Alex Honnold's effort to free solo the El Capitan rock face is being lauded by some as
Alex Honnold's effort to free solo the El Capitan rock face is being lauded by some as "the greatest athletic achievement in history".

Stunning new insight into ‘greatest athletic achievement in history’

"IMAGINE an Olympic gold medal-level athletic achievement ... and if you don't get that gold medal, you're going to die."

Many have tried to capture the significance of what American Alex Honnold did when he climbed Yosemite National Park's El Capitan rock face without ropes in 2018.

Friend and fellow climbing legend Tommy Caldwell perhaps articulates it best in Free Solo, a new National Geographic documentary offering a fascinating look at what's become considered one of the greatest sporting feats in human history.

Honnold, now 33, made international headlines last June by becoming the first person ever to free solo climb the iconic 900-metre rock (you might recognise it from the default Mac computer background).

'Free solo' means without ropes, harnesses or any other safety gear. One mistake, mis-step, tiny lapse in concentration, you're dead.

To the climbing uninitiated, it's practically unfathomable but even to experts, borderline crazy - many had "free solo-ed" imposing walls before (especially Honnold himself) but never one of this scale and complexity.

However Honnold pulled off climbing's version of the moon landing and his feat has been labelled everything from an "an utterly elemental human achievement" to "maybe the greatest gathletic achievement ever".

Honnold during the climb (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin).
Honnold during the climb (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin).

If Honnold himself hadn't fully grasped the true scale of the feat, getting to see others to experience it on film is helping him do so

"To look around the crowd and people covering their eyes and holding their partners and things - people are having a pretty serious emotional reaction in the crowd," Honnold said..

"It's kind of an experience."

Free Solo, from filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, presents Honnold's climb in stunning and terrifying detail but also delves deeper, exploring the man himself and the dark side of this death-defying challenge - namely its agonising impact on those around him.

Honnold is no reckless fool who got lucky. A climber for more than two decades, he built up to the El Capitan feat for seven years, meticulously preparing for every step of the route.

Alex Honnold holds all of his climbing gear atop the summit of El Capitan. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)
Alex Honnold holds all of his climbing gear atop the summit of El Capitan. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)

But the inherent element of recklessness in taking on a challenge like this at all gives the film an unrelenting uneasiness and it's emotional core, especially when it comes to Honnold's burgeoning relationship with girlfriend Sanni McCandless.

Quite understandably, she's worried he will die, like many of his free-solo-ing peers already have. It's not easy going for the crew either (during the climb itself one member is unable to watch), clearly conflicted by their role in telling a story that may not have a happy ending.

While Honnold is smart, warm and likeable we also see the singular traits and focus that his sport demands - at one point he tells McCandless he feels no obligation to keep himself safe for her - and a man driven by "achievement" rather than a desire to be "happy and cosy".

Honnold, though, insists he's no madman with a death wish.

He also plays down a perception he's some sort of climbing machine immune to fear or worry.

Much has been made of a neurological study on Honnold's brain in the lead-up to his El Capitan quest. In the test his amygdala, the part of the brain that reacts to fear, was effectively dormant.

"Look, I definitely get scared and fear for my life," Honnold said.

El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

"My takeaway from that test was that basically through practice ... (that part of my brain) just requires more stimulus for activation.

"I mean today in the gym ... I backed off this boulder problem that was only four or five metres high.

"I'm in a gym and it's supposed to be safe but I'm still kind of like, 'whoa, this is scary'. I don't want to fall on my head and there's a real risk of hurting yourself.

"I feel fear and I know that for sure but I think over the years I've desensitised myself to certain to things

"I guess it just takes a little bit more for me to feel afraid."

The closing climbing scenes in Free Solo are both exhilarating and genuinely nerve-wracking to watch. We know, of course, that Honnold makes it but it's near impossible not to feel the anxiety as - already exhausted after hours of climbing - he solves a precarious "boulder problem" with an intricate, do-or-die karate kick manourvre.

Free Solo is challenging viewing for Honnold too in some ways - seeing himself talk so much and his relationship laid bare makes him cringe but reliving those moments on the rock most certainly does not. Naturally, he doesn't quite share our fear or anxiety.

"It just takes me back to what was one of the best days of my life," Honnold said.

The top. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)
The top. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)

"The beauty of it for me is that I really was on autopilot, I really did execute it perfectly and unthinkingly - in the best kind of way where you're not stressed, you don't have any doubt in your performance and you just perform the way you're supposed to.

"I understand it's a bit stressful for audiences but when I watch the whole final climb, it's just glorious.

"It's awesome, it's beautiful, the climbing is great and El Cap looks amazing.

"For me it's everything that I care about. It's why I climb."

Free Solo premieres on National Geographic in March, 2019 - available on Foxtel, Fetch and National Geographic App.