Alone On The Wall
Producer National Geographic International
Reviewed byEd Douglas
DateWednesday, 2 December 2009
The most revealing moment in this outstanding but at times painful-to-watch documentary comes after Alex Honnold has reached the top of Half Dome, having soloed, wearing rock boots and chalk bag and carrying no other gear, the Northwest Face of Half Dome, breakthrough masterpiece of Royal Robbins and friends and free-climbed at 5.12. That's 23 pitches, or 2,000ft of climbing, in just two and a quarter hours with the kind of exposure that makes your palms itch just watching it on television.
A group of tourists surround Honnold and make glib remarks about his sanity, before one of them asks what his parents think about all this. 'Mom was surprisingly psyched about it,' Honnold says, not so much to the complacent crowd around him, but to himself, as though the thought both surprised and pleased him.
That kind of remark is typical of Honnold who comes across on the ground as a geeky but immensely likeable climbing hobo, but on the rock seems to have the mental control of a cyborg. And it's that contrast that makes this film so successful. We're used to seeing people who have too many hormones raging for their own good doing things that seem appropriately insane. They talk about Nietzsche or Zen and behave like pseudo-warriors.
But with Honnold there's a disconnect. He seems normal, even playful, more like the nice kid who helps you with school assignments you don't quite understand, rather than one of the greatest solo climbers of all time who dropped out of education at 19 so he could go climbing.
On Moonlight Buttress, having completed a hard 5.12 sequence hundreds of feet off the ground which had him hanging from the tip of his little finger, he grins goofily at the camera and describes the move as 'neat'. I couldn't comment on that, because I'd clamped my hand over my eyes at this point, no longer able to watch.
What must it have been like to film this? Watching for hours on Half Dome through the lens and wondering if the hold your subject is hanging from is as solid as it looks? John Long, Yosemite veteran and pungent commentator, is on hand to tell you just how damned extraordinary all this is, becuase Honnold makes it look, to a non-climbing audience, so ordinary.
Until, that is, Honnold suffers a brief moment of panic near the top of Half Dome and has to calm himself down before continuing. I was wriggling in my seat by this point, sweating like a guilty man. If that moment of doubt discourages a new generation from thinking such an enterprise is easy, then so much the better.