“Free Solo” is not the only climbing movie, actually
By SOPHIE DEWEES — email@example.com
Scaling sheer cliff faces with your toes resting on minuscule edges just big enough to hold your weight definitely isn’t for everyone. And although rock climbing has greatly increased in popularity with the rise of indoor rock gyms and the inclusion of the sport in the 2021 summer Olympics, it still takes a specific kind of person to look at an outdoor boulder, a teeter-y 60-foot slab or even an artificial brick wall and say, “Yeah, I would want to climb that.” But even if you would rather do anything else than take a 20-foot fall on a rope, there are a myriad of great climbing documentaries and series that can be enjoyed by the avid climber and those mildly interested in climbing alike.
This documentary is a great one to start with, as it describes the history of rock climbing in Yosemite National Park. The film explains how the now widely popular sport began as a fringe movement led by “dirtbags” — climbers known for partying and taking food from dumpsters who lived somewhat illegally in the park. It interviews and shares footage of some of the sport’s greats such as Lynn Hill (who made the first free ascent of the Nose of El Capitan in 1993) and Alex Honnold (who climbed a different route of El Cap without ropes in 2017, see below for more). The makers of the film also document the evolution of climbing equipment and practices and the infamous feud between legendary rock climbers Warren Harding and Royal Robbins.
Hosted by professional climber Chris Sharma, HBO’s new show “The Climb” is the first widely viewed outdoor climbing competition. It exhibits many different climbing styles including deep water soloing (climbing without a rope over deep water), sport climbing (climbing while clipping into bolts along the way), trad climbing (relying on gear placed in cracks) and bouldering (climbing shorter distances without a rope), to name a few. As a climber getting into sport climbing, I appreciated that contestants discussed being afraid of falling and how they were able to overcome this fear in a high-stress, competitive environment.
I will say, a few of the show’s choices were questionable, such as having two contestants go against each other on an indoor speed climbing wall (essentially, a standardized route that you climb as fast as possible) in an elimination round. This felt antithetical to the point of the show, which was to test climbers’ skills outdoors. Jason Momoa (yep, the actor who played Aquaman and Khal Drogo from “Game of Thrones”) also oddly makes short-lived appearances at the beginning of each episode to discuss the upcoming climbs with Sharma, which in my opinion does not contribute much. That said, the series gives climbers the potentially life-changing chance to earn a sponsorship from a major climbing clothing brand in a format that is both highly entertaining and illustrates the diverse nature of the sport.
Probably the most well-known climbing film, “Free Solo” tells the story of professional rock climber Alex Honnold’s long-term goal of free soloing (climbing without ropes) the “Freerider” route on El Capitan in Yosemite. El Cap is an iconic 3,000-foot rock face in, as they put it in the documentary, “the Mecca of rock climbing:” Yosemite National Park. The movie describes Honnold’s background in climbing and his process for “projecting” the climb — which means learning all of the different moves on rope before trying a rope-free ascent.
While watching this film is sure to make your palms sweat, as a single foot slip could send Honnold plummeting to his death, it is a fascinating depiction of a climber and his (perhaps unreasonable) goal to scale the world’s largest granite monolith in climbing’s purest form — with only shoes and a chalk bag.
“The Dawn Wall”
“The Dawn Wall” shares professional climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s 19-day adventure on the face of El Cap that is first hit by light in the morning. It was originally thought to be unscalable, as there was no clearly defined route before their ascent. Caldwell spent nearly six years on the project before its completion, and the big wall route is considered by many to be the hardest in existence.
In this film, you learn more about Caldwell’s background (specifically, that he is the only person to date that has completed such a difficult climb with only nine fingers) and come to understand how someone can tackle such an enormous project with grace and positivity.
The focus of this documentary, Marc-André Leclerc, was (at least based on his portrayal in the film) a sweet, reserved person who was uninterested in fame or recognition despite his immense talent. He completed some of the most impressive climbs in history, free soloing extremely difficult ice and mixed (a combination of ice climbing and regular rock climbing) routes, which is nearly unheard of in the sport.
The biggest flaw in the film is mainly that it lacks footage of many of Leclerc’s ascents. However, I hesitate to even call this a flaw, as it contributes to the overall depiction of Leclerc as a person who climbs because he loves to, not to seek sponsorships or acclaim.
“Reel Rock” (all the seasons, really)
“Reel Rock” is an annual film festival that shares short films about up-and-coming climbers. Several older seasons are available for free on the Red Bull website and offer a peek into the projects of climbers around the world. These include the likes of Honnold and Caldwell’s ascent of the Fitz Roy traverse in Patagonia in 2014 to professional climber Nina Williams’ attempt to climb a 15-meter boulder in the Buttermilks in 2019. If you’re looking for just a taste of what outdoor climbing has to offer, all the seasons of “Reel Rock” provide a short look at harrowing feats by some of the best climbers in the world.
Written by: Sophie Dewees — firstname.lastname@example.org