On January 15, 2014, Alex Honnold free-soloed El Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) in El Portrero Chico, Mexico in a little over 3 hours. The climb rises 2,500 feet to the summit of El Toro. It could be the most difficult rope-less climb in history.
Behind the Scenes with Renan Ozturk
Repost from NeverStopExploring
Climber, artist, filmmaker: The North Face athlete Renan Ozturk always has his camera rolling, and earlier this year he traveled to Mexico to document teammate Alex Honnold’s free-solo climb of El Sendero Luminoso. Alex’s accomplishment is arguably the most difficult free-solo to date — yet safely and successfully filming the endeavor was an equally technical challenge. Travel back with Renan as he recalls the challenges faced and is reminded of why we climb. (And remember to join us on Tuesday, August 19 as we live stream the first top of the 2014 The North Face Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series, featuring Alex Honnold in “Relativity of Risk.”)
Documenting free-solo climbing is the most difficult endeavor I have ever taken a part in. And to add, it gets particularly serious when one of your good friends and teammates is Alex Honnold, and he tells you about a personal project that will push the limits of what has previously been done before.
Shooting rope-less climbing is taxing, both mentally and physically. I don’t want to affect my subject in any way, but the best angles are close and intimate. The risk of falling is always there. Is documenting these ascents the right thing to do?
It’s January 2014, and the weather in Hidalgo, Mexico, is just about perfect. The mornings are brisk, chilly even, especially in the shade. The days warm up though, and the afternoon sun creeps around the 3,000-foot looming walls of Potrero Chico and hits the top of the peaks, though just for a brief few hours each day before the shadows return and night falls.
Fellow The North Face teammate Cedar Wright and I went down to help Honnold prepare for what could be one of his greatest free-solos of all time. And, if it happened, we were poised and ready to capture the achievement as part of Alex’s ever evolving story.
This is an off-the-radar ascent that is serious and difficult. It’s humbling to hear Alex assess the possibility of soloing El Sendero Luminoso, a sustained 5.12 sheer line, rising 2,500 feet to the summit of El Toro.
“It may be too scary,” he mentions casually as we walk the dusty path to the base of the climb during one of the early prep days. “I’m going to put a bunch of work into it, figure out if it’s even possible.”
We all sometimes think Alex is some breed of super-alien, but then realize he is very much human like the rest of us. Calm, calculated decisions. Sometimes a free-solo project looks like it goes, and sometimes it doesn’t. At this point, not even Alex was sure if he would make the attempt. There is inevitable pressure of having us come down to film to add to the mix, but probably also a sense of support.
For a few days, Cedar and Alex clean the route, and it was no small feat. The limestone cracks were thick with cactus and debris. While the work was laborious, Alex got more psyched on the project, and Cedar got more concerned for his friend’s life. Every move was precise, and many holds were small nubs and flakes as thin as fingernails. But we all support Alex achieving his goals, especially knowing that he doesn’t do it for the risk or the glory — he does it purely for the challenge and the joy. We tried to have the video work stay in that same headspace, being all in it together.
In the early morning of January 15, Cedar, myself, and our small film crew were casually eating oatmeal and drinking black coffee. Alex had a look in his eye, just a bit of mischievous joy: “I’m going up now guys. See you in a few hours.”
And with that, he walked out the door and headed up, alone, to free-solo El Sendero Luminoso. We scrambled, quietly as possible, to get our gear together and document Alex’s attempt.
Ultimately, Alex hiked it gracefully. He sent the 1,500-foot wall in under three hours, untethered and unafraid. The sporadic wind on El Toro can be gusty, increasing the challenge not only for Alex, but also for our R/C heli crew from skysight who battled through the jungle with Cedar to meet Alex at the top to get the summit shots that are in the video. Flying a RED camera on an R/C heli way out there is part art, part science, and part “go for it” — the same as with climbing.
Capturing this perspective of the climb was really important to me, but at the same time I knew that I needed to not push them to fly too much and increase the odds of things going sideways. After a few takeoffs from the high ridges, the crew successfully avoided any crashes and landed. Securing our shots, I pulled the plug on the heli to ensure safety, especially given all the variables, and everyone came down on a high note.
The following days Cedar and I ascended hundreds of feet of rope with our heavy camera gear to shoot segments of Honnold soloing from above, recreating some of the hardest moves. In this way, we were able to get some of the best action of the climb authentically without a rope, but at the same time not impacting his actual experience of the continuous solo. Alex would slither out of his harness and onto the hair-raising terrain and joke with us as we tiptoed around him to capture the magic.
Renan Ozturk sleeping during an overnight time-lapse. (Credit: Renan Ozturk)
This required complete trust between all of us, which as friends, has developed over years and years of climbing together. The vibe stayed light and we all just enjoyed being high up on the wall, creating art. Alex picked the section he wanted to climb and we only had one continuous take to document. Normally for climbing photos/video you will ask your talent to reclimb sections many times and in the best light, but this was a different animal. One take was all we had.
All in all, this was a best-case scenario for a short, intimate video story. There is a lot that could have gone wrong, but we mitigated our emotions and the risk with a similar approach Alex took for the climb. It could be the hardest free-solo climb in history, and it’s cool that in the end the video was shared around the world. For me, documenting Alex’s accomplishment was a reminder of why we climb — for the pure joy.