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A Breakout Year for Climbing

In this Editor's Note from issue 255, currently on newsstands, R&I Editor Francis Sanzaro contemplates "Free Solo," "The Dawn Wall" and climbing's big year.

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This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 255 (January 2019).

Brett Lowell filming for “The Dawn Wall,” in January of 2015. Photo: Corey Rich / Red Bull Content Pool.

Climbing had a big year in 2018. For starters, the dominant headline was the release of two of the best climbing films ever made, fed to the masses only weeks apart.

“Free Solo” and “The Dawn Wall” lived up to the hype, both different in kind, no question, but ultimately stories about core climbers on El Cap sending beautiful lines—Alex Honnold free soloing Freerider; Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson questing up the Dawn Wall. It’s climbing porn redefined—the films are short on well-timed, heroic techno just as the climber latches the crux sloper, and thin on bare asses and dirtbag shenanigans. There is a lot less climbing footage than you’d expect from these top-shelf climbing films, but climbing, we always say, is the full package. These films show us why that’s the case. A historic send is the veritable tip of the iceberg, and these scores, from veteran directors, elegantly serve up the berg. Read John Long’s “Are You Not Entertained?,” page 40, for an acute breakdown and how the genre of the “climbing film” is being redefined.

For this issue, we interviewed Honnold and Jimmy Chin, the latter the co-director of “Free Solo” along with his wife, Chai Vasarhelyi. At one point during my interview I ask Alex what he thinks of the film. His answer reminds me how when I ask my father how he’s doing, he references the weather. Honnold is proud of the film because he’s proud of the solo, as he damn well should be, but what I find amusing in his answer is that we are talking about the film and his dream solo … and he starts talking about how El Cap looks in the film—it does, indeed, look beautiful!—but I’m thinking as he is answering me that he is totally head over heels for this granite lady, swooned, taken. She’s got him. That’s climbing. He feels the pressure, yes, but he’s inspired, and that’s the point.

Alison Osius’s interview with Chin brings out a recurring theme of “Free Solo”—the moral responsibilities of the filmmakers. In fact, it’s the third plot of the film. The main story is Alex vs. El Cap. Second is Alex and Sanni, his girlfriend. Third is Jimmy and crew vs. their conscience. Chin is fully cognizant, if not ultimately undecided in my estimation, about the role of the filmmaker on such an act: “We always wanted to shield him from the pressures of the production.” Opinions vary on this one, but the bar has been set for future films, artistically and morally.


Like Caldwell’s relation to the Dawn Wall and Honnold’s to Freerider, if Freud asked the alpine collective to recline, take a deep breath and start talking, the feverish murmurs and speech fragments about “Latok 1” would lead the Viennese founder of psychoanalysis to only one conclusion—Latok 1 is an obsession.

Why? It’s big, bold and beautiful … and, still, it seems, in need of a “proper” first ascent, despite a Russian team going for broke to within a few hundred meters shy of the summit (after climbing 8,000+ feet of ice and granite), losing a climber on the way down and the sole remaining party, Alexander Gukov, weathering out a storm for six days only to be nearly killed when a helicopter finally swoops him from his icy demise while he is still clipped into his anchor; or, despite a team of three standing on the summit of Latok 1, but spending one-third of the time on the south face. See Michael Wejchert’s “So Close, So Far,” page 26, for a remarkable story on the most famous ridge in the world.

—Francis Sanzaro

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