There’s an old adage in mountaineering that you’re most dangerous when you feel safe. I’ve heard stories of climbers who were incredibly successful and in their physical prime and died falling off relatively easy routes. A good friend of mine “adorned” himself a bit comfortably in his class early on in his climbing career. When I asked him what went wrong, he said bluntly, ‘I didn’t respect the route.’
This story was running through my mind while watching The Soloist VR, a two-part series about the ups and downs of Alex Honnold, who made history in May 2017 with his solo ascent of El Capitan. What makes Alex Honnold interesting is the very same trait that keeps him alive: He has a deep, deep respect for the route. For every route. He’s not a point-break-style adrenaline junkie howling to his doom, nor does he seem particularly interested in fame. Honnold has made a pact with nature. In exchange for humility and preparation, the mountains give him a sense of pure, free-roaming experience that most humans can only experience — well, in a video game.
The Soloist VR isn’t a game, it’s an immersive film, essentially a mini-documentary brought to us by the good folks at Meta and personally by my friend who agreed to lend me her quest for an afternoon. When I first got into a VR headset it was compellingly weird, but I got used to it pretty quickly. You basically captured the experience of sitting on a sheer ledge while a man two meters away from you does the craziest thing you’ve ever seen in your entire life.
In terms of immersion, it almost feels stranger being at Honnold’s house, which is where the film teleports you after a hair-raising chill on the cliff. You silently levitate over his kitchen counter like a ghost (or maybe a large, paralyzingly clumsy climber) and watch as he cooks breakfast with his pregnant wife. They do that weird acting that people do on reality TV, chatting about the things they’ve asked them to chat and making every effort not to look at the camera (you). Honnold is endearingly bad at this. Later, a peppy journalist shows up to conduct a fake interview that serves as a framework for the next few scenes, and her trained kindness seems fake next to Honnold’s soft-spoken replies. In her defense, everyone besides Alex Honnold seems pretty wrong. He’s the truest son of a bitch in the world.
From the living room we take a journey through a few months of Honnold’s outdoor life, sport climbing in Yosemite and mountain biking through Nervada before he flies to /en_US/fbevents.js’); fbq(‘init’, ‘560747571485047’); fbq(‘init’, ‘738979179819818’); fbq(‘track’, ‘PageView’); window.facebookPixelsDone = true; window.dispatchEvent(new event(‘BrockmanFacebookPixelsEnabled’)); } window.addEventListener(‘BrockmanTargetingCookiesAllowed’, appendFacebookPixels);