Yosemite Climbing Movies Reach New Heights

The Dawn Wall and Free Solo leave audiences awestruck and breathless

By Matt Johanson

Alex Honnold, courtesy National Geographic.

A climber risks his dream to help a friend. Another risks his life for hard-to-fathom reasons. Yosemite big wall climbing comes alive on the big screen like never before in two new adrenaline-pumping films. Brilliantly filmed and produced, both stories will leave audiences awestruck and breathless.

The Dawn Wall shares the life of Tommy Caldwell, a rock climbing standout since he won a national competition as a 17-year-old in 1995. Caldwell’s career since then has included multiple first ascents in Yosemite and elsewhere that rank among the hardest in climbing history, earning him countless endorsements and magazine covers.

Caldwell has also overcome mountains of adversity: while he and companions climbed in Kyrgyzstan in 2000, rebels kidnapped them for six days in a grueling ordeal. He severed his left index fingertip with a table saw in a grisly 2001 accident. Then his marriage to his sweetheart and climbing partner Beth Rodden ended painfully in 2010.

Heartbroken, Caldwell threw himself into climbing with even greater fervor, focusing on a nearly-impossible goal: free climbing The Dawn Wall. This 3,000-foot aspect of El Capitan presents such sheer granite that no one had ever attempted to climb it without gear to assist upward progress, or “direct aid” as climbers say. Caldwell and his partner Kevin Jorgeson labored to climb the wall “free,” using ropes and gear only for safety. Together they pioneered 32 pitches (or rope lengths) with difficulty up to 5.14d, a level near the top of the scale. The effort to map the route and learn its preposterously-hard moves took seven years, culminating in 2015.

Caldwell, friendly and humble, has lived a fascinating life that will captivate viewers, but it’s the remarkable climbing scenes that make The Dawn Wall an unforgettable visual spectacle. Camera operators who captured the action sequences (during both days and nights, up and down the vertical mountain and sometimes just inches from the climbers) must have labored nearly as hard as Caldwell and Jorgeson.

Only such a herculean effort allowed filmmakers to capture Caldwell’s tears (shed high on the route and in pitch darkness) when he realized that while he was close to finishing the hardest climb in the world, Jorgenson might never do so. Caldwell’s decision to stop, descend and support his partner jeopardized his long-sought goal but proved his devotion to his friend, adding to the film a heart-warming quality.

Tommy Caldwell, courtesy Sender Films.

That emotion eludes Free Solo, but the film about Alex Honnold making the first ropeless ascent of El Capitan features no lack of heart-pounding action and sometimes heart-breaking interactions between the climber and his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless.

Honnold began long free solos (climbing without a rope) in Yosemite in 2007, making the first ascent of the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome in that style the following year. He repeated the ascent for a camera crew in 2012, when a 60 Minutes interview made him nationally known. Honnold’s daring and the extreme risk of such feats shocked the public and other climbers alike.

Not all of his breakthrough climbs were free solos. In his 2015 book, Honnold downplayed the danger of his ropeless exploits and emphasized his other accomplishments, like completing the Fitz Traverse in Patagonia with Caldwell in 2014.

Then again, he did title the book Alone on the Wall, and moviegoers bought tickets to see a death-defying thriller, which Free Solo delivers.

No other climber has dared attempt El Capitan without a rope. In fact, several other noted free solo climbers eventually fell and died attempting far easier climbs, including John Bachar. Honnold trained for years on the 3,000-foot route called Freerider, 5.13a, in preparation for his 2017 effort.

“I’ve thought about El Cap for years … I’ll never be content unless I at least put in the effort,” Honnold said.

“It’s really hard for me to grasp why he wants this,” said McCandless. “What if something happens?” she asks through tears.

The film’s depiction of the Honnold-McCandless relationship comes as a surprise in an otherwise action-oriented film. Living together in a van, the two show affection for each other, but the issue of Honnold’s ropeless climbing divides them.

“I tell Alex that I love him all the time, and he shows me that he loves me all the time,” McCandless says.

Honnold flatly refuses to compromise his risk-taking to address his girlfriend’s concern. “I in no way feel obligated to maximize lifetime,” he says. “I could walk away, but it’s like, I don’t want to.”

One wonders how long this relationship can survive, but the footage of Honnold’s inevitable El Cap attempt provides even greater suspense. As in The Dawn Wall, the makers of Free Solo spare no effort to capture close-up and unprecedented shots of Honnold climbing ropeless and thousands of feet off the ground. Audience members can expect to experience vertigo and white knuckles in the final sequence.

Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer directed The Dawn Wall, which had a brief theatrical release and becomes available at iTunes on November 20, 2018. Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi directed Free Solo, which plays in theaters.

For those who fantasize about challenging themselves on Yosemite’s granite walls, as well as non-climbers who enjoy vicarious adventure, there have never been films like these before, and they will be hard to top.

 

 

Can’t get enough of reading about Alex Honnold and his daring feats? Check out Chris Van Leuven’s interview with him in our current issue at adventuresportsjournal.com/interview-alex-honnold-star-free-solo.

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