Free Solo: Ambition and conflicts of interest

Published 2019-08-01.

Free Solo is a 2018 National Geographic documentary by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at Alex Honnold’s attempt at climbing El Capitan without a rope. The movie is full of interesting insights and observations about excellence, performance, honesty and the tension between masculine and feminine ambitions.

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t already watched the movie, I highly recommend you do before reading more or even watching the trailer. (If you’re in Norway, you can watch it for free at the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s website until December 14, 2019.) If you’re not yet convinced, let’s see if the trailer moves your needle:

A very basic transcript is available from Springfield! Springfield! If you find a better one, please let me know. (Timestamps and person names would make it easier to navigate.)

The movie is far less about the specifics of climbing than more general themes like love, excellence and fear. To me, the most interesting theme was the tension between the desires of Honnold and those of his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless:

[She] sees things in a different way. For Sanni, the point of life is, like, happiness—to be with people that make you feel fulfilled and to have a good time. For me, it’s all about performance. The thing is, anybody can be happy and cozy. Nothing good happens in the world by being happy and cozy. You know, like, nobody achieves anything great because they’re happy and cozy.


You never wanna feel like you’re getting in the way of someone’s goal. And it’s really hard for me to grasp why he wants this. But it’s his dream and he obviously still really wants it.


It’s about being a warrior. It doesn’t matter about the cause necessarily. This is your path and you will pursue it with excellence. You face your fear because your goal demands it. That is the warrior spirit. I think that the free soloing mentality is pretty close to warrior culture, where you give something 100 percent focus because your life depends on it.

McCandless is attracted to Honnold in part because of how unique he is:

I just thought he was really cute, but also brutally honest. But I’m really drawn to that. A weird dude, and I find it interesting.

But she’s not entirely happy with all that that entails:

I wanna, like, I wanna have this more, like, holistic approach that you have where you’re, like, “Well, we’re all gonna die, like, might as well do what we wanna do while we’re here and it’s okay when people die,” but I feel like I want you to meet me halfway and when you solo to take me into the equation… Would putting me into the equation actually ever change anything? Would you actually make decisions differently?


If I had some kind of obligation to maximize my lifespan, then, like, yeah, obviously I’d have to give up soloing…


Was me asking you, do you see that as an obligation now?


No, no. Oh, no, but I appreciate your concerns and I, you know, I respect that, but, but I, in no way, feel obligated, no.


To maximize lifetime?


No, no, I don’t know. Um, but I mean, like, you saying, “Be safer,” I’m kinda like well, I mean, I can’t. You know, I’m already doing my best. So I could just, like, not do certain things, but then you have a, like, weird simmering resentment because it’s things that you love most in life have now been squashed. You know what I mean?

One of his friends said:

I’m very happy for Alex and Sanni that it works so well. And I’m, I think I’m just impressed by their relationship, but to free solo at that level, you really have to have the mental armor. Having that romantic relationship around is detrimental to that armor. You have to focus and inherently a close romantic relationship removes that armor. You kinda can’t have both at the same time.

The reference to warrior culture and the problem of combining risk-taking and family reminded me of a story Jocko Willink told Tim Ferriss:

Now, as far as division of time and having a family, I can tell you I was very lopsided and unbalanced in that situation. The SEAL teams to me was everything, and nothing else mattered. Well, I shouldn’t say it didn’t matter, but it was definitely on a much lower priority.

I remember, actually, my wife sent me an email when I was on deployment. She’s very independent, doing her thing and she sends me an email that says something along the lines of, “hey, send us a picture of where you sleep.” Fair enough; show the kids where I sleep at night. And so I went up to my room. We had some old Saddam palace that we had taken over, not really a palace; a Saddam house that we had taken over and that’s where we lived, and I had one of the rooms in this building. So, I went up and I took some digital pictures of my bed. I looked at them and I said, “Wait a second.” I went into a folder that I had, and I pulled it out and I took out pictures of my wife and kids and I hung them up on the wall. And I took pictures and I sent those home, and I took the pictures back down. Because I didn’t want to be thinking about my wife and kids when I had men’s lives at stake.

That’s how I compartmentalized and did what I had to do, which was be dedicated to my guys, to the mission, and to the country. At that point in time, it had to take priority over everything. It took priority over everything. My guys, they had families they had to go home to. I can’t be thinking about this other stuff.

Loyalty is clearly a scarce resource—we can’t be completely loyal to multiple entities at the same time. Some things have to give. For all the people like Honnold and Willink, there are most likely many more who give in to their partner’s will. That’s probably one reason why, throughout history, some jobs have been incompatible with having a family. (See, for example, clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church.)