There’s an old adage in mountaineering that you’re in the most danger when you start to feel safe. I’ve heard stories about climbers, wildly accomplished and in their physical prime, who died falling off relatively easy routes. A good friend of mine ‘decked’ on something comfortably within his grade early on in his climbing career. When I asked him what went wrong, he told me bluntly: ‘I didn’t respect the route.’
That story weighed a lot on my mind when I was watching The Soloist VR, a two-part series following the ups and downs of Alex Honnold, who carved himself into history in May 2017 with his solo ascent of El Capitan. What makes Alex Honnold interesting is the very same quality that keeps him alive: he has a deep, profound respect for the route. For every route. He’s not a Point Break style adrenaline junkie whooping off to his doom, nor does he seem super interested in glory. Honnold has formed a pact with the natural world. In return for humility and preparation, the mountains give him a sense of pure, freewheeling experience that most people could only experience – well, in a video game.
The Soloist VR is not a game but an immersive film, essentially a mini-documentary brought to us by the good folks at Meta and brought to me personally by my mate who agreed to lend me her Quest for an afternoon. As my first time in a VR headset it was compellingly strange, but I adjusted pretty fast. They’ve basically captured the experience of perching on a steep ledge while a man five feet away from you does the most insane thing you’ve ever seen in your whole life.
Immersion-wise, it feels almost stranger to be inside Honnold’s house, which is where the film teleports you after a hair-raising cold open on the cliffside. You hover silently above his kitchen counter like a ghost (or maybe a tall, cripplingly awkward rock climber), watching him cook breakfast with his pregnant wife. They’re doing that weird play-acting that people do on reality TV, chatting through the things they’ve been asked to chat through and trying hard not to look at the camera (you). Honnold is endearingly bad at this. Later on a peppy journalist shows up to conduct a faux-interview that acts as a framing device for the next couple scenes, and her coached friendliness seems fake next to Honnold’s soft-spoken responses. In her defense, everyone seems pretty fake next to Alex Honnold. He’s the realest son of a bitch alive.
From the living room we take a journey through a few months of Honnold’s life outdoors, sport climbing in Yosemite and mountain biking through Nervada, before he flies out to Europe to do some routes with the legendary alpinist Nicolas Hojac. The climax of Part 1 is Honnold’s free solo of Muro Giallo, a monsterous 320 meter 11-pitch sport route in the Dolomites that local guidebooks describe as a ‘stern test of stamina’.
Even with a 360 degree view of some of the world’s loveliest mountains, it’s hard to take your eyes off Honnold. He is a beautiful climber. His moves are precise and well-considered, mesmerizingly efficient, and almost totally relaxed. Each of Honnold’s ascents are the product of a thousand good decisions, and maybe the best thing about The Soloist is how it lets you see these choices as they happen. During his roped test run up the Muro Giallo he expresses some worry about breakable rock. Later during the solo, we see him press up from a slopey ledge. He runs one hand over some jutting portions of rock, the kind of holds a climber like myself would grab at for dear life, but evidently feels they’re too fragile to risk. Instead he returns both hands to the ledge and straightens his arms, pushing up to the next, safer break. It’s a small but telling moment. Between what’s dangerous and what’s difficult, Honnold has the skills to choose the safe path every time.
In Part 2, Honnold and Hojac return to Chamonix, where Honnold is planning to free solo a little mountain called Dru. If you’ve never heard of the Dru – google it. Feast your eyes on that thing. Now imagine what it’s like to stand right below the north face in shorts and rubber shoes. This climb, and the build up to it, is where the VR filmmaking really comes into its own. The camera hops along with Honnold and Hojac as they hike up the valley, and with each jump that monstrous cliff gets a bit bigger, until you’re craning your neck up at the face, looking back and forth between the route and the climber, thinking, Really, Alex? REALLY??
From there we’re treated to more technical excellence, gorgeous skylines and VR wizardry, complicated this time round by looming bad weather. Honnold eventually has to bail out before the final leg of his ascent. Crouched on a rubbled ledge, with pearly mist closing in from all directions, he sighs into his walkie-talkie that the conditions are just not good enough for the peak. Anticlimactic? 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. Instead of a history making ascent, Part 2 closes with the two men hiking up a relatively obscure ridge near Mont Blanc. Hojac at least gets to shine a little, moving through the snow like a little Swiss steam train while Honnold follows uncertainty behind. But while the feat might not be impressive, the views certainly are, and it’s sweet to watch these two dudes share a gangly dude-hug at the peak, and to hear Honnold thank his partner for all the help and guidance.
If you’ve got even a touch 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 film is for you. To watch Alex Honnold free solo is to watch someone gently slay a monster that haunts most people from childhood. Even after years of climbing I’m still not keen on heights, and there’s nothing I hate more in this world than taking a fall. But I think this film made me a little braver. Maybe it’ll help you too.