I’m fully aware I’m a little late to watching Oscar-winning doco Free Solo, which follows Alex Honnold‘s death-defying effort to climb enormous rock El Capitan without the use of any kind of safety equipment. I’ve been busy, okay? I have other things to do than behold a certified madman scale a big boulder, even if it is objectively one of the greatest athletic achievements in human history.

What you quickly realise while watching Free Solo is that it is not just about climbing the rock – though it is definitely about that, in a huge way – but also a study in single-minded obsession and the burden of dreams. Honnold, who is not a normal man and does not think as normal people do, has set himself a massive and almost certainly lethal goal, and absolutely nothing is going to stop him from pursuing it – not even the reasonable protestations of his girlfriend.

He is plainly consumed by the conviction that his achievements and obvious talent would be squandered if he didn’t climb directly up a sheer 3,500 foot rock face with no harness. That mindset is as alien as the feat itself.

Despite the obvious value of the film as a chronicle of one man’s powerful obsession, it’s also about climbing a big-ass boulder even though the possibility of falling hundreds of metres and exploding on impact is very high.

Here are the thoughts which ricocheted around my skull while watching it:

  • Get down from there.
  • Many people have normal hobbies, such as gardening or collecting stamps.
  • Climbing El Capitan is an incredible feat – even if you’re wearing a harness. Are you aware, Alex, that wearing a harness would prevent you from falling to your death?
  • Your girlfriend seems like a nice person!
  • What are you doing up there? That rock wasn’t carved 1.3 million years ago by enormous glacial pressure just so some chucklehead could climb it.
  • A 2005 ABC article by Dr Karl himself describes the effect on the body of falling from a great height:

    If you stop suddenly from 200 km/hr over a distance of a few centimetres, everything in your body effectively weighs 7,500 times more than normal. Your 1.5 kg brain briefly weighs 10 tonnes. In that brief instant, cells are burst open and blood vessels are torn asunder. The aorta (the huge main artery coming out of the heart) will usually rip loose from the heart. For a few beats, your heart continues to pump blood into the space around the heart and lungs, while no blood goes to your brain. But most of the blood vessels in your brain have also instantaneously torn loose. After that brief instant, your “weight” returns to normal – but blood is now eating its way through your irreparably damaged brain. This is what medical people mean to when they refer to “massive internal bleeding”.

  • Get down from there.
  • What’s the go with those awful little hanging tents that rock-climbers use while traversing enormous rock formations? They look like hell. However, they are much safer than what you are attempting.
  • Buhhhhhhhh.
  • The guys flying the drones for the doco would be absolutely shitting their dacks. You would hate to be the guy who accidentally knocked Alex Honnold off the face of El Capitan. You’d be in so much trouble.
  • There are many climbing gyms around the world which provide the thrills of free soloing in a safe and controlled environment.
  • There’s a bit where he has to put his leg forward while perched on a minuscule ledge, and fall forward onto another tiny ledge. All while about 2,000 feet up. Why did he do this?
  • Get down at once.
  • For centuries, philosophers have grappled with one question: do you scale a 3,500-foot rock face which has claimed the lives of over thirty climbers since 1905, or do you simply watch Netflix in bed? Much to contemplate.
  • Oh, he fuckin’ did it. I’ve achieved things in life too. Not that big a deal.
  • He should have gotten down when I told him to. Foolish behaviour.
Image: National Geographic