Free soloing is the act of climbing a wall, alone, without artificial holds, and without safety ropes. For big walls, falling means dying. This documentary is about Alex Honnold's project to free solo El Capitan, the famous gigantic rock formation in California that you might know for being the default background image of MacOS X Yosemite edition. El Capitan is 914 meters in height.
Although I didn't know that it was called free solo, I knew about the practice, and always have found it stupid. From my ignorant perspective, I saw no difference between succeeding a free solo climb and succeeding a safe climb when you just happened to never fall and be saved by the ropes. I guessed that the statistics of success for free solo climbs were about the same than the statistics for safe climbs without any fall. For good climbers, such statistics is generous enough to allow free soloers to achieve a fair amount of climbs in their career, before they fall and die.
This documentary showed me why I was wrong. It does so by exposing the intricate psychology of the climber, Alex Honnold.
1. Free soloing is stupid
For something to be stupid or not it needs to be measured against a goal. Nothing is clever or stupid in a void. Free solo is stupid when your goal is survival. There is no doubt about that. However, Alex Honnold literally says in the documentary (while his horrified girlfriend is listening) that his goal is not to optimize lifespan. For him, free soloing is an achievement of epic proportions. It's what he thrives for. His mother explains that she basically abandoned trying to reason him when she realized free soloing is when he lives the most. Forbidding him free soloing would be like taking back his freedom. What would be the point of survival in those conditions.
The documentary hints at something deeper about Alex's psychology. The climber says that anybody can spend one's life having good times with friends and laughs, but that it doesn't accomplish anything. Free solo does. This is, of course, a pretty hypocritical statement, since such a life is not a given, and to have it, one must first have some degree of prosperity (financially, socially, psychologically, etc). We could say that by saying that, he gives away the fact that he has a privileged life anyway. But that is not the case.
From what the documentary shows, he's a rather melancholic, barely sociable, quirky, person. He lives in his van. When he's filling a psychological evaluation form, he freezes over the question "Are you depressive?". The movie has great compassion for Alex's girlfriend, and shows multiple times that he's not quite fit to be a good boyfriend. Alex admits that having her makes his life better by any measure, which is quite a confession from a dork like him, and makes his lack of devotion towards her irrational.
But when he free solos, everything lightens up. He's having the time of his life. The emotions kicks in. After a successful climb he calls his girlfriend, thank her, cry almost. He becomes human.
2. Statistics of success for free solos must be the same as statistics of rope-backed climbs without any fall
This was very naive of me to think that. Climbers use safe climbs to train themselves until they feel ready for the free solo, so of course free solos have way better statistics than rope-backed climbs. Broadly speaking, when there are ropes the climber is willing to take more risks and be less careful; whereas the climber knows there is no room for error in the free solo climb.
The documentary explains that Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan about 40 times with ropes before doing it in free solo. In the weeks before the climb, we are shown him training on the most difficult passes of the climb, with ropes. It becomes quite technical, and is very interesting because it then creates dramatic tension for the moments when he will reach those specific point when he will climb freely.
TL;DR: You must approach this documentary with compassion and openness if you want to see beyond a crazed weirdo who eats vegan meals before risking his life for nothing. If you roll with it, then you're in for a very interesting exposé on climbing and a thrilling finale.