Location Les Drus, Chamonix, France
Climber Alex Honnold
Photo Jon Griffith
It’s often reported that Alex Honnold, the climber pictured here – free-soloing thousands of feet up Chamonix’s American Direct route – has a very limited amygdala response. In layman’s terms (as evidenced by MRI) his brain doesn’t feel fear like it probably should.
If you’ve seen his Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, about the extraordinary first ascent of El Capitan without ropes, this will come as no surprise. But the more I watched Making The Soloist (the behind-the-scenes view of Jon Griffith’s quest to make a VR film of Alex, that the image shown here is taken from) the more I started to think: maybe he’s not the only one with some grey-matter wiring issues…
Because if soloing these monsters wasn’t difficult enough, just wait until you see the kit required for a virtual reality production. The 3D filming unit is a beast (an eight-camera-in-one football-sized 5.5kg lump), then you’ve got to attach that to a tripod (that juts out from the rock at right angles) to try and stabilise the picture as high alpine winds and multiple rigging ropes swirl around you; and we’ve not even touched upon essentials like composition, locations and just keeping up with Alex who climbs rapidly to most effectively use his strength.
Watching the first of three behind-the-scenes episodes, when Jon is trying out his gear, dangling off yet another ferocious face, struggling to simply attach the bulky camera to his Manfrotto mount with its trio of long legs dangling, you really do worry for him, the kit and, well, anyone standing far, far below. In short, bloody hell it looks complex, frightening and… risky.
Jon laughs heartily when I mention this and ask the obvious. Surely there must have been a point in the project when he wished he could go back in time, and most definitely not come up with the idea?
“Honestly there was no time – God no – I’d be so bored if it was not as difficult,” says the director who also made Everest VR (in 2019), and clearly loves a challenge. “This one was insanely complicated, even thinking about how we’d get the camera in position for Alex was a couple of years in the planning. But take away the VR aspect and normal productions are just so much easier, and for me, well, like I say, maybe even a little boring.”
As to how he and all involved sought to manage the very obvious safety issues (how can you ever make a free solo attempt entirely ‘safe’, even without all the extra aspects needed for a production shooting across Europe and America?) he takes a long pause before answering.
“Let’s just say it can feel very real,” says the filmer. “And it’s not Hollywood, so there are not 30 guys planning and assessing. You just have to rely on your experience and trust people in their roles when doing things like Petit Drus: the 3,733m needle-shaped rock pictured here.
“But the plus is that small teams are quicker. However you work it, more people equals slower, so having just Alex, me, Renan (Ozturk, an award-winning filmmaker and photojournalist, and expedition climber), one other guide/rigger, and one other athlete like Nicolas Hojac, who features heavily, due to Alex’s speciality being rock climbing rather than alpinism, we were able to move more quickly and ultimately get more filming done, which is what you’re there for after all.
As to the emotions this particular shot (captured via drone with Hassleblad L1D-20c camera) evoke, Jon’s honest enough to bat away queries on pride, relief, you name it… “I have nothing for you,” he says. “I’m out. I could not tell you how many days, months, years I’ve spent on the project and while I love it, spend enough time doing anything and is does leave you a little numb.”
A feeling most likely shared by Alex after the gruelling Chamonix mission. “Possibly the most messed up film day I’ve ever done,” says the athlete into camera after not only climbing but also descending American Direct in one fluid, incredible session.
“It’s a massive route, bigger than El Cap that everyone knows Alex for,” says Jon. “Then you’ve got the altitude, the loose rock, the bad weather we had (see the VR film or Renan’s Red Bull behind-the-scenes-episodes for lashings of snow despite it being summer). “Most people take two days to do it,” says Jon, “but Alex is a notch above. To climb it without ropes, then down solo, which is even harder, was very impressive.”
“Magnifique,” says Alex into camera when it’s all done. Hard to disagree.
Making the Soloist is out now. Watch it here on Red Bull.
Alex Honnold: The Soloist VR is available on Meta’s line of Quest VR headsets.