At stake is the 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary. Among the nominees is
Free Solo, a dizzyingly compelling film about Las Vegas climber Alex Honnold’s ropeless ascent of the 3,000-foot El Capitan rock formation in Yosemite National Park. The film is also about the anxieties of the people who love Honnold, namely girlfriend Sanni McCandless, who struggles with the risks of such an endeavor. If he falls, he will certainly die. Her fear acts as a bridge between the audience and the rarefied world of elite climbing. (Spoiler alert: Honnold succeeds, and the resulting film has been a runaway success.)
Alex Honnold and Sanni McCandless
Onstage, Momoa opens the envelope, smiles and meets eyes with co-presenter Helen Mirren. She nods and Momoa announces, “…
Free Solo!” The music rises, and the camera pans to the audience, where the filmmakers and documentary subjects Honnold and McCandless make their way to the stage—and to a new level of stardom and a place in cinematic history.
What a documentary Oscar means for its subjects
So what’s it like for a “dirtbag climber” to receive the Hollywood treatment? After six months touring to promote the film, Honnold is back home in Vegas and still making sense of it all. “It was pretty exciting,” he says on the phone as he packs his car for some short scrambling at Red Rock Canyon. “Honestly, I don’t know if it’s sunk in. I don’t know. It’s just one of those things.” As for any newfound fame, Honnold says, “There’s been a lot of spillover to the Honnold Foundation, which is good to see.”
McCandless says, “It felt totally amazing. We were all just blown away by the success of the film. It was very validating of all the hard work the entire team put into the film.”
On the Oscars red carpet, the outdoorsy life coach looked as glamorous as any movie star, thanks to a beauty regimen that started at 10:30 a.m. and included makeup sponsored by Clé de Peau Beauté. For his red carpet look, Honnold hit the gym and then took a shower.
Meeting British royalty—Prince William and Princess Kate—was a “peak experience” of the film tour, according to McCandless. “We were just totally amazed by how poised and regal they both were,” McCandless says. “They’d seen the film. They were very genuine, excited and kind. It’s something we’ll never forget, because it’s so different from our normal lives.”
Life is now, more or less, back to normal. “We came home to reality,” McCandless says, laughing. “I did my taxes yesterday. Today we cleaned out the van. Stardom is over.”
Both are excited to get back to their regular lives of outdoor adventuring. McCandless is busy running her business, Sanni McCandless Coaching, and she’s preparing for the 2019 Outwild festival, which she co-founded.
Honnold is looking forward to ever more climbing. He had put all big climbing plans on hold until the end of the film tour. As for what big goals might lie ahead? “You can’t plan big climbs until you’ve done tons of little climbs,” Honnold says. “I’m looking forward to little climbs.”
What this Oscar means for climbing
Inevitably, the film’s success will boost the sport of climbing itself, which has been growing from a niche endeavor to a popular pastime in recent decades.
“It’s one of the latest, and perhaps most dramatic, demonstrations of the ‘mainstreaming’ of climbing,” longtime climber Bill Ramsey says of
Free Solo’s big award. A UNLV philosophy professor and vice president of the Southern Nevada Climbers Coalition, Ramsey first met Honnold and started climbing with him in 2005, when the now-star was just 19. “It is not just an appreciation of the technical challenges involved in making a brilliant climbing movie, but it is also, to some degree, an acknowledgement of the special values and virtues of the climbing community in general and certainly exhibited by Alex in particular.”
Longtime climber Stephanie Forte predicts that the film’s success will bring more newcomers to the sport in the same way that gymnastics gets a popularity bump whenever it’s featured in the Olympics.
But unlike gymnastics, much of climbing happens outdoors rather than in gyms. An influx of newbies poses both a challenge and an opportunity for outdoor areas like Red Rock. “This isn’t a new issue, and in recent years, climbing gym owners, brands and groups like the Access Fund have been working together to develop programs to educate new climbers about outdoor ethics and stewardship,” says Forte, who recently moved to LA but still runs a Vegas-bases PR firm. “As a community, what we can hope is that people watch
Free Solo, are inspired by Alex and the wild landscape of Yosemite and gain an understanding of why we must protect our public lands.”
by C. Moon Reed
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.