The Pure Power of Human Potential
If you are a fan of climbing, then we have a treat for you. I had the pleasure of talking with Jimmy Chin, an award-winning filmmaker, photographer, and mountain sports athlete, who has documented dozens of expeditions for National Geographic and The North Face.
In 2006 he was part of the first American team to climb, and then ski down the summit of Mount Everest. In 2011 he made the first ever ascent of the 20,000 foot Himalayan peak known as the “Shark’s Fin”, which became MERU, the award winning documentary film.
His latest movie, FREE SOLO, which he co-directed with his wife Chai Vasarhelyi, features Alex Honnold climbing without ropes, the 3000 foot granite wall known as El Capitan. This movie won multiple awards including Best Documentary Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards.
Our conversation got heavy, talking about the reality of filming your best friend do incredibly dangerous things, but Jimmy is such a calm and collected guy, he makes it all look easy.
For the past five months, Jimmy has been on a whirlwind tour promoting his incredible documentary, Free Solo. Jimmy comments that it has been a wild ride, but he has been blown away by how well the film has been received.
The most typical reaction he has gotten to his film is that the viewers “palms were sweating” watching Alex Honnold climb. It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around the idea of a man climbing a 3,000 foot wall without any ropes. It’s given people such a strong physical reaction relating to the humanity and the heart that permeates through the whole film.
Jimmy is proud to have been able to bring people into the film and transport them into Alex’s world. Jimmy and Alex both love to come into the last 15 minutes of the film at screenings, just to watch the audience react to the final free climb.
Why We Connect with Free Solo
Free Solo draws people in with its heart palpitating moments and incredible tension, but that’s not the only reason it is so compelling, The reason people connect so much to this film is because you get to see a human pushing all of the limits to accomplish something that doesn’t make sense. It displays the essence of human potential.
It’s incredibly pure in its humanity. Jimmy notes that the film is about several things, from facing your fears, to courage, to vulnerability, but focuses on human potential. Alex’s act of free soloing is a visceral way to understand and experience that potential.
It also shows that through hard work you can achieve anything. Alex worked and trained incredibly hard to accomplish what he did.
In this day and age there’s a lot of “fake” presentation with social media, and this film is the opposite of that. It’s 100% real and genuine. Alex free solos because it’s what he loves and is passionate about.
What is Free Soloing?
For people who don’t know much about climbing, Free Solo is incredible to watch. They see someone doing something crazy, but assume; because he’s a professional, he will be okay. However, for people that do know about climbing the movie is almost unbelievable. Before Alex, no one even considered free soloing El Capitan.
Free Soloing has been around since climbing started. There have been few great free soloists since it’s such a cutting edge pursuit.
“It’s perfection or death… so the stakes are very high and it’s such a mental game.”
A lot of free solo climbs have more to do with the capacity to manage fear and have control over your mind rather than complete the literal climb. You have to control the base instinct of the potential to fall to your death.
Alex has been free soloing for years and has learned a lot from it. He entered Jimmy’s radar after completing two incredible free solos, Alex HonnoldMoonlight Buttress in Zion and Half Dome. Both climbs would have been significant with a rope. Jimmy was blown away.
Alex is a “purist,” he’s a guy whose love of climbing comes from the heart. He’s not in it for glory or fame, he just truly lives for climbing and Jimmy related to him deeply on this level.
People climb for a lot of reasons, but one main one is that it forces you to be completely present in the moment. It’s also a constant challenge to face fear after fear which allows the climber to build confidence.
The Importance of Human Connection
Free Solo deals with more than just climbing; it dives into Alex’s past, his family and the love of his life. This gave the film even more emotional depth. Alex’s girlfriend, Sani McCandless serves as an emotional foil to Alex. She is very emotionally articulate and aware, where as Alex has had a hard time connecting with people. She was able to bring out things in Alex that he never would have discovered on his own.
Sani was able to teach him another form of communication. For example, Alex had to learn how to hug people! Both Sani and Alex are very intentional in the way they live and are both big go-getters.
Alex has his own unique “super powers” which allow him to complete the climbs that he does. He is able to completely control his mind and intellectualize things such as fear when it doesn’t serve him.
The climbing culture in general is very understated. The people who Jimmy always looked up to were very humble guys. The stakes are so real and so intense that it doesn’t allow for much pride.
I loved learning about the purity of this incredibly intense sport. Stayed tuned as Jimmy and I get even more in depth about the challenges of making Free Solo.