Adventurers like Alex Honnold of the Oscar-winning film, Free Solo, push the edge of human accomplishment. Merely by existing, they heighten the flavor of the experience of life until the vaguely metallic taste of fear rises in all our throats. Collectively, we may sense that such incredible feats are possible, but it’s the efforts of documentarians that brings it into focus.
Such is the case with the film, Free Solo, and efforts like it that came before. Some adventurers, like Alastair Borthwick, created their own accounts of the struggle between man, the elements, and existence itself. Others, like Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi in free solo, follow colleagues and friends while they attempt death-defying feats.
To fully appreciate free solo, we must first examine the history of adventure culture.
Who is Alastair Borthwick?
“But to my mind [climbing] finds its chief justification as an antidote for modern city life, where we live on wheels and use our bodies merely as receptacles for our brains. (On the crag) one cannot sweat and worry simultaneously. The mountain resolves itself into a series of simple problems unconfused by other issues. Abstractions are foreign to it; its problems are solid rock, to be wrestled with physically; and in the sheer exuberance of thinking through his fingers and toes as his primeval fathers did before him the climbers’ worries vanish, sweated from his system, leaving his brain free to appreciate beauty, which is never petty and never troubled anyone who understood it.” – Alastair Borthwick
Alastair Borthwick was a writer, adventurer and media broadcaster who was instrumental in making the pursuit of enjoying the outdoors accessible for Scottish citizens of modest means. He is considered one of the most important figures in the outdoor adventure movement because he was one of the first to make a career of documenting his experiences.
Alastair Borthwick was born in Rutherglen, Lanarkshire, and raised in Troon, Ayrshire. Borthwick moved to Glasgow as a young boy and dropped out of school at 16 to begin his writing career.
Initially, Borthwick took a job as a copytaker on the Evening Times. He eventually worked his way up to the Glasgow Weekly Herald. The Herald was still a very small publication, a fact that allowed Borthwick to carry a heavy workload even at his young age.
Alastair Borthwick was editing the females’, children’s, and film pages, letters to the editor, and answering and sometimes writing reader questions while still a teenager. After landing a few front-page lead stories, he was hooked on writing. Little did he know this job would lead him to his true niche as an outdoor adventure writer.
Through the paper’s open-air page and contact with adventurous Glasgow locals, Borthwick was introduced to hiking and rock climbing. Although outdoor sport was previously a past time reserved for the wealthy, these new friends showed Borthwick that adventuring was a fit activity for anyone. He began writing about the topic in the 1930s, eventually publishing a book.
Always A Little Further is considered an iconic work that details not only outdoor adventure culture of the time but also the transition between such sport being for the rich to becoming a national activity. Famed poet, T.S. Eliot, helped Borthwick compile a series of his articles into a full-length book in 1939. It was a fun filled account of the camaraderie between Scottish friends who loved to hike and climb their way to better physical and mental health.
Using vivid imagery, Alastair Borthwick wove tales of adventures that climbed mountains, descended into beautiful Scottish valleys, and into the lovely countryside. His decision to focus on everyday people and situations made his scenarios appealing to people from all walks of life.
“At five o’clock we left the road and started up the left bank of the burn which drains the Arrochar face of the Cobbler. The afternoon was excessively hot, and the weight we were carrying was ludicrous. We had yet to learn that heavy pots and pans, thick ground sheets, raincoats, and much tinned food are luxuries to be avoided upon a mountain, just as we had yet to learn that there was an excellent path on the far side of the burn. On our bank, bracken grew with the abandon popularly associated with machetes and tropical jungles, and in some places was taller than we were ourselves. Forcing a passage through it while carrying a heavy rucksack up a steep slope was trying. Also, there were flies. The first thousand feet was a purgatory of heavy breathing, sweat, and the forlorn beauty of bracken fronds against the sky; but higher up the bracken thinned. We cast ourselves down on a bank of heather and bog myrtle, propped our shoulders against a rock, and looked down on Loch Long, where cars crawled along the road and a steamer unloaded another ice cream-less multitude. The sun was still very hot, and the air reeked with the tang of bog myrtle against a background of other mingled and satisfactory smells. Sounds were faint and Arrochar distant. Everything was remote, peaceful, and unreal.” – Alastair Borthwick
His advice was for all to go explore the wonder of the natural world around them.
He told his tales with humor and passion. They were exciting and all who read them hungered for some of the therapy he described as the antidote to the stresses of city life.
Alastair Borthwick’s Notable Feats
Borthwick eventually joined the service in World War II and had an illustrious if brief career with some notable feats. Adventure and pushing himself to the point of excellence was simply a part of his lexicon. It was not without a mental toll, however.
As an infantry soldier in the 51st Highland Division’s 5th Seaforth Highlanders, he attained Captain rank acting as a battalion intelligence officer. By all accounts Borthwick was an excellent, loyal soldier who followed orders while always staying aware of the commitment to his fellow soldiers.
Borthwick and his battalion pushed the German Army out of northern Africa and fought through Italy. At the battle of El Alamein, they traveled more than 3,000 miles across North Africa to Europe, engaging the enemy several times along the way.
The battalion snuck behind enemy lines in Holland in the middle of the night, successfully creeping through 600 enemy soldiers. Even though the mission was successful, he recounted how lonely the experience was when he reflected back upon it after the fact.
Borthwick’s sense of adventure was measured against a deep connection to his fellow man.
Alex Honnold’s Journey to the Top of Yosemite Climbing
Unlike Borthwick, Honnold, the subject of the Free Solo film, is not exactly a people person. He is something of an extroverted introvert, interacting on a surface level with some ease but having trouble delving into true emotional connections.
In this way, climbing was an escape for him. It is him against the timeless outcropping of pure stone, a chance to bring his mind into pure focus. In the film, he recounts his first few free solos as a way to climb while traveling without having to make new friends at the campsites.
However, his approach does share similarities with Borthwick, albeit from different perspectives. While Borthwick was inherently social, he saw outdoor adventure as a release from mundane, everyday stress. Honnold, in turn, speaks frequently to groups of rapt audiences about mindfulness and how to train one’s brain to set fear aside and complete the impossible.
He completed a number of free solo climbs, each more outrageous than the next, before tackling El Capitan in the film.
In the mind of the climbing world, Honnold emerged from the go fully formed. In 2006 nobody had heard of him. In 2007 he free soloed Yosemite’s Astroman and the Rostrum in a day, matching Peter Croft’s legendary 1987 feat, and suddenly Honnold was pretty well-known. A year later, he free soloed the 1,200-foot, 5.12d finger crack that splits Zion’s Moonlight Buttress. The ascent was reported on April 1. For days, people thought the news was a joke. Five months afterward, Honnold took the unprecedented step of free soloing the 2,000-foot, glacially bulldozed Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome. Croft called this climb the most impressive ropeless ascent ever done. – Alpinist
El Capitan was Honnold’s Windmill
After Half Dome, Honnold immediately had thoughts of the largest rock face available for climbing in the park: El Capitan. It’s the stuff of epic lore in the climbing community. Climbers consider it challenging even with ropes and often try to break each other’s records for speed up the face.
No climber believed free soloing the beast of a wall was possible. Even Honnold was skeptical about making his dream a reality.
Every year he would ask himself, is this the year I take El Capitan? Every year, the answer was no. Standing at the foot of the wall, it seemed too frightening, too insurmountable.
Eventually, however, he decided to train for the feat. Still not sure he would go through with the climb, he began a two year long preparation that honed his mind and body for the task.
Jimmy Chin’s Dilemma
Director, Jimmy Chin, has done a lot of press for the film, detailing his concerns about the project from the start. He initially wanted to film a character study and profile on Alex, and they began fleshing out the idea together.
His co-director and wife met with Honnold to get a feel for the subject, returning to tell Chin that Alex wanted to free solo El Capitan and wouldn’t that be a great subject for their film? Chin was terrified and deeply troubled about the ethical implications of filming something that sounded like a death wish.
Would their presence throw Honnold off his game? What if Alex felt pressured to climb and took risks? Would they end up filming their friend plummeting to his death?
After endless discussion with Honnold and several of Chin’s mentors, they decided they trusted him enough to be honest and true about his headspace and needs. They devised a plan to shoot what they needed while being as unobtrusive as possible.
Like Borthwick, Chin has spent his life documenting outdoor adventures, shooting for North Face and National Geographic. He has worked with Alex Honnold many times and has a true appreciation of Honnold’s contribution to the sport. He also understands what makes him tick.
There was simply no one better to shoot this feat. After hiring the best climbers in the world who also knew how to shoot, the team was assembled. Because of the tight knit nature of climbing culture, the team was full of many of Honnold’s friends.
Understanding Climbing Culture
According to lore, Yosemite climbing culture traces back to the era of the Beats but adventuring certainly existed long before then. Ever since the advent of news, people thirsted for tales of the cutting edge of human endurance. It’s easy to assume that free soloists are jacked up adrenaline junkies but that’s not the real story. In an interview with London Real, director Jimmy Chin explained that climbers themselves are surprisingly laid back.
They aren’t for boasting and true climbers face the odds for the passion. They see insurmountable rock faces as a goal worthy of working towards. Although in many ways, this group of climbers is miles away from Borthwick’s Scottish heritage, they share an enduring sense of mindfulness and find a strange relaxation in pushing themselves.
The culture runs deep in these circles, with colleagues and friends often breaking each other’s records one day and climbing together another. When Chin first heard about Honnold’s free solo on another Yosemite rock wall, Half Dome, he called around to see who could vouch for this kid he’d never heard of.
Soon, the two became friends and Honnold one of Chin’s recurring subjects.
Are they impossible thrill seekers? Do they climb to escape inner demons? According to Chin, the precise focus and presence required to free solo is its own draw. Nothing brings the moment into focus as sharply as the looming potential of death.
Perhaps that’s another reason regular people living seemingly mundane lives flock to consume media about adventurers. We feel the pull of that focus and the realization that our daily stresses are truly no big deal.
Free Solo is the Latest Example of the Entertaining Lure of the Impossible
If you feel some level of self doubt or concern over the broader human condition, by the end of Free Solo, you’ll believe you can do anything. Rather than impart a feeling of failure to all of us mere mortals, the film instead inspires.
Watching Honnold scale the 3,000 foot wall of El Capitan makes us feel like anything is possible. With sweaty palms we suspend our disbelief, knowing that he makes it, but cringing at every stretch and minute toehold.
As much as this is a film about human endurance, it’s also about potential and transcendence. This convergence between physical activity, nature, and the human mind is something Borthwick also understood. There is just something that happens to people who push themselves to their limit against the backdrop of the natural world.
It makes magic.
Why Man Pushes Himself to the Brink
There are many reasons people like Alastair Borthwick and Alex Honnold push themselves to seemingly impossible success and why people everywhere want to watch.
First, is the lure of something different. Free soloing a rock face or hiking in the Scottish countryside is far removed from most of our lives in a cubicle. It is an escape and even if we can’t take it, we derive some pleasure from watching people take it for us.
There is also the matter of the path less taken. It is inspiring to see someone like Honnold, who essentially dropped out of school and lives primarily in his van, carve out of a life full of what he loves. He has little time for convention and doesn’t do what he is supposed to do. That speaks to any of us who ever felt a bit of resentment at the mundane path our own lives have taken.
Borthwick himself left school to pursue the life he desired.
As E. E. Cummings wrote, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” We all see and admire that courage in adventurers like Honnold and Borthwick.
The very physical feat itself also appears to defy the laws of the universe, and that feels mystical. It’s very appealing. This is the same reason people flock to spiritual teachers or take vision quests. We long to experience life in a different way, outside the boundaries of our accepted reality. When Honnold, as a small red dot, ascends the sheer gray monster of El Capitan, we believe we can fly.
Applying These Principles to Regular Life
Few of us are likely to start training for free solo, but we can all take some of what we learn from Alex Honnold and Alastair Borthwick and apply it to our own lives.
Your mind is capable of much more than you think. How can you stretch it? Can you train it to accomplish a task beyond your wildest dreams?
Is your fear holding you back from your next great adventure? This applies to business and life choices. Do you have the courage to take a step into the unknown? If we use Honnold as a benchmark, we believe we can train our minds to accept and even put aside our fear in pursuit of our goals.
Moving more makes a healthy mind and body. While many of us rush to the gym for spin class, perhaps we should consider a hike or time in nature. This fusion of activity and the natural world appears to have surprising results.
Living life unapologetically and without fear is a dream and something worth striving for. In this way, adventurers like Borthwick, Honnold and even Chin show us the way through entertaining content that expands our small worlds.