TORONTO — The important thing to rock climber Alex Honnold is that the movie screen be big. IMAX, whatever. But big.
It's shortly before the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of "Free Solo," the documentary that chronicles Honnold's legendary, ropeless ascent up Yosemite's El Capitan, a 3,000-foot wall of sheer granite and possibly the world's most fabled rock face. Honnold has just come from free soloing — climbing without safety gear — a 69-story luxury apartment building in Jersey City, New Jersey.
From a hotel window he scans the Toronto skyline but doesn't see anything much appealing. "It has to be inspiring aesthetically," he says.
Honnold, 33, is widely acknowledged as the greatest free-solo climber in the world. And in a sport that demands absolute perfection from its strivers —death is the only alternative — Honnold's feat on El Cap is his masterpiece. An almost unfathomable climbing achievement, the four-hour climb is still spoken of in hushed reverence. The New York Times called it "one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind, ever."
But whether scaling El Cap was Honnold's greatest challenge, though, is an open question. Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's "Free Solo," in theaters Friday, not only chronicles Honnold's famed ascent, and the months of preparation and anguish leading up to it, but also an arguably steeper challenge for the 33-year-old Honnold: moving out of his van and maintaining a long-term relationship.
"Anybody, if you took two years of their life, you would see some growth, hopefully," Honnold says. "But it's easy to see growth when you're starting at zero."
After settling whether "Free Solo" would screen on IMAX (it wouldn't), Honnold was joined by Sanni McCandless, his girlfriend of several years. Just as Chin and Vasarhelyi, the filmmaking couple of the celebrated "Meru," were beginning their film three years ago, McCandless slipped Honnold her number at a book signing. The exceptionally dedicated but goofy and boyish Honnold (in the film, he sums up the fearsome specter of El Cap with the phase "I mean, dude") is at first almost comically inept at making room for someone else in his life.
"When we started he was online dating, or on-phone dating, on his book tour. And then he met her. We were not expecting that," says Vasarhelyi.
The two make an appealing and revealing match. McCandless, articulate and assertive, pushes back against the less mature, bluntly honest Honnold, long a bachelor adventurer. Vasarhelyi shakes her head. "It's painful at times," she says, smiling. "Extremely painful."
Case in point: When Honnold, shortly after meeting Sanni, is shown saying that she will come and go like previous girlfriends. Later, they buy a place in Las Vegas and are seen refrigerator shopping.
"How do you feel about that line, Sanni?" Honnold asks.
"How do YOU feel about that line?" she retorts.
"That's just one of many lines in the film I'm slightly horrified to hear back," says Honnold. "That's kind of the nature of two years of filming. They just have so much material of me saying terrible things."
What makes "Free Solo" so fascinating is how these developments influence Honnold just as he preparing to take his biggest risk as a climber. Just the slightest distractions can be potentially lethal for a free soloist, making both the onset of love and the presence of film cameras unpredictable factors in a zero-sum game.
"Soloing always come from some kind of particular mental space. And it has taken some effort to cultivate the right space for a relationship, the right space to still climb at a high level and just try to balance it," says Honnold.
The high stakes also transferred to the film crew. Chin, himself an expert climber, estimates that he and the team of veteran climbers spent more than 30 days rigging and shooting on El Cap. The danger is very real. Many renowned solo climbers have died; just in June, two experienced climbers, Jason Wells and Tim Klein, fell to their death while "simul-climbing" El Cap with ropes.
"You're a pro, but when you have that much exposure and you're moving that much equipment and you're filming on top of it and thinking about your friend, it's a tremendous amount of physical and mental exertion," says Chin. "The crew was tortured by the idea that maybe you'll be filming your friend's death."
Vasarhelyi says the tension was highest when Honnold made his first, aborted soloing attempt of El Cap despite a recent injury. She felt he wasn't prepared.
"But I don't think our role as filmmakers was to tell him not do it," she says. "And that's weird, right? Especially when there's a life on the line."
McCandless has also had to come to terms with Honnold's obsessive pursuits.
"I don't think I ever wished that he wouldn't do it. I wanted him to not want it, but I never wanted him to not to do it," she says. "Knowing that he does want it, you realize he's going to be so bummed if he never brings it to fruition."
"Free Solo" in some ways demystifies soloing which, to some can sound like lunacy. Honnold's preparation is extreme. He doesn't go until he's thoroughly mapped out every foot hold of a climb. Also worth noting: a brain scan revealed that Honnold barely registers fear.
"It's a crazy-seeming thing. I get that," he says. "I just think: Why does anybody seek out anything challenging? Humans do so many interesting and difficult things."
Honnold calls his El Cap solo the best climbing experience of his life. "Glorious," he says. For all their months of anxiety, witnessing the climb left the filmmakers mesmerized.
"I remember standing in the meadow being totally terrified, trying to get myself under control," says Vasarhelyi. "Then there was a certain moment where I was like: This is absolutely beautiful. It's exquisite."