We find ourselves here at the 3,000-foot El Capitan Mountain in Yosemite National Park to watch a National Geographic documentary about rock climbing. Not the kind of 12-foot-high rock assemblage you find in some gyms, but a really, really big rock.

This is El Capitan, a quiet behemoth that serves as an aphrodisiac for those who would conquer her.

For the next almost two hours, we follow young Alex Honnold, who will soon attempt to scale El Capitan without rope or any other equipment.

Honnold is a famous young climber and poster boy for those addicted to defying death in high places.

Many documentaries about such men are offered each season, and I go to great lengths to avoid all of them. Instead of satisfying some dark desire to be the “first” to do something, I prefer to honor, for example, America’s First Responders — men and women who risk their lives to save others.

Having said that, “Free Solo” has done well in the box office: It has a 98 rating with Rotten Tomatoes and mountain climbing groups have been flooding the theaters where it plays.


I guess I should be happy to see some youngsters who pursue their dreams, however fevered, even nightmares like climbing El Capitan without a rope.

Honnold is honored here along with his colleagues, the National Geographic film crew, director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and the renowned camera man for such events, Jimmy Chin, who put this scary thing together.

The film is split among long scenes of watching Honnold spend endless days practicing the climb, and listening to dozens of fireside chat scenes with the boys exchanging shop talk.

You’ll notice that there aren’t any women in this group, just alpha males chatting and eating their meals out of frying pans. Where are their women? I suspect they’re far too busy rescuing their country.

There is one woman, a fresh breath of high altitude air, lovely young Sanni McCandless, who met Honnold at a book signing and attached herself to the role of suffering maiden, biting her nails at base camp.

There are some cute scenes away from the heights where Sanni seduces an impatient Honnold into house hunting and furniture shopping for fridges and chairs, assuming of course, that he survives. No talk of that here.


A contemporary note: It’s funny to hear this mountain climbing boy and his maiden engage in cute conversations full of dozens of “like,” “awesome,” and “totally,” as though they’re only hours away from the locker bay in high school.

The most touching scene is of Sanni sitting alone in the cab of a trailer, weeping with the falling rain.

I will say the film, at least the parts I opened my eyes for (and I’m not kidding; I’m terrified of heights) were gorgeously filmed. There are splendid woods, great waterfalls and shots of curious deers who seem to be grateful that this bunch doesn’t seem to be here to kill Bambi’s mother.

The last 20 minutes (it seemed like three hours) are spent watching the crew chew their fingernails and watching Honnold scale the formidable rock. This brought to mind the opening of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

“Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai ‘Nag Ngai,’ the House of God. Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcass of a leopard.”

No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude. Perhaps Alex Honnold can tell us.

J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and film actor.

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