Last night, two of climbing’s biggest stars—co-director Jimmy Chin and free soloist Alex Honnold—took the stage at the 2019 Academy Awards and accepted an Oscar for Best Documentary Film for Free Solo, which tells the story of Honnold’s groundbreaking 2017 rope-less climb of El Capitan via the Freerider route. The moment marked the culmination of what must be the largest and most prestigious bout of publicity for rock climbing in the history of the sport.
It also begs the question: will the fact that the most famous movie ever about rock climbing without a rope or gear lead to more free solo deaths? I don’t think so. Even though there will surely be an influx of more climbers into the sport (as there already has been for the past decade), free soloing is such a niche of a niche—and Honnold’s El Cap solo is so groundbreaking—that this particular strain of climbing will stay a playground of the sport’s elite.
That said, the film will likely change the sport forever. As I stated in this review, the unparalleled success of Free Solo lies in the fact that it is easier for an audience to understand than any other type of rock climbing: you don’t need to comprehend the sport to know that if Honnold were to fall at any point on the route (above 50 or so feet) that he would die. As he steadily crawled upward thousands of feet in the air with no rope to catch his fall during screenings across the country, the air in each one of them crackled with concern.
That makes for extremely compelling viewing. So did the cinéma vérité-style filmmaking that looked at Honnold’s budding relationship with girlfriend Sanni McCandless. And the cooking in the van that was Honnold’s home and the crew’s frayed nerves as the project progressed, which captured audiences’ imaginations to the tune of $19 million at the box office.
This kind of widespread publicity and acclaim is sure to send more people out to try rock climbing for the first time, whether it’s in the gym or outside. Along with the exposure from Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s Dawn Wall ascent and film of the same name, rock climbing has been in a hot spotlight for a few years, and the sport is bound to grow and change from that, which is not to everybody’s liking. More people will probably die of accidents associated with climbing.
This is where I see the true effect of the film. Rock climbing is inherently dangerous in any of its disciplines, especially as you’re learning. As the sport grows—which the movie will help along—there are bound to be more accidents and more deaths.
Some climbers seem to think that this will extend to free soloing and that we’ll see a rash of deaths thanks to Honnold’s most famous exploit, but I strongly disagree. Once you start climbing and realize what it takes to free solo a route, even an easy one–namely years and years of experience, a very particular mindset and a stark acceptance of death as a consequence of failure—the chances of a person taking that path are extremely low. There is a long history of top climbers free soloing, with names like Michael Reardon, John Bachar and Peter Croft standing atop the list. Only the latter survives, a testament to just how dangerous this game is.
The repercussions are just too high for most people to risk—including such climbing stars as Caldwell who has been a roped partner of Honnold’s for many years and adds great perspective on how dangerous the practice is in the film. That’s why free soloing is such a minute fraction of the whole slice of the climbing pie.
While there are surely dedicated climbers out there that are inspired by the feat and will go on to push the limits of the discipline, those folks are probably free-soloists already or are on the path to becoming one. It’s similar to big wave surfing with the release of Riding Giants all those years ago. Did we see more deaths because of that movie? That’s tough to quantify but even the sport’s harshest critics would probably lean towards, “no.”
While the intrusion of Free Solo on Hollywood’s shores is certain to leave a high water mark for climbing and maybe change the sport’s participation numbers forever, the movie winning an Oscar isn’t going to send a crop of new free soloists into the world. Honnold’s pioneering feat stands alone, on its own, as one of the greatest climbing accomplishments of our time.