whole season at Yosemite, through all the preparation, and then she just went home for the final — I don’t know — maybe four days or something just so I’d have more time to sit by myself and think.

And so, I don’t think, it’s not really fair to say that she was hindering the process at all because she was there in the thick of it, for basically the entire time. And the first failed attempt was more, I think that having the crew around contributed in some way, it felt like a little too much, and having her — and actually, honestly, it’s not in the film, but actually her whole family was around as well, her whole family climbs, which is great, because it’s a really nice way to spend quality time with the family and everything.

But it just meant there was a lot going on that’s easy on Yosemite, so I just didn’t have quite as much time to myself to process and think and see how I felt.

But the main thing with the failed attempt was I just wasn’t really prepared, I hadn’t put in enough time, my ankle was still injured, and then part of it was just because it’s November, it was kind of cold and conditions weren’t perfect, but I was just trying my best anyway.

M&C: Hey, if you and Sanni had children, would you let them climb without ropes?

Alex: Well, if they thought really seriously about it, and if they practiced enough time, I wouldn’t forbid anybody from climbing without a rope, but if anybody showed interest, I would certainly make sure they were doing it carefully, doing it well, taking their time.

M&C: A part of the documentary showed you speaking to high school kids. If you had been in high school and someone like yourself had come to speak, how would that have impacted you? And, also, when these kids talk to you, and they see the scope of what you’re doing, do they ask you how does someone make a living doing this? How does someone become a professional climber and earn money? Do they ask you these questions, and what do you say?

Alex: Yeah, some of them! Honestly, I think that if I was a kid and somebody such as myself came and spoke at my school, that would have been the most interesting thing to me, too: how to make a living, how’s that actually work, is there an alternate path?

I certainly grew up in high school assuming I was going to university, get a degree, get a professional job; I never really even considered an alternate path because I didn’t think it was an option.

Climbing just sort of happened for me. Yeah, I mean if someone asks me, I just tell them how it all played out. It turns out you can make a living through sponsorship and endorsements and combinations of books and films and speaking and all kinds of different things, just basically kind of making it work.

M&C: Some of our team live in the UK. Any advice for a potential van owner, and living that sort of “bare” lifestyle, that small world, in Europe and the USA?

Alex: Actually, my first advice with van life is it’s a lot harder in Europe. The whole lifestyle doesn’t work quite as well here, just because there’s less open land, less public land, and there’s fewer places you can be with — in nature as a climber.

Not that I would discourage it, but it’s a lot harder to do van life in the UK for sure, because it’s so [population] dense, you know?

But I don’t know, living out of a car is pretty straightforward, and certainly my very first consideration on my van was as basic as the gas. I just bought a big empty van and then my uncle and I put a bed inside it and bolted down a stove, and that was it. And over the years, it’s steadily gotten more complex and more comfortable, just because after living in a van for twelve years, you start to want it to be a little nicer.

M&C: Your approach to life: just take what you need, consume less, take less space…

Alex: Yeah, and minimizing harm. I think that’s a pretty basic tenet for everybody.

M&C: What’s next for you? You’ve climbed so many edifices all over the world! What’s on your list, what’s on your short list that you can share with me?

Alex: Honestly, I’m not really sure! There’s things at Yosemite I still want to climb, [the] other reach on El Cap, not necessarily free soloing effort, but other things I want to climb. But I’ve been training in the gym quite a bit while I’ve been on film tour, and I’m feeling pretty physically strong, so I’m sort of excited to try harder sport routes.

It’s always just about trying to improve as a climber, and feel like I’m learning something, growing a little bit.

But like you said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Foundation plays a bigger role in my future. Maybe having a family someday, things like that. It’s tough to know where life goes.

M&C: Well, you’ve certainly got a coterie of famous friends: Jason Momoa and Jared Leto…

Alex: Yeah, yeah!

M&C: Maybe you can get their star power involved with yours, you think, to help further the Foundation’s causes. Have you ever analyzed what it is inside you that made you want to climb without ropes and to kind of flirt with fatalistic types — “it’s either going to go very well, or it’s going to end”-type climbing?


Alex: Yeah, I don’t know! Honestly, I think the heart of it is the love of the movement, the love of the experience; you’re just really enjoying the actual process of it. You know what I mean? It makes sense that your questions are focused around the fatalistic side of it, but certainly, when I’m actually going free-soloing, that’s not what I’m thinking about.

I’m thinking how much I enjoy the experience, the love of the movement, being in a beetle position. While you’re up on the wall, you’re not thinking about that, you’re thinking about how, or at least very rarely, occasionally, it all goes out, but for the most part, it’s a really enjoyable experience.

M&C: But you’ve had to have had close calls! There had to have been moments you’ve climbed; can you share?

Alex: Yeah, actually most of my closest calls climbing have actually been with a rope on. Most of my scariest experiences have been with a rope on. Just because when you’re climbing ropes like that, you’re much more likely to push yourself further into the unknown.

When you’re climbing ropeless, you tend to be pretty conservative, because you obviously say, whoa-beat your death, so you keep your hands steady and your compass on, you keep it pretty conservative. Climbing with a rope, you typically push to failure because you have the rope there to catch you if you fail. But, sometimes you can get yourself in a pretty dangerous situation that way.

M&C: I also noticed that you did not wear—you wore like socks that were cut off below the—you didn’t wear long socks like athletic socks that we would expect

Alex: So, I was wearing a La Sportiva TC Pros. That’s a type of climbing shoe. That’s the model of the shoe. They were actually designed by Tommy Caldwell. It’s the Tommy Caldwell Pro Model.

He’s in the film happily. He’s a good friend of mine, partner, but he designed them for climbing on El Cap. So it’s basically the perfect shoe for what I was doing. And then the climbing was all barehanded, but using chalk, so I have a little chalk that you’re constantly drying your hands with chalk.

I didn’t have socks at all. You never wear socks in climbing shoes, but I was—my pants were cut off but that was just because I’d run out of pants by the end of the season. I wound up using a kitchen knife to cut my pants off and then it all wound up looking pretty scrappy. But I didn’t really know it would be seen on IMAX, you know. I just thought I was customizing my pants.

M&C: Tommy Caldwell, you said, designed the shoe. Are you going to be in the design business? Are you going to be creating any kind of specific gear?

Alex: No. I’ve talked about that with sponsors a little bit, but honestly, I don’t know if I have anything to contribute in that way. Tommy had a really specific vision of what he thought, like, he needed for his project on El Cap.

I don’t really … as you can see in the film, I’m more of a minimalist, you know. I’d rather do away with gear, I’ve never really cared that much about gear. I’m not like a big gear-head, unsurprisingly.

M&C: Interesting. I kept trying to see if you, I never saw you drink any water when you were ascending El Cap! What did you have?

Alex: So, I did, I stashed some food and water on two different places. There were two places on the route where I stopped and then ate, drank a little bit.

I didn’t really need to eat, but it was there just to make sure that energy levels stayed solid for the whole four hours.

M&C: Will you ever do El Cap again or is it that that mountain’s been climbed?

Alex: Well, I’ll certainly climb with a rope probably every year for the rest of my life, but I don’t know if I’ll ever have to have the compulsion to free-solo El Cap again, but we’ll see. It was pretty amazing though, so I wouldn’t rule it out but it’s hard to imagine why, why I would want to again.

M&C: Is there a particular climb anywhere in the United States, in the continental United States, that you have your eye on, or that you think would be as intriguing as El Cap?

Alex: Actually, most of my big goals are still on El Cap, but they’re with a rope, so. I’ll have really the most iconic wall in the world.

Free Solo will premiere commercial free on National Geographic Channel Sunday, March 3, 2019.

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April is an accredited entertainment writer, interviewer and television critic. She is a current member of the Television Critics Association (TCA), Gay and Lesbian Entertainment... read more
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