How to Watch ‘Free Solo’ With Your Kids, According to an Outdoor Adventure Expert

An outdoor educator breaks down the many awesome lessons in the Oscar-winning film about a man who climbed El Capitan with nothing but a pair of shoes and a chalk bag.

by Tom Holland

I loved “Free Solo.” Our whole community here in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, was captivated by the film and by Alex Honnold’s historic ropeless ascent of El Capitan. The excitement around the documentary began early in mountain towns such as our own, so it was with pride and disbelief that we watched as the hype spread to communities outside of our bubble…culminating in an Oscar win for the film.

The pure intensity and inherent risk involved in Honnold’s feat is undoubtedly the film’s main attraction. But, as a father of four and a youth outdoor educator, I believe it is not the most important story of “Free Solo” for our kids. The movie is ripe with critical messages that kids need today, but I worry that, unless highlighted, they might be lost in the masterful cinematography and sheer accomplishment of Honnold’s climbing El Cap with nothing but a pair of shoes and a chalk bag.

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You see, I live in a place where good people have lost their lives in the outdoors. Between 2013 and 2016, four friends of mine lost their lives in separate incidents adventuring in the mountains. During that time of our lives, my wife, Catherine, and I attended more funerals than weddings. All those great people were under the age of 40. Some of them were campers or staff of organizations that I worked for that strive to teach the essence of a healthy relationship with the outdoors. All were accomplished outdoorsmen and women. They were people who felt the pull of the mountains and the allure of the challenges found in nature. They felt truly themselves living in these hills surrounded by these peaks, and spending their time with people whose every moment is spent dreaming of the next adventure.

Living in Jackson, that reality is always in the back my mind. Couple that with the knowledge that so many of the kids who come on our programs at Wilderness Adventures believe that fame can be achieved with a GoPro and a daredevil stunt with a stunning wilderness backdrop. We are in the internet age where videos of kids hucking the cliff, climbing the tree, or “shooting the chutes” is not done for adrenaline or passion only, but also with an eye for the amount of likes you can get when you post your video online.

With these thoughts in the back of my mind, I brought my 9-year-old and 11-year-old girls to see “Free Solo.” Not only did I want to go to see what all Wilderness Adventures kids would be talking about this summer on their trips to Yosemite, but I also wanted my kids to witness this amazing human achievement. I hoped that the makers of the movie would provide amazing insights into not only how to live your life as a wilderness adventurer, but also just how to live as a human. Lucky for us, as well as for all adventurer seekers, they did just that.

As adults, it may be easier for us to see through the action of the climb to these critical themes in the movie. However, when you watch it with children, especially kids who long to spend a life outside, it is important to take the time to highlight these lessons and ask them these questions following the movie. I did with my kids, and you can bet that we will do so around the campfire this summer when our students contemplate our route up the the Grand or Shasta. Here they are:

Dream Big: I literally found myself thinking of the Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” as I watched this movie. So much of our world has been explored, conquered and documented, and too many of our days are spent uninspired. The news is filled with sadness and hatred, and then every now and then, you see something wonderful in the human spirit that can inspire you to be better. I was not made to climb El Cap without ropes, but in this life I was made to do other things of beauty, as we all are. I love the fact that Alex Honnold seems like a normal person, who knew his talents and set his sights on something big. To me, that is the perfection that needs emphasis.

What will be your El Capitan? How will you ‘Dream Big’ to push yourself to be your very best?

Practice: The movie is quite literally an observation of one man as a master of his craft. However, to become a master of one’s craft you don’t just wake up one day and decide to climb the wall without ropes. As I described the movie to people who did not fully understand free climbing or who had not seen the movie yet, you can see that they wonder if he woke up one day and just decided to go for it. Anyone who watches the film will realize that this is clearly not the case. Young adventurers will see the work he put in to get to perfection. Hours of practice. Reviewing the route over and over and over again in his notebook. He is not casual about what he is going to do. He is a professional and it shows in how he readied himself for perfection.

When you dream big, where will you need to put in the practice?

Be Yourself: This was maybe the part that I loved most about this movie. Alex was Alex. He was unapologetically who he was. As a viewer you want him to be something else. Someone who approaches his relationships with humans with more empathy and someone who approaches his climbing as a hobby (like the rest of us!). But that is not him, and he does not compromise. He is comfortable being him, and he lets those around him know what they are in for when they are in a relationship with him.

Are you, you? Be true to yourself. If you spend your life trying to be what others want you to be, you will spend your life on a climb that gets more challenging with every pitch.

The Majesty of the Wild: A critical character in this movie is Mother Nature. Jimmy Chin shows her depth and her beauty and her changing character in the hours of the day and the months of the year where Alex embraces the wilderness. I could feel the mountains calling in this movie-not only to come out and play, but also to conserve, protect and defend wild spaces.

We all long to get out there, but in doing so, we will have an impact on wild places. What are we doing to preserve these amazing wilderness spaces?

Respect Nature (aka The Earth Does Not Care If You Slip): The film does an amazing job at conveying the indifference of the natural world. Mother Nature does not care about Alex Honnold. If he slips on the climb, she would not reference his relationship or his baby pictures or his new house and say, ‘You seem like a good guy, Alex, let me help you this time.’ Nope, she does not offer forgiveness and she does not yield. She stands tall and firm and present, and never once offers a soft landing. This awareness is critical. And it is a critical message for our kids: nature does not care who you are, how many kids you have, who you are destined to become, and in knowing this, we must respect her when we adventure.

Congratulations to the whole “Free Solo” team on your Oscar. More importantly, thanks for your proper portrayal of critical themes that are necessary for our kids today.

Tom Holland is the owner and operator of Wilderness Adventures, which works to create life-changing outdoor adventures for young people. He can often be found with his wife and four kids exploring wild spaces around Jackson Hole and adventuring outside, and each summer, he’s on the trail with children from around the globe, exposing them to the wonders of the outdoors.