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A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.

- John James Audubon

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Reviews

Oct 31, 2018

Free Solo: This Portrait of Alex Honnold, is so Much More Than Just a Climbing Film

How do you offer a balanced film review, when it's one of the best documentary's that you have ever seen?

WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin worked with National Geographic to produce hands-down, the best climbing movie that I have seen.

But, to be honest, this is not really a climbing film. Ok, well, it is a climbing film… but there is so much more to it than that.

Photo: National Geographic

The film’s plot is centered around a single climb that Alex Honnold is preparing for. El Capitan’s 3,000 vertical-foot rock face in Yosemite, California. Solo. No rope. No safety net. Simply him and the rock.

To put this into perspective, for anyone who isn’t a die-hard rock climber, and can’t relate to this feat… imagine climbing a ladder twice the size of the Empire State Building. But instead of the ladder having nice, big rungs to hold onto, it has pebbles jutting out one centimeter (or less) that you are expected to rest your feet and hands on. Oh, and making a mistake, falling, is simply not an option.

The whole film leads up to the suspense of this one climb. Will Alex be successful? Will he complete the climb and become the first person to ever free solo the famous El Capitan? Or will he make a mistake and plummet to his death?

Spoiler alert! Alex is still alive today. We all knew that the worst wasn’t going to happen. However, despite knowing that Alex is still alive today. Despite being aware that he had already completed the climb, my palms were so sweaty, I could barely grip the pencil that I was using to jot notes down for this review.

Even the seemingly very masculine man sitting next to me in the theater was falling into his seat with anticipation. He kept sinking further and further, at first I thought he was falling asleep, but when I looked next to me to check, he was gripping the armrest so hard his knuckles were turning white.

Read about Alex Honnold’s Free Solo climb up El Capitan here.

Rock climber Alex Honnold completes a 3,000-foot rope-free climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park on June 3, 2017. The historic event was documented for an upcoming National Geographic feature film and magazine story. Photo credit: Jimmy Chin/ National Geographic

So, how did Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi do it? How is it possible that even though I already knew the outcome of the plot, I was still so torn with suspense and anticipation that I experienced physical symptoms (sweaty palms, racing heartbeat) of anxiety?

The videography was superb. Every shot, every angle, every pan was thoroughly well thought-out. The crew was comprised of professional climbers with rope access skills beyond that which I am able to comprehend. Each camera on the wall was there because someone either climbed up the rock face to place it there, or rappelled down from the summit so they could dangle on a rope 3,000 feet in the air, for hours on end, in order to get the shot.

Even the soundtrack contributed to the suspense. Similar to any Hollywood-style movie, epic music would ring loud when a feat had been accomplished. When the story became tense, so would the music.

The production aside, the most exhilarating aspect of the film was the character development. It was a glimpse into the mind of a seemingly super-human individual. A mind that us mere mortals can only ponder about, but never empathize with or relate to. Alex’s emotional capacity is similar to that of his father, who as it turns out, had a mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome, a syndrome which tends to run in families. The film was a view into the relationship between Alex, this robot-like individual, and his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, who is a seemingly strong-minded woman with a normal capacity for emotion. Their relationship dynamic is what separates this film from every other climbing movie out there.

With Alex’s inability to empathize with Sanni’s feelings, and Sanni’s attempts to understand Alex’s mind, the question comes up of how a relationship like this could work? But they make it work… and this is one of the most beautiful plot lines I have seen in an adventure film.

If I say much more I will risk giving away the entire film. So I will stop and just say that If you are a die-hard rock climber, you should go to see this film.
If you have only rock climbed once in your life, you should go to see this film.
If you have seen a rock climbing gym and considered going in, but not done so, you should go to see this film.
If you have never even considered going rock climbing, and probably never will, you should still go to see this film.

Find a theatre near you that is showing Free Solo, on the National Geographic website.

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Athletes & Explorers

Oct 29, 2019

Book Review: Tales from the Trails

From the top of the world to the end of the earth, essays from a marathoner’s odyssey to compete on every continent and the lessons learned of friendship, life and pushing past borders

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WRITTEN BY

Douglas Baughman

In the predawn moonlight, 65 adventure runners, wearing headlamps to hack through the darkness of the dense taiga forest and backpacks outfitted with provisions for survival in the probable—or at least, historical—event of calamity, gathered under a makeshift banner for the start of the annual Sunrise to Sunset Marathon in Khovsgol National Park in the far north of Mongolia.

Read next on TOJ: Solo Running in the High Himalaya

The course would be treacherous. Already a mile above sea level, it skirts the shores of Lake Khovsgol, known as the “Blue Pearl of Mongolia,” one of the most pristine and ancient lakes in the world, estimated to be between two to five million years old, before climbing another 2,400 feet to Chichee Pass. From there, the race heads south along a ridge, drops into a marshy river valley, then climbs again up to Khirvesteg Pass on an extremely narrow precipice, where a few years earlier an unfortunate runner suffered a spine-breaking fall.

View of Kilimanjaro from Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Photo by Sergey Pesterev.

“The pages of Tales from the Trails are packed with adventure.”

For publishing exec Michael Clinton, it would represent the penultimate challenge in a shared quest with his sister Peg to run a marathon on every continent, seven on seven—the first in London, followed by Buenos Aires, the Gold Coast of Australia, Philadelphia, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and finally culminating in Antarctica. He chronicles these adventures, and aside misadventures, in an inspiring collection of personal essays from his latest book, Tales from the Trails, often with self-deprecating honesty and humor:

“My confidence was so sufficiently eroded that I wondered if I would ever be able to complete such a challenging course,” he writes in “Mongolian Madness” on the eve of the Sunrise to Sunset race. “All of a sudden, running Tokyo, a normal city marathon on flat roads, seemed like it would have been a much smarter choice! Maybe I hadn’t done enough research or focused on the details, but there I was in the middle of nowhere with nothing else to preoccupy my time except getting my head around how I would find the courage and stamina to conquer this newfound feeling of fear that permeated my whole being. …

It became apparent that everyone was feeling a bit anxious, evident when the gallows humor set in. Who would fall down the mountain? When we learned there could be wolves on the course, we identified who would be the most delicious runner to eat.”

From Tales from the Trails: Runners’ Stories that Inspire and Transform by Michael Clinton, copyright © 2019, published by Glitterati Editions.

For certain the pages of Tales from the Trails are packed with adventure and stories about the transformative power of confronting and overcoming challenges, both common and personal, mental and physical. But if would-be readers expect a book solely about running, they may also be surprised to discover a few pleasant sidetracks. Clinton’s brisk narrative pace makes ample time for an occasional “off the beaten path” anecdote, in true travelogue style, such as the all-out city sprint to find the last sports bra in Buenos Aires, or the matter-of-fact rationale for remaining calm in a Tasmanian rainforest whilst picking leeches from one’s private parts, even tricks to survive seasickness on a creaking Russian vessel crossing the Drake Passage.

In fact, with respect to some of the more poignant passages in Tales, running itself is nearer to a middle-distance metaphor, a means to facilitate connection, whether through introspection or a way of threading together generations of family, such as in “The Irish Surprise”:

“More than forty years since there had been any contact with our Irish family, my sister Peg and I decided to search for our roots there. It had all started with our decision to run the Dublin marathon, a stop on our quest to run races around the world from Mongolia to Argentina. Ireland was a natural choice since it was the birthplace of our paternal grandparents. Little did I know at the time that it would have a profound impact on me in ways I could have never expected.”

…or pausing for life’s precious and fleeting moments in “Time to Run for Your Life”:

“Life’s mantra should be to chase your dreams with a vengeance. What is important to you? Does your family want you to be an accountant, but your true passion is working with animals? Does your partner complain that he or she hates the idea of long flights, but your dream is to go on a safari in Africa?

Too many people argue they are too old to start running or to go back to school or change careers, yet there are countless stories of people who started running in their sixties, finished college in their seventies, or find an exciting third chapter that has turned their hobby into a business. Every single day that you ignore the deep dive into the depths of your soul, you are not being true to yourself, and that is what always matters first.”

From Tales from the Trails: Runners’ Stories that Inspire and Transform by Michael Clinton, copyright © 2019, published by Glitterati Editions.

The second half of Tales from the Trails is reserved for an elite group of contributors—Jean Chatzky, financial editor of NBC Today; George A. Hirsch, chairman of the New York Road Runners and former publisher of New York magazine, Runner’s World and Men’s Health; and Lucy Danziger, former editor-in-chief of Self magazine, among many other distinguished marathoners—each paying tribute to the motivational magic of this oldest and most basic human sport—running.

Tales from the Trails is available at major booksellers and online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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