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Earlier this week I went to see Free Solo, which documents Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan, with our son Michael. After being on the edge of our seats for most of the movie, we came away with sweaty hands and agreeing that this was one of the better films we had seen in a while. Free Solo won the the Oscar for best documentary, but it actually has a great narrative arc. If you can still catch the movie on a big screen, I highly recommend it.
If you don’t know anything about climbing, free soloing is climbing without ropes and above a minimal height a fall means certain death. El Capitan is 3,000 feet of wall. Free soloing it is essentially unimaginable. People have been critical of the movie and of Alex Honnold, saying that taking this much risk is unjustified, a form of entitlement, selfish and more. At times Honnold does seem preternaturally calm, maybe even disaffected. And there were moments of laughter in the theater when Sanni McCandless, Honnold’s girlfriend, is somewhat ruthlessly rebuffed in her question about maybe just not attempting El Capitan.
I see the movie though as a monument to what humans can accomplish, especially when they dedicate many years of their lives to a pursuit even in the face of great risk. There are mathematicians, for example, who work for years on proofs. The risk here isn’t instant bodily harm (even death) but mental state and reputation. What if you come up empty after years of work? The safe route would be to work on an easier problem, or to just teach or to go into industry and make a lot of money. The same goes for other scientific research, art, writing and many other pursuits that make us fundamentally human: great accomplishments require dedication and risk taking.
Maybe my perspective here is shaped by working with lots of entrepreneurs. Startups too require a combination of risk taking and dedication. In any case, my son and I both walked out of the movie energized to work on our respective projects.