There’s an old adage in mountaineering that you’re most dangerous when you feel safe. I’ve heard stories of climbers who were incredibly successful and in their physical prime and died falling off relatively easy routes. A good friend of mine “adorned” himself somewhat comfortably in his class early on in his climbing career. When I asked him what went wrong, he said bluntly, ‘I didn’t respect the route.’
This story was running through my mind while watching The Soloist VR, a two-part series about the ups and downs of Alex Honnold, who made history in May 2017 with his solo ascent of El Capitan. What makes Alex Honnold interesting is the very same trait that keeps him alive: He has a deep, deep respect for the route. For every route. He’s not a point-break-style adrenaline junkie howling to his doom, nor does he seem particularly interested in fame. Honnold has made a pact with nature. In exchange for humility and preparation, the mountains give him a sense of pure, free-roaming experience that most humans can only experience — well, in a video game.
The Soloist VR isn’t a game, it’s an immersive film, essentially a mini-documentary brought to us by the good folks at Meta and personally by my friend who agreed to lend me her quest for an afternoon. When I first got into a VR headset it was irresistibly weird, but I got used to it pretty quickly. You basically captured the experience of sitting on a sheer ledge while a man two meters away from you does the craziest thing you’ve ever seen in your entire life.
The Soloist VR trailer.
In terms of immersion, it almost feels stranger being at Honnold’s house, which is where the film teleports you after a hair-raising chill on the cliff. You silently levitate over his kitchen counter like a ghost (or maybe a large, paralyzingly clumsy climber) and watch as he cooks breakfast with his pregnant wife. They do that weird acting that people do on reality TV, chatting about the things they’ve asked them to chat and making every effort not to look at the camera (you). Honnold is endearingly bad at this. Later, a peppy journalist shows up to conduct a fake interview that serves as a framework for the next few scenes, and her trained kindness seems fake next to Honnold’s soft-spoken replies. In her defense, everyone besides Alex Honnold seems pretty wrong. He’s the truest son of a bitch in the world.
From the living room we take a journey through a few months of Honnold’s outdoor life, sport climbing in Yosemite and mountain biking through Nervada before flying to Europe to do some routes with legendary alpinist Nicolas Hojac. The highlight of Part 1 is Muro Giallo’s Honnolds Free Solo, a monstrous 320-metre, 11-pitch sport route in the Dolomites that local guides describe as a ‘hard test of endurance’.
Even with 360-degree views of some of the world’s most beautiful mountains, it’s hard to take your eyes off Honnold. He’s a nice climber. His movements are precise and well-considered, fascinatingly efficient and almost completely relaxed. Each of Honnold’s rises is the product of a thousand good decisions, and perhaps the best thing about The Soloist is how you can see those decisions as they happen. During his trial run up Muro Giallo with a rope, he expresses his concern about brittle rock. Later during the solo we see him push himself up off a steep ledge. He runs one hand over some ledges, the kind of holds a climber like me would grab for his life, but obviously feels too fragile to risk. Instead, he places both hands back on the ledge and stretches his arms to move to the next, safer pause. It’s a small but revealing moment. Between what is dangerous and what is difficult, Honnold has the ability to choose the safe path every time.
A conversation with Honnold.
In Part 2, Honnold and Hojac return to Chamonix, where Honnold plans to free solo a small mountain called Dru. If you’ve never heard of Dru – google it. Treat your eyes to this thing. Now imagine what it’s like to be standing just below the north face in shorts and rubber shoes. With this ascent and building on it, VR filmmaking really comes into its own. The camera jumps with Honnold and Hojac as they hike up the valley, and with each jump this monstrous cliff gets a little bigger until you’re craning your neck into the wall, glancing back and forth between route and climber. think, Really, Alex? YES, REALLY??
From there, we’re treated to more technical excellence, gorgeous skylines, and VR magic, this time complicated by the looming inclement weather. Honnold eventually has to drop out before the final leg of his ascent. Crouching on a boulder cliff as pearly mist billows in from every direction, he sighs into his walkie-talkie that conditions just aren’t good enough for the summit. Disappointing? It depends. If you’re lucky enough to have access to this film, I’d suggest you approach it more like a slice-of-life drama than an action epic. Rather than a history-packed climb, Part 2 ends with the two men hiking up a relatively obscure ridge near Mont Blanc. Hojac is allowed to at least shine a little and moves through the snow like a small Swiss steam train, while Honnold chases after the uncertainty. But while the feat might not be impressive, the views are, and it’s sweet to see these two guys gangly hug at the summit and hear Honnold thank his partner for all the help and guidance .
If you have even the slightest hint of vertigo, you should probably avoid The Soloist VR like the plague. But then again – look, I’m not a psychologist, so take everything I say here with a pinch of salt – maybe this movie is for you. Watching Alex Honnold Free Solo is watching someone gently kill a monster that has haunted most people since childhood. Even after years of climbing I still have vertigo and nothing in this world hates more than falls. But I think this film made me a little braver. Maybe it will help you too.