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'Free Solo' Film Brings Climber Alex Honnold to Hollywood

2019-2-19

Alex Honnold lives life dangerously.

Honnold, who is 33, is one of the best-known “free solo” rock climbers in the world. That means he climbs huge rock faces hundreds of meters up -- alone and without any safety equipment.

Now, one of his riskiest climbs -- the 900-meter-high El Capitan rock formation in Yosemite National Park -- is taking him to the Academy Awards. A film about the 2017 climb has been nominated for a best documentary Oscar.

It is called “Free Solo.” It looks at Honnold’s experience of preparing for and ascending El Capitan, one of the most famous climbing places in the United States. Many climbers make it their goal to ascend the huge wall. But most of them use the usual rock climbing equipment that helps keeps them from falling to the ground.

The extreme danger of Honnold’s climb and the ever-present possibility of death causes great fear for those around Honnold in the film. Even an extremely small misstep of his foot or misplacement of a finger could have sent Honnold falling to his death.

Honnold himself finds it all liberating. He said free solo climbing lets him lose “that sense of self, just being fully present in what I’m actually doing, just doing the moves,” Honnold told the Reuters news agency.

At the center of the documentary is the problem that filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi struggled with during production: whether recording Honnold’s climb would make it more risky for him or lead him to take chances he would not normally take.

FILE - Alex Honnold, from left, and Sanni McCandless, subjects of the documentary film
FILE - Alex Honnold, from left, and Sanni McCandless, subjects of the documentary film "Free Solo," pose with co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin at the InterContinental Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto.

“We trusted him. We also trusted our own judgment,” Vasarhelyi said. “But we had to address the ethical question. And that’s why we include the filmmaking, so that audiences can understand what we were struggling with.”

The filmmakers put cameras at the most difficult points of the climb so they would not affect Honnold’s attention. And they had special long-distance cameras on the ground.

But camera operators still had to film much of Honnold's climb while connected to the side of the rock face with ropes.

Vasarhelyi said the comment she hears most is how inspiring the film is.

“We’ve been just humbled by this outpouring from audiences saying that Alex’s courage gives them courage and that they’re inspired to pursue their dreams,” she said.

The Oscars will be presented on February 24 at a ceremony in Los Angeles, California.

I’m Ashley Thompson.

The Reuters news agency reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

ascend - v. to go up : to rise or move toward the sky

actually - adv. used to refer to what is true or real

humbled - adj. given or said in a way that shows you do not think you are better than other people

courage - n. the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous

pursue - v. to try to get or do (something) over a period of time

address - v. direct (spoken or written words) to someone

ethical - adj. involving questions of right and wrong behavior : relating to ethics

inspiring - adj. causing people to want to do or create something or to lead better lives

audiences - n. the people who gather together to listen to something (such as a concert)