Henry Gilbey
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Henry Gilbey blog

Nothing to do with fishing, but I urge you to watch the ridiculously brilliant, Oscar winning documentary Free Solo

I have watched Free Solo twice now, and spoiler alert - Alex Honnold doesn’t fall to his death, indeed he succeeds in what is being referred to in some circles as the greatest ever sporting achievement ever. He climbed the 3000 foot “Free Rider” route on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without any ropes or safety equipment, and whilst I know nothing about climbing, my understanding is that essentially everybody within this sport believed it was virtually impossible to free solo “El Cap”. But not this incredible human being Alex Honnold, and even knowing that he succeeds and does not fall to his death doesn’t make watching this beautifully shot and edited documentary any easier to watch. Last night I watched it for the second time and for the last twenty minutes or so I was still trying to climb inside myself because it’s such a hypnotically terrifying sequence………….

If you’ve got Sky, Free Solo is on the National Geographic channel and can be downloaded onto your box, or otherwise you can buy it and stream it on Amazon Prime. It’s also just come out on DVD and Blu-ray. I am all for buying fishing tackle until the cows come home, but I urge you to take the money you might spend on your next shiny hard lure and buy this documentary in whatever format works best for you - and then settle down to watch on a sofa or chair that you can crawl behind when it gets really tough to watch. I have never seen anything like Free Solo and it has really, really got to me.

What comes across to me so strongly is that Alex Honnold has no more of a death wish than you or I, but for whatever personal reasons that drive him as a human being, he seems to feel most alive when he is free soloing and right on that edge between life and death - and he can obviously control and overcome the kind of fear or terror that you or I would feel. I have borrowed this quote from an excellent Nat Geo article here - “Free soloing is when a climber is alone and uses no ropes or any other equipment that aids or protects him as he climbs, leaving no margin of error”. The first time I watched Free Solo the other day and I as good as held my breath for much of the film, and whilst the second time wasn’t much easier, I find it absolutely fascinating how what Alex Honnold does and how he is as a human being throws up so many complex issues and questions about life and living and pushing right to the edge.

What else could you do in life where you essentially have to be 100% perfect for the entire duration of you are doing, and what you have chosen to do places such outrageous physical and mental challenges upon you that performing 100% perfectly is about as hard and real as it gets? Absolutely no margin for error, where a single mistake means the end of your life, yet it’s where this remarkable human being feels most alive. Death is a single error away yet when you watch him free solo on El Cap, it looks to me - somebody who knows squat about climbing - as if Alex Honnold was born to be up there and defying what was previously thought possible. I have thought about it a lot and I happen to agree with those people who believe that Alex Honnold’s free solo of El Cap is the greatest ever human sporting achievement, and mainly because of that absolute lack of a margin for error - and I mean absolute. Anything goes wrong and you die. No ifs or buts or maybes, you have to be perfect, and I can’t think of another sport where not being 100% perfect guarantees your death.

And then you start to think about what the film crew went through to shoot this documentary. It’s talked about plenty in the film and I love how they cut to that poor cameraman on the ground who is shooting Alex Honnold on a long lens and having to look away because he can’t watch Alex going through the most difficult “pitches” where as you will see, he failed time and time again when on ropes and working out his best route. Not too many worries for these guys falling when roped off, but now take all ropes away and it suddenly becomes scary beyond belief. Where does that mental strength come from for Alex to free solo through those pitches where had has previously fallen (on ropes) before?

When you have watched the documentary, then go looking around on YouTube where there all manner of interviews etc. with Alex Honnold and the film makers. Making a film like this where they faced the very real possibility of having to watch their friend suddenly plummet to his death through their lenses was obviously a big part of the whole deal, and I find the whole thing absolutely staggering. The technical expertise involved in the film making, the cinematography, the narrative, the questions this film raises when you really stop and think about it, and of course the quietly determined and almost otherworldly Alex Honnold and what he does. The weather is a pile of poo and I urge you to trust in me here and watch Free Solo. Has a documentary film ever been more worthy of winning the Oscar?

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