A few weeks before FinCon 2018 I watched National Geographic’s Free Solo movie premiere in NYC. I couldn’t help but relate how close the movie’s philosophies on rock climbing were to the financial independence movement’s beliefs.
The star of Free Solo is Alex Honnold, who ascended the 3,200 foot rock wall of El Capitan in Yosemite without any gear — a feat probably akin to shooting a basketball from the half court line 1,000 times in a row.
What Is Free Soloing?
The traditional rock climbing you see is someone on the ground holding a rope attached to the top of the wall in an indoor gym. That’s great because if you fall off the wall, you won’t fall more than a few feet if the person holding the rope is paying attention. Hopefully they are.
Lead climbing is where you clip your rope in to small clips in the wall as you go. If you’re between clips while on the wall, you’ll fall 5-10 feet. Keep in mind the rope has 30 percent stretch, so falling near the top of a wall segment will have you fall much further due to the rope’s stretch.
Free soloing is the least safe. In fact, you could say it’s not safe at all.
Okay, really. It’s just not safe.
It’s done without any ropes or clips. The only equipment you have are your rock climbing shoes and a chalk bag for your sweaty palms. All you have to do is make a tiny mistake, and you’re out of the game.
The game of life, that is.
“Everybody who has made free soloing a big part of their life, is dead now.”
Tommy Caldwell (very famous rock climber)
An Ode To Mustachianism
Alex Honnold’s life history was full of risks before he conquered El Capital free solo. He avoided the societal norm of staying in college, and instead, dropped out of Berkeley to pursue rock climbing. He eschewed a traditional home, roaming national parks in search of rock walls to climb.
Honnold practices minimalism and frugality in order to have more time to climb, akin to how some people in the FIRE movement practice Mustachianism.
He doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. He even wore sneakers to the Free Solo movie premiere — though to be honest, I suppose I expected no less. Some part of me was wondering if he would come in climbing shorts.
Giving Back Via The Honnold Foundation
Nearly a decade into his rock climbing career, Honnold realized he had more money than he needed, and started the Honnold Foundation, whose main goal is to bring electricity to corners of the world that don’t have access to it via solar power, saving energy. Electricity allows people to study and be productive after sunset, connects people via the internet, and enables societies to function in the 21st century.
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When you donate to the Honnold Foundation, where does your money go? . We award grants to innovative and ethical nonprofit organizations that advance solar energy access. We support solar— solar everywhere, for everyone. That means a donation to the Honnold Foundation could help a low-income family in Sacramento cut their energy bill in half, or it could buy a solar lantern for a family in rural Malawi, to replace their old homemade kerosene lamp, and the super-expensive fuel they used to light it. . No matter who you are, we believe that energy should be clean, easy to access, and affordable. When you give a gift to the Honnold Foundation, you help us advance solar energy access worldwide. . 📸: Patrick Bentley for @solaraid
Mr. Money Mustache has given $100,000 each of the last two years (first year and second year), Physician On FIRE gave $100,000 on his 41st birthday, and I’m sure a lot of other financial independence bloggers will (and have!) follow suit when their portfolios outgrow their needs.
Free Soloing VS SWR: The Difference In Risk
The risk of death or injury in free soloing vs simply running out of money in early retirement isn’t even comparable.
Hand cramp? Possible death. Seizure on the mountain? Falling off the mountain. A bird or other creature distracts you? Possible death. Free soloing on anything taller than a few stories has 0 margin of error. El Capitan is 3,000 feet tall. It’s a four hour climb by experts with equipment.
“If you’re pushing the edge, eventually, you find the edge.”
Free Solo Movie Premiere Story Time
A few days before the NYC premiere, I saw a cryptic message saying there was a chance for free premiere tickets for those who showed up.
I showed up, not knowing what we were doing or how to win, but ended up with free tickets!
We then got to experience a VR movie while on a scaled-down rock wall of El Capitan in a climbing gym.
The whole thing was super surreal. It goes to show that there are so many things in the world you can win and get to experience, if you just pay attention. For example, we’ve watched Wicked and Book of Mormon for less than $30 in front row seats due to the Broadway Lottery. Hamilton I saw through a friend’s free ticket. Yelp Elite gives you free food, Amazon Vine gives you free products, and multiple sources allow you to read books for free. If you wait long enough, something awesome is around the corner.
Two days later, the premiere was held at Jazz at Lincoln Center. If you ever go here, keep in mind that this is actually located at Columbus Circle, a few blocks away from where typing in Lincoln Center into Google Maps will bring you.
Once there, we wandered over to the red carpet section but couldn’t stay in the room when the stars came in. The curtain to the room was open though, so we might have peeked a bit. We got our popcorn filled rock climbing chalk bags and hung out in the theatre for a bit.
We were assigned to sit in the second row. No one sat in the first row. There was a platform on the stage so second row seats were amazing and the theater was gorgeous. We were one of the first to enter so the theater was pretty empty. It felt holy.
A National Geographic representative gave a speech before the movie started.
Then, Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi gave speeches about their experiences directing the movie and talked about everyone that helped make the movie possible.
So, how was the Free Solo movie?
Free Solo was absolutely heart-thumping. Even though you knew the outcome, you couldn’t help but hold your breath during certain parts of the film.
The cinematography was absolutely beautiful, with animations of routes on the wall, and the voiceovers were filled with emotion.
The unexpected thing was that the movie was humorous. Honnold is exceedingly funny — not in that comedian type of way, but just in the dry-humor and matter-fact way he speaks.
The most poignant thought of the entire movie is when Honnold muses that his girlfriend sees the whole point of life is to be happy, while he sees the meaning of life as trying to accomplish things. Like free solo large walls of granite, for example.
In a way, the city of NYC hums on that hedonistic treadmill of success. Each time we accomplish a little goal, we get a hit of serotonin in our brains. Yet, the older I get, the more that way of thinking feels wrong. Maybe you keep getting used to the hits of serotonin, so you have to accomplish bigger and more dangerous things. Eventually, Icarus falls from flying too close to the sun or can’t get enough of a rush.
Promotions, blog pageviews, and accomplishments. What does it all matter if we’re not happy?
It is somewhat morbid when you are watching a movie, in which you realize that if Honnold continues to free solo the way that he does, odds are incredibly high he eventually dies by falling off a wall. The movie hints that he finds something that might make him rethink free soloing — maybe in the future, a new little life, perhaps?
Should you watch the Free Solo movie?
You should absolutely go see it in theaters. No question in my mind. Watch it for the adventure and ruminate on life.
After the movie, the directors and cast came out for an interview.
One of the most plaintive questions asked was concerning the moral implications of a film crew following a free solo climber around. What if Honnold had felt pressured to finish the climb, just for the camera?
Everyone on the film crew had to be amazing climbers, so everyone who worked on the Free Solo documentary was friends with each other. How would it feel to watch your friend fall to his death?
Another important question asked was concerning copycat free solo climbers, now that this movie came out.
Honnold gave a great answer, and I’m paraphrasing here. He said that if a normal person tried free climbing, they’d get a few feet off the wall and realize how bad of an idea it is. If you’re a professional climber, you’ll realize even more how dangerous it is because no one bats 1000.
I swung back to get a Free Solo aluminum camping cup and then headed home as it was an early start the next day. An end to a surreal night.
Other Climbing Resources
I’d definitely recommend watching Free Solo on the big screen though. It truly makes a difference.
National geographic has a page where you can find all the theatres that Free Solo is playing in.
If you’d like to read more harrowing blog articles about people who climb, check out my friend Accidental FIRE’s few stories about climbing on Mount Kilamanjaro and how he spent $44,000 to climb the highest mountain in Antarctica.
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