Philosophers disagree about whether death is in some sense good for us. Bernard Williams famously argued that immortality isn’t especially desirable. It wouldn’t be particularly good for me to be able to keep baking bread for a million years, even though it’s one of my favourite things to do now. The desire to bake, like all my current desires, will eventually be exhausted and extinguished. Eventually I’ll be left with the kinds of desires that don’t give me a reason to go on living (the desire to have a glass of water, if thirsty) or with desires so weird and un-me that I couldn’t reasonably want to live long enough to fulfil them. Would I be wanting to spend my time torturing cats if I lived another million years?
Some go further, saying death is downright positive, the prospect of eventual death providing us with a deadline we need to have, to get on with our projects. There are even those who think that imminent death has its value, giving the about-to-be-deceased access to valuable feelings and insights. But that’s about as far as death-affirmation usually goes. Nobody thinks hovering at death’s door is something to be pursued, let alone pursued for itself. Sure, people do choose to do dangerous things, knowing they risk dying, but it isn’t typically the proximity to death that they’re after. They’re after getting to the top of Everest, or fighting for a worthy a cause, or trying to save someone else’s life.
But then there are free-climbers, like Alex Honnold. Free-climbers climb the sheer rock faces of tall mountains without anchors and ropes. They deliberately put themselves in a position such that one tiny mistake could make them fall to their deaths. Honnold is the star of the new documentary Free Solo, which follows his effort to free-climb El Capitan, the massive granite rock formation in Yosemite National Park. The movie-makers — Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, himself a climber — focus on both the “how?” and on the “why?” And flirting with death does seem like a part of Honnold’s motivation. He seems to value experiencing his consummate skill on “Cap” as making the difference between living and dying. In fact, dozens of his climbing friends have already lost their lives.
Could it just be an autonomous, self-sufficient ascent that Honnold is after? In fact, that’s not really what free soloing is. He’s not like a spider who could climb up the sheer rock face independently the very first time. He’s capable of self-sufficiency only after he’s been massively assisted by both gear and other people. The film shows him practicing the route with anchors and ropes and many climbing friends. Nor does it seem as if the self-sufficiency of the final ascent is exactly what he’s after — it really is a matter of his wanting to feel as if tiny differences in performance make the difference between life and death.
Then again, the experience of having death-defying skills is not all that Honnold is after. It doesn’t seem as if he would want to free-climb the Empire State Building or traverse a tightrope between skyscrapers. It doesn’t seem like he’s going to turn into a race-car driver as his second act. These other modes of skilful death defiance don’t have the element of natural grandeur and beauty — captured so stunningly in the movie. Nor can I imagine Honnold becoming a mercenary soldier, though at his most reflective, he likes to call himself a “warrior”. He also doesn’t (apparently) want to experience his skilfulness as making a life and death difference to someone else — as a surgeon might.
Honnold seems to see himself as pathologically focused on performance and cut off from feeling as a result of his family background, but to find fault with himself is not to cease to be himself. Performance is everything, even if he seems to worry that it shouldn’t be. An ebullient girlfriend enters his life at the beginning of the movie and comes to be central to the drama because she warms him up, making him more capable of feeling. Is that why Honnold suffers two falls and abandons his first attempt to solo-climb the mountain? Will he be able to combine a happy home life with risking it all on the rock? We don’t know the answer until the movie is over.
The directors are honest about their own potential role in causing Honnold to fall to his death. Being filmed could make him take more risks than he should. So they’re immensely relieved that he does call off the climb the first time he attempts it. That seems to show that he answers to himself alone. Nevertheless, they decide to back off, keeping the film crew that surrounds Honnold on the rock further away from the climber. They also decide to leave one of the most arduous parts of the climb unfilmed, so Honnold can fall off the rock in privacy — if he was going to fall.
Watching the final climb is excruciating, even for the movie viewer who strongly suspects the movie wouldn’t be in theatres if Honnold were no longer with us. It was much more painful for the camera crew. One cinematographer is repeatedly shown with his camera running but his back to the mountain. Honnold is both a spectacular climber and almost unwatchable.