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Movie chronicling free solo climb of El Capitan focuses on ‘normal guy from Sacramento’

Here’s the ‘Free Solo’ trailer, a National Geographic portrait of Alex Honnold

From award-winning documentary filmmaker E. Chai Vasarhelyi and world-renowned photographer and mountaineer Jimmy Chin, comes "Free Solo", a stunning, intimate and unflinching portrait of free soloist climber Alex Honnold, as he prepares to achieve h
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From award-winning documentary filmmaker E. Chai Vasarhelyi and world-renowned photographer and mountaineer Jimmy Chin, comes "Free Solo", a stunning, intimate and unflinching portrait of free soloist climber Alex Honnold, as he prepares to achieve h

At the Sacramento premiere of “Free Solo” on Oct. 26, hundreds of rock climbers and enthusiasts packed into Tower Theatre to gasp at and rejoice in the ascent of one of their own.

The film focuses on Alex Honnold and his free solo — no gear or ropes — climb last year of Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan, the first to ever accomplish the feat. And while the world-renown climber remains relatively unknown in the city, the Sacramento native received a hero’s welcome when he arrived to the Friday showing for a brief Q&A.

“A lot of friendly faces in the crowd,” Honnold said after a standing ovation following the end of the movie. Honnold, who has a home in Las Vegas, still frequents Sacramento Pipeworks to climb when in town.

“I feel like half the gym is here,” he said. “My mom, my family, so many family friends. That’s pretty exciting because I’ve been touring with the film all over the country and it’s nice to come home and see so many people I actually know seeing the film.”

The start of the movie quickly sets the tone. In a dizzying upside-down shot of Honnold making his climb, there is a speck of a human making his way up the wall of granite, his breath paced, flecks of dust floating off his fingers as birds chirp in the distance.

Within minutes, viewers are watching Honnold succeed in his “quantum leap” feat, as Canadian free soloing veteran Peter Croft describes at one point during the film. The rest of the film reveals what news headlines may have glossed over: Honnold’s path to the top of El Cap, figuratively and literally, and the climbing community that helped get him there.

His exact route, the breath-taking injuries he endured, and the quiet, strained moments between Honnold and friends and family worried that his passion for free solo might get him killed one day, are all displayed as directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin.

“If you’re a climber, we’ve all dealt with that,” said Elk Grove resident Frank Machado, a climber for more than 35 years. He said the film accurately portrayed the stresses and pressures climbers may wrestle with, or in some cases block out, to acheive their goal.

His favorite part?

“Seeing the relief on his face” after a particularly difficult climbing sequence, Machado said. “But he knew he had to stay focused and I could really relate to that, that it just seems to go on and on.”

The movie, funded by National Geographic, opened with a limited premiere Sept. 28 in New York and Colorado, and has since spread across the state and country. As of Monday morning, the film had a 99 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomato.

After the Sacramento premiere, moviegoers, most of whom were climbers, mingled in the lobby to chatter about film among gym friends. They chuckled at the sometimes callous ways Honnold talked about relationships (“I think I will always choose climbing over a lady,” he said at the start of the movie) and sympathized when he backed out of his first attempt to free solo El Cap — “It’s kind of reassuring that the Spock has nerves,” Chin said at one point in the film.

But for many, the night was a chance to get a glimpse at the inner workings of a climbing hero.

“It felt like the world changed” when Sacramento resident Karsten Duncan, an 18-year climber, first heard the news of Honnold’s climb last year. “You’re right,” replied Mike Morley, a 30-year climber and Sacramento resident. “This is a monumental shift.”

“So to see the details behind it, it’s kind of interesting,” Duncan said.

“And to know he’s one of us, a normal guy from Sacramento,” Morley said.

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