TThe great promise of virtual reality lies in its potential to replicate otherwise unattainable experiences. And few in the physical world can match the experience of Alex Honnold, the American rock climber who excelled at ropeless ascents of some of the world’s most fearsome cliffs.
No one had ever managed the “free solo” ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park before Honnold in 2017, a feat that was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary.
Now comes another film about Honnold, one that will bring viewers as close as they likely ever will to the outrageous exploits that made him a rock star.
The new virtual reality series Alex Honnold: The Soloist VR, invites you to join us as they undertake free solo climbing tours in the Italian and French Alps. Put on a headset and immerse yourself in a panorama of sky, snow and rocks. Crane your head up to watch Honnold navigate his way to the summit. Look over your shoulder and you’ll be greeted with an expansive view of the wilderness. Look down, and – well, maybe don’t look down.
The two-part series, released last week, features plenty of stunning scenery. But it might be difficult for some to view, and not just because it’s only available on Metas Quest VR headsets.
“I think for some people it could be one of the most intense things they’ve ever seen,” Honnold told the Guardian. “Even when I’m watching, I’m like, ‘That’s a lot.’ I did the actual climbs and it still feels pretty intense.”
Honnold said even his family of rock climbers could only consume the two half-hour episodes in “small doses.”
“They really struggle to watch the whole movie because it really gets them involved,” he says. “I don’t know, it’s almost too much for her.”
The Soloist was directed by Jonathan Griffith, a filmmaker specializing in filming mountain sports. Griffith is an alpinist himself and says virtual reality is the “strongest way to bring people into my world of climbing”.
“I really fell in love with VR because everything about my job motivates me to bring people to my high mountain world – the Himalayas, the Alps or wherever,” says Griffith. “You bring people into these alien looking worlds and it’s completely insane. I love taking pictures of it and sharing it with the world.”
Griffith wisely left out music in the production, allowing viewers to absorb all the raw ambient sounds of Honnold’s climbs. At the end of the first episode, with Honnold on a free solo climb in the Dolomites, he pauses to tie his shoelace. And suddenly it’s just you and him at the abyss, both sharing a sublime view of the Italian Alps amidst the incomparable stillness of nature. If you can avoid vertigo attacks and have the necessary hardware, the series is worthwhile for such moments.
“What I love about soloing is being in these incredible places and having these powerful experiences,” says Honnold. “In the VR film, the scenes are long enough for the viewer to look around and get a sense of what I love about these places.”
Honnold, 36, is still feeling the aftermath of his El Capitan triumph. The historic ropeless ascent of Yosemite’s famous granite monolith was chronicled in Free Solo, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2019 and brought even more fame to Honnold. In January, they joined a long line of celebrities to make guest appearances on the Showtime series Billions. Honnold says that since the documentary’s release, he has gained more public recognition, which has also led to more commercial opportunities and increased visibility of his solar energy foundation.
“Basically, everything is pretty hyped up,” he says. “But in essence [the fame] hasn’t really changed the things that matter now. I still climb five days a week. I still spend my time on projects that are exciting to me.”
Free Solo served as a window into what makes Honnold tick and what it’s like to be in his orbit. Audiences saw his unique focus in his quest to conquer El Cap, as well as the fear the pursuit instilled in his friends. Throughout the film, Honnold wrestles with his personal life, openly wondering if a budding romance could jeopardize his climbing goals. In one scene, he and his girlfriend Sanni McCandless discuss whether a family could get him to recalibrate his risk-taking skills.
Honnold and McCandless have since married. Last month they welcomed the birth of their first child.
“I always expected to eventually go through the full spectrum of adulthood,” says Honnold. “I always wanted to have a family someday. I always wanted a stable relationship. Everything is going according to plan.”
Speaking on the phone while holding his newborn daughter June, Honnold says his extended family hasn’t prompted him to rein in his ambitions.
He did not climb a week after the birth as June remained in the hospital to be treated for medical complications that have since been resolved.
“Now that I’m getting out of this, I actually feel heroically strong,” says Honnold. “I wonder if that’s just a by-product of fatherhood.”