I got to the theater showing Beautiful Boy early enough to nip into one of the other films, Free Solo, for the last and most exciting 20 minutes. “Free solo” refers to rock climbers who ply their skill without benefit of ropes or any protective gear. This film is about Alex Honnold’s successful summit of 3000 foot El Capitan, a sheer rock face that takes immense skill and strength to climb even with protective equipment. Honnold climbed El Capitan with nothing more than a bag of chalk hanging from his waist. The climb took him just over four hours.
Honnold is a young guy. There aren’t many free solo rock climbers who live to be old. If they fall, they almost always die. And who does a sport like that for any length of time without ever falling? Two experienced climbers who were using ropes died on El Capitan as recently as June 2018. The list of climbers who have fallen to their deaths on climbs all around the world, with or without ropes, is long.
Free soloing reminds me of another high risk sport, BASE jumping. BASE jumpers fling themselves off fixed structures like mountains or high buildings or antennae or bridge spans wearing a winged suit, which they maneuver to glide to the ground. An errant wind current, or failure to jump far enough away from the structure, or any error maneuvering in flight can result in the jumper crashing into the side of the structure or hard into the earth below. BASE jumpers don’t live long either.
Apparently the brains of people drawn to these sports don’t register fear in the same way the rest of us do.
The part of Free Solo that I saw, the final leg of the ascent, was thrilling enough to make me want to go back and see the entire film. I’m not drawn to sports like this. I did some indoor rock climbing in Rochester, with ropes, and know how hard it is. I have no desire to do it outside, much less without protection for my nearly inevitable fall.
That’s just the point, though. Guys like Honnold don’t think about falling, much less the statistical inevitability of it. They think only about the exhilaration of rising, and standing triumphant on top.