Achieve or Die: Reflections on ‘Free Solo’

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I sat on the edge of my seat watching Alex Honnold cling by his fingertips to the side of the 3,000-foot precipice of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Sitting in a packed IMAX theater, I forced my brain to tell my muscles to relax for the duration of this intense, 100-minute documentary.

Free Solo gets its name because it follows Honnold’s attempt to become the first man in history to “free solo” El Capitan—climbing it without support equipment. The film is gripping, dizzying, and conflicting.

On one hand, the Academy Award-nominated Free Solo is a perfect illustration of Andy Crouch’s thesis in Strong and Weak, that “flourishing requires us to embrace both authority and vulnerability.” Honnold’s performance combines commanding authority with catastrophic vulnerability. You come to trust his expertise, but you also learn there is zero margin for error. A minor mistake means death. Honnold’s combination of proficiency and lunacy mesmerizes audiences.

On the other hand, Free Solo fascinates us because we—like Honnold—are a product of our time. We live in a culture of hyper-achievement.

One Film, Two Stories

You go to see Free Solo for the story of achievement: a man conquering a daunting mountain in a death-defying way. But you also get a story about failure. Honnold comes across as an emotionally distant man who views his death as inconsequential to the world around him; a man who taught himself how to hug because it’s what people do; a man who finds it almost impossible to utter “the l-word” with his girlfriend.

It’s painful to watch a man who stupefies us with his climbing career struggle to relate to those who love him—even to the point of viewing relationships as a distraction from climbing. But while we might lament Honnold’s childhood and even empathize with his relational difficulties, we leave the theater more moved by his achievement than troubled by his personal life. Our performance culture gives us permission to clap and cheer for this man’s self-described pursuit of perfection, even while his relationships suffer as collateral damage.

Our performance culture gives us permission to clap and cheer for this man’s self-described pursuit of perfection, even while his relationships suffer as collateral damage.

As awed as I felt at Honnold’s rock-climbing prowess, his polarizing ambition ultimately repulsed me. Why? Because I am like him, too. I can allow goals to distract and even distance me from those who love me most. Perhaps we’re all similar to Honnold in that way.

Achieve or Die

Honnold displays many commendable virtues—discipline, focus, and courage to achieve unimaginable feats. His industriousness in figuring out how to scale impossibly sheer rock walls is part of the beauty of his being made in the image of God.

What do we make, though, of Honnold’s casual approach to death as a likely outcome of his ambitious goals? This is, of course, part of what makes the story so spellbinding. God knits into human DNA the value of dying to self for a greater cause, and we see this especially in Jesus—the perfect human—whose willingness to obey his Father and die for his friends (John 15:13) provides the ultimate example of sacrificial love.

But while Free Solo touches on the freedom and joy that come from a willingness to sacrifice comfort for a greater goal, it misses the mark of actual flourishing. The achievement is not others-centered. Honnold is willing to sacrifice his life not for others, but for himself and his own fame.

Though there is a hint of redemption at the end, when Honnold tells his girlfriend he loves her, it’s clear that his achievement goals still drive him—with love as an afterthought. Again, we’re in danger of living this way, too.

Which Mountain Are You Climbing?

I walked away from Free Solo wondering, What obsessions drive a wedge between me and the ones I love?

In a hyper-achievement culture, it’s so easy to prioritize passions while relationships suffer. This is especially true when others celebrate what we do more than who we are. When we find our personal obsessions are hindering our capacity to love and be loved, however, we must die to ourselves and choose love over achievement.

Alex Honnold achieved something no one dreamed possible, and Free Solo is an inspiring, thought-provoking reflection on this accomplishment. But at what cost? Is the most jaw-dropping achievement in the world worth it if we become less human in the process of achieving it? What mountain are you climbing in life, and is reaching the summit worth whatever sacrifices it’s taking to get there? Are you sacrificing yourself for others, or others for yourself? What, in the end, are you willing to die for?

For the Christian, the gospel of Jesus Christ provides a decisive answer. Only Jesus is finally worth living and dying for (Phil. 3:1–11). As we pick up our crosses daily and die to ourselves, we will ironically find that, in that sacrifice alone, we truly live (Matt. 16:24–26).

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