There’s an old adage in mountaineering that you’re most in danger when you start to feel safe. I have heard stories of mountaineers, extremely accomplished and in their physical peak, who have died falling on relatively easy routes. A good friend of mine “dressed” himself in something comfortably in his grade early in his climbing career. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me bluntly, “I didn’t follow the course.
This story weighed heavily on me when I watched The Soloist VR, a two-part series following the ups and downs of Alex Honnold, who made history in May 2017 with his solo ascent of El Capitan. What makes Alex Honnold interesting is the same quality that keeps him alive: he has a deep, deep respect for the road. For each course. He’s not a Point Break-style adrenaline junkie rushing to his doom, nor does he seem very interested in fame. Honnold made a pact with the natural world. In exchange for humility and preparation, the mountains give him a sense of pure, free experience that most people could only experience in a video game.
The Soloist VR is not a game but an immersive movie, essentially a mini-documentary brought to you by the good folks at Meta and personally brought to you by my buddy who agreed to lend me his quest for an afternoon. Like my first time in a VR headset, it was extremely strange, but I adapted pretty quickly. They basically captured the experience of perching on a steep ledge while a man five feet away from you does the craziest thing you’ve ever seen in your entire life.
In terms of immersion, it almost seems weirder to be inside Honnold’s house, where the film teleports you past blistering cold open on the cliff. You hover silently over his kitchen counter like a ghost (or maybe a tall, clumsy climber), watching him prepare breakfast with his pregnant wife. They do this weird comedy that people do on reality TV, discussing the things they’ve been asked to discuss and trying hard not to look at the camera (you). Honnold is terribly bad at it. Later, a high-spirited reporter shows up to conduct a fake interview that acts as a framing device for the next two scenes, and her trained kindness looks fake next to Honnold’s bland responses. In his defense, everyone looks pretty fake next to Alex Honnold. He’s the real living son of a bitch.
From the living room, we travel through a few months of Honnold’s outdoor life, sport climbing in Yosemite and mountain biking through Nervada, before he flies off to Europe to do some routes. with the legendary mountaineer Nicolas Hojac. The highlight of Part 1 is Honnold de Muro Giallo’s free solo, a monstrous 320-metre, 11-pitch sports course in the Dolomites that local guides describe as a “severe test of endurance”.
Even with 360 degree views of some of the most beautiful mountains in the world, it’s hard to take your eyes off Honnold. He’s a good climber. His movements are precise and thoughtful, fascinatingly efficient and almost totally relaxed. Each of Honnold’s climbs is the product of a thousand good decisions, and perhaps the best thing about The Soloist is how it lets you see those choices as they happen. During his rope test on the Muro Giallo, he expresses some concern about the brittle rock. Later during the solo, we see him pressing down from a sloping ledge. He runs a hand over protruding portions of rock, the kind of holds a climber like me would cling to for life, but he obviously thinks they’re too fragile to take any chances. Instead, he brings both hands to the ledge and straightens his arms, pushing until the next safer break. It’s a small but revealing 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 plans to free solo a small mountain called Dru. If you’ve never heard of Dru, google it. Feast your eyes on this thing. Now imagine what it’s like to stand just below the North Face in shorts and rubber shoes. This rise, and the construction that preceded it, is where VR cinema comes into its own. The camera hops with Honnold and Hojac as they head up the valley, and with each hop that monstrous cliff gets a little bigger, until you crane your neck to your face, looking back and forth between the road and the climber, thought, Really Alex? REALLY??
From there, we are treated to more technical excellence, beautiful horizons and the magic of virtual reality, complicated this time by the bad weather that is looming. Honnold must eventually bail out before the final leg of his ascent. Crouched on a rocky ledge, with a pearly mist closing in from all directions, he sighs into his walkie-talkie that the conditions just aren’t good enough for the summit. Anticlimatic? It depends. If you’re lucky enough to have access to this film, I suggest you approach it more as a slice-of-life drama than an action epic. Instead of a historic ascent, Part 2 ends with the two men ascending a relatively obscure ridge near Mont Blanc. Hojac at least manages to shine a little, moving through the snow like a little Swiss steam train as Honnold follows the uncertainty behind him. But while the feat might not be impressive, the views certainly are, and it’s nice to see these two guys sharing a lanky hug at the top, and to hear Honnold thank his partner for all the help. and advice.
If you have the slightest bit of vertigo, you should probably avoid The Soloist VR like the plague. But again – listen, I’m not a psychologist, so take everything I say here with a grain of salt – maybe this movie is for you. To watch Alex Honnold solo for free is to watch someone gently slay a monster that has haunted most people since childhood. Even after years of climbing, I still don’t like heights, and there’s nothing I hate more in the world than falling. But I think this movie made me a little braver. Maybe it will help you too.