The great promise of virtual reality lies in its potential to replicate otherwise unattainable experiences. And few in the physical world can match the experiences of Alex Honnold, the American rock climber who has distinguished himself with ropeless ascents up some of the world’s most fearsome cliffs.
No one had ever completed a “free-solo” climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park before Honnold famously did so in 2017, a feat that was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary.
Now comes another film about Honnold, one that takes viewers as close they will probably ever get to the hair-raising exploits that have made him a rock star.
The new virtual reality series, Alex Honnold: The Soloist VR, invites you to tag along as he embarks on free-solo climbs in the Italian and French Alps. Strap on a headset, and you’re immersed in a panorama of sky, snow and rock. Crane your head upward to watch as Honnold navigates his way to the summit. Peer over your shoulder, and you’re met with a sweeping view of wilderness. Look down, and – well, maybe don’t look down.
The two-part series, which was released last week, offers up plenty of mind-blowing scenery. But it could be difficult viewing for some, and not just because it’s only available on Meta’s line of Quest VR headsets.
“I think for some people it might be one of the most intense things they’ve ever watched,” Honnold tells the Guardian. “Even when I’m watching I’m like, ‘This is a lot.’ I did the actual climbs and it still feels pretty intense.”
Honnold said even his family of climbers has only been able to consume the two half-hour episodes in “small doses.”
“They’re really struggling to watch the whole film because it really puts them there,” he says. “I don’t know, it’s almost too much for them.”
The Soloist was directed by Jonathan Griffith, a filmmaker who specializes in shooting mountain sports. An alpinist himself, Griffith says virtual reality is the “most powerful way to bring people into my world of climbing.”
“I really fell in love with VR because the whole thing that motivates me in my work is to bring people into my world of the high mountains – the Himalayas, the Alps or wherever,” Griffith says. “You’re putting humans in these alien looking worlds, and it’s completely crazy. I love taking photos of that and sharing them with the world.”
Griffith wisely eschewed music in the production, allowing viewers to take in 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 shoe. And suddenly, it’s just you and him on the precipice, both sharing a sublime view of the Italian Alps amid the unmatched stillness of nature. If you can avoid any bouts of vertigo – and you have access to the necessary hardware – the series is worth checking out for moments like that.
“The thing that I love about soloing is being in these incredible places and having these powerful experiences,” Honnold says. “In the VR film, the scenes are long enough so the viewer can look around a little bit and get a taste of what I love about those places.”
Honnold, 36, is still feeling the aftereffects of his triumph at El Capitan. The historic, ropeless climb of Yosemite’s famous monolith of granite was chronicled in Free Solo, which won an Oscar for best documentary in 2019 and brought Honnold even more fame. In January, he joined a long line of celebrities to make cameos on the Showtime series Billions. Honnold says he gets recognized in public more since the release of the documentary, which has also generated more commercial opportunities and increased exposure to his solar energy foundation.
“Basically everything has been turned up quite a bit,” he says. “But at the heart of it, [the fame] hasn’t really changed the things that matter the most. I’m still climbing five days a week. I’m still spending 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 singularity of focus in his push to conquer El Cap, as well as the anxiety the pursuit brought to his friends. Throughout the film, Honnold wrestles with his personal life, openly wondering if a budding romance will compromise his climbing goals. In one scene, he and his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, discuss whether a family might cause him to recalibrate his capacity for risk.
Since then, Honnold and McCandless have gotten married. Last month, they welcomed the birth of their first child.
“I was always expecting to go through the full range of adulthood at some point,” Honnold says. “I always wanted to have a family eventually. I always wanted a stable relationship. It’s all according to plan.”
Speaking by phone as he holds his newborn daughter, June, Honnold says that his expanded family hasn’t caused him to rein in his ambitions, noting that he completed the free-solo climbs for the VR series during his wife’s pregnancy.
He didn’t climb for a week following the birth, as June remained in the hospital to receive treatment for now-resolved medical complications.
“Now that I’m coming out of that, I’ve actually been feeling heroically strong,” Honnold says. “I wonder if that’s just a byproduct of fatherhood.”