On June 3, 2017 my friend, Alex Honnold was the first free solo player El Capitan, a 3,000 foot high wall in Yosemite National Park. It was an achievement compared to landing on the moon.
Just a year and a half before that day, Alex and I met during a conversation and book signing he did in Seattle. I hadn’t known about him, but after listening to him I decided he was cute and funny so I left my phone number on the table when I left. A couple of weeks later we went on our first date. It was a dry, cloudy day in early December, and we were sitting across from each other upstairs in a crowded pizzeria. While we talked we learned from each other: I was an outdoor amateur; He had dedicated his whole life to climbing. I lived in the middle of town with four friends; He spent entire days of rest alone in his van. I appreciated nuance and context; he found clarity in black and white. We were total opposites, but somehow there was a spark. As we laughed and watched, I didn’t realize that he had recently signed a contract with National Geographic to make a documentary about his life.
In June 2016 Six months after Alex and I met, I quit my job in Seattle, shoved eight boxes of my belongings into the toddler room under my rented room, and traveled with him to Europe for the summer. We climbed crags through France and Switzerland and counted waterfalls as we hiked trails through the Alps. He was like no one I had ever met: incredibly brave, quietly dependent on love and approval, self-confident and whip-smart. Most of the time he was playful and made me laugh. I think he appreciated my self-deprecating sense of humor and enthusiasm for life, but perhaps it was my convenient lack of employment. When we got back to the States, it wasn’t long before we took three boxes from the basement and put them in the back of his van. As we were driving away from the house, I asked, “Have we just moved in together?”
As our relationship developed, so did documentary film. When I first heard about the project, I imagined a few days of interviews and a few inconspicuous climbing shots over the course of a season. But the day we woke up to a cameraman quietly getting into the van to film our morning routine, I realized it was anything but reserved. Little did I know that in the coming months many of our most intimate and painful moments would be in front of the crew. A camera would be there when I asked Alex if we’d consider me if he risked his life as a soloist, if I held myself together for a happy goodbye before leaving Yosemite a few days before his ascent (just to fully understand it lose if I got it in the car) and during minor fights when we bought our first house.
There were moments when I found that the filmmakers were frustrated by my presence – because, let’s face it, relationships make things difficult. My arrival hadn’t been part of anyone’s plans, and no one expected Alex to fall for anyone on the eve of his El Cap solo. Even Alex came up to me at one point and wondered if we should break up. He worried that I would get in the way of his climbing and that he had to choose: love or greatness. I remember asking, “Why not both?” And so we made progress, carefully balancing our blossoming affection with the headspace he needed to solo freely at a high level. In the end, the story that we fall in love became a central plot in the film, and the director, Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin grasped the intensity of a new relationship that developed amid Alex’s persecution.
Then one day our relationship was visible to the world.
Free Solo was released on Telluride Film Festival in August 2018. Watching the opening night I could appreciate the beautiful and skillful filmmaking, but that didn’t prevent the emotional roller coaster ride I felt when I saw nearly two years of our relationship condensing into 20 minutes of footage . There were moments when I wanted to jump up and give the crowd context. When asked whether I climb, Alex once replied: “I would hardly characterize her as a climber.” This may sound like a rude, idiosyncratic joke to a viewer, but in reality he made the comment when I had been climbing consistently for just a few months. I haven’t even identified myself as a climber yet. I was just as frustrated when I saw myself fiddling with a knotted rope before Alex sprained his ankle and fell on a leaking plate – the underlying implication was that my inability was to blame. Although I didn’t want to shy away from personal responsibility, I was flooded by details that were important to me – it left a bolt out, it pushed away from the wall -. Yet I painfully realized that I had no voice as to how the story would be told or remembered.
I could see the directors had raised concerns about Alex being with someone new to the sport while he was training for the greatest climbing achievement ever, but I couldn’t help but feel defensive. In the end, I had always trusted that he would do what had to be done to be successful, whether I was in the picture or not.
In the coming months, Free Solo would win an Oscar, a BAFTA, and seven Emmys. It would be seen by millions of people and set box office records. As more people around the world watched the movie, it felt like I opened my heart and peeked into everyone. My sensitivity grew, and even casual comments could feel distressing. Jimmy told me about an A-list actor who had seen the movie and said that all along he just wanted me to get out of the way so Alex could do his thing. I received direct messages from people who believed I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. There was in my social media feed endless comments that Alex shouldn’t climb with me because I was a danger. I was shocked that after seeing so little, people felt they knew the pros and cons of our relationship.
There was one interview that made me feel particularly raw. Chai, Jimmy, Alex, and I were sitting in a circle with a Los Angeles Times journalist. At some point the group began to discuss the rarity with which Alex uses the word “love”. (Words of affection are not always his forte.) It was a conversation I had often had in the early years of our relationship. usually in the van or under the covers, but always when he and I were alone. As the exchange progressed, the group began to discuss where I was on his list of priorities – was it above or below his passion for extreme climbing? I remember holding my breath and thinking: Can’t some things be equally important? As I exhaled, I realized how public my life had become.
(Photo: Joe Scarnici / National Geographic / Getty)
I was very anxious for the first few months after my release. I particularly remember one night when Alex was on the film tour and I was home alone. My fear had turned into paranoia, and in the middle of dinner, after checking the front door three times and closing every blind in the house, I took my largest cleaver from the magnetic holder on the wall and placed it next to my plates. A couple of nights later, I remember lying awake in bed all night, sure the house had been bugged and there were cameras hidden in my room.
As I shared these events with friends and family, I faintly noticed their concern, but felt helpless to do anything about it. The idea of seeing a therapist felt exhausting, and I perhaps naively believed that the situation was too unusual to be understood. It took me a while to identify this experience as a side effect of moving from an ordinary person to a subject in a documentary that was viewed by millions: I felt an extremely deep lack of control.
At first it was the fear of being misunderstood that scratched my consciousness. In the weeks after the film was released, Alex (the shit expert) kept reminding me, “Sanni, the only people whose opinion matters are your family, friends, and yourself.” Eventually, his point of view sank. I couldn’t control how the world interpreted me.
Still, there was greater fear beneath the surface. Somewhere deep down I realized the pain of simply being seen as an extension of my significant other forever. I wanted to make a name for myself and there was a line between closeness and independence that I found difficult to find. Could we pursue our own dreams without drifting apart? I was slowly realizing that my frustration might stem from a lack of confidence that I would find my own way.
A few months after Free Solo premiered, a company I started with two friends to help people create an outdoor lifestyle was hosting its first event. It was a Sunday evening in early winter and I had just spent four days walking around guiding nearly 100 people through a life changing weekend. I was exhausted. And yet I felt like me. It hit me that Alex’s life felt like a tornado, but in the middle of falling in love I didn’t want to be knocked off my feet. Instead, I wanted to focus on what I knew was true: I was a woman in love and very much my own woman.
Time passed and life began to slow down, as did the press, fan sightings, selfie requests, and Instagram threats. We got back to our routine, hit the road, and spent weeks in Yosemite thinking only about climbing and hiking. When I was healed, I was very grateful to the Free Solo team and was able to appreciate the experience again without causing an anxiety attack.
More than a year after the film was released, Alex and I were at a small Airbnb on Washington’s Whidbey Island when he pulled out a ring box and asked, “Are you going to keep doing what we were doing?” I said “yes” with a huge smile.
Looking back, I can see how navigating Free Solo prepared us for the journey we’re just beginning: our marriage. Alex and I faced almost every pressure a new relationship could take. We fell in love in front of a film crew and knew that if it hadn’t worked out, we would have complicated many people’s lives for free. Not only did we need to discuss the prospect of death, but what we all needed to really feel alive. The overwhelming sea of press and publicity taught me to let go of what others think of me and my relationship. Most importantly, because of Free Solo, when it comes to the dance between closeness and independence, I can finally ask: “Why not both?”