Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard that rock climbing will be part of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo for the first time in history. The sport has entered the mainstream, and indoor climbing gyms are popping up with a frequency once reserved for coffee shops and craft breweries.
Even Hollywood is giving rock climbing its moment. Two new documentaries premiere this month that showcase record-breaking climbing feats.
The National Geographic documentary Free Solo, directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival September 9. The film follows Alex Honnold’s attempt to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan, the largest granite monolith in the world, with no ropes or harness—only his bare hands and a bag of chalk. (Spoiler alert: Honnold successfully completed his free solo on June 3, 2017—but even if you know, the film is still a white-knuckler.)
On Friday, September 14, another gripping climbing documentary comes to theaters. Dawn Wall, directed by Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer, documents Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s conquest to free-climb El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, considered to be the hardest big wall route in the world. (Another spoiler alert: In January 2015, they succeeded. But surprisingly, that’s not the film’s most compelling moment. Dawn Wall details not just the groundbreaking El Capitan climb but also other adventures from Caldwell’s career, including a trip to Kyrgyzstan in 2000 when he and three other climbers were taken hostage by Islamist rebels.)
The feats of Honnold, Caldwell, and Jorgeson astonished the climbing world, easily ranking as the most challenging big wall free-climbs to date. Expert climbers typically take three to five days to climb El Cap’s Freerider route, but Honnold did it in 3 hours, 56 minutes—and with no protective gear. Caldwell and Jorgeson ascended the Dawn Wall in 19 grueling days, via a route that had previously been considered unclimbable. The pair spent seven years figuring out the complex series of handholds and footholds it would take to reach the top. They used ropes only to catch a fall, but not to aid their ascent.
Caldwell and Jorgeson’s 2015 success was celebrated around the world. Even President Barack Obama congratulated them on Facebook: “You remind us that anything is possible.”
Since the 1880s, Yosemite Valley has been the site of many envelope-pushing events in the sport of rock climbing. Hundreds of world-class athletes have trained and traded techniques at Camp 4, a campground which earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places for its significance in rock climbing history.
Yosemite Valley’s breathtaking granite landscape takes center stage in both documentaries. El Capitan, which rises 3,000 feet from Yosemite Valley’s floor, is shown with clouds swirling around its summit at sunset and bathed in soft light at dawn. Although El Capitan’s 70 climbing routes may be out of reach for many recreational climbers, Yosemite’s other domes, spires, peaks, and soaring rock formations are a major draw for visitors who want to try out their climbing skills. With proper training, even beginners can have their day: The Yosemite Mountaineering School, in operation since 1969, offers programs for all skill levels.