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Worth a Watch: Arctic Ascent with Alex Honnold 5 min read
Alex Honnold

Worth a Watch: Arctic Ascent with Alex Honnold

The world's most famous rock climber tackles a new kind of challenge.

By Cary Littlejohn

I love climbing documentaries. Always have.

Check out Valley Uprising, Meru, and Free Solo, if you're interested in some other titles. Two of those feature Alex Honnold, arguably one of the best rock climbers the world has ever seen.

Now, he's the lead of a three-part limited series for National Geographic where he's attempting to climb a 4,000-foot unclimbed wall in Greenland called Ingmikortilaq.

For scale, Ingmikortilaq is more than three times the height of the Empire State Building, and more than 1000 feet taller than El Capitan, the famed granite face that he climbed without a rope in Free Solo.

What made the film so much more than just a highlight of his climbing exploits was the trip to Ingmikortilaq, which sits in a remote location in Greenland not often visited even by climate researchers, doubled as a data-gathering trip thanks to the addition of a glaciologist to the expedition team.

There have been stories related to climate change about the morality of travel to places such as the Arctic Circle and Antarctica that suggest one shouldn't be traveling there at all.

The Last Place on Earth Any Tourist Should Go
Take Antarctica off your travel bucket list.

Sara Clemence's story for The Atlantic states it bluntly:

Overtourism isn’t a new story. But Antarctica, designated as a global commons, is different from any other place on Earth. It’s less like a too-crowded national park and more like the moon, or the geographical equivalent of an uncontacted people. It is singular, and in its relative wildness and silence, it is the last of its kind. And because Antarctica is different, we should treat it differently: Let the last relatively untouched landscape stay that way.

Honnold's trip to climb in Greenland would have been plenty to justify a National Geographic crew to document the attempt, no other benefits required. But they wisely paired with with a scientific expedition to turn into educational and informational content.

I thought it wasn't just savvy from an optics point of view, but that it might actually make such trips worthwhile. The only problem with the approach was that the producers at National Geographic knew it as well, and there is no shortage of opportunities taken to point that out for the audience, as if they wouldn't have come to the realization the same as I had.

That's a minor complaint, though.

The three episodes themselves are full of stunning production value as is National Geographic's brand. There is incredible photography. Drone footage that can take your breath away. Interesting information conveyed from experts. It has a lot to offer, and it's worthy of a recommendation for those reasons alone.

But just in case death-defying climbing and climate science in a beautiful and under-explored corner of the globe isn't enough for you, there's even a little reality TV dramatics.

Years ago, I recommended an incredible profile of him by Seth Wickersham for ESPN because it so captured, in text, what seemed to be his personality from the films–slightly awkward and aloof, not really a people person but simply an introvert, a bit robotic but charming.

That personality was the one source of tension in the new show. At one point in the second episode, they're trekking along an ice sheet and nearing a portion criss-crossed with crevasses in the midst of a whiteout. Alex wants to keep going, since they haven't been walking that long. The rest of the team wants to stop and set up camp for the night; they preferred to let conditions clear.

One of the team members said that it was hard to trust what Alex wanted to do because he has so much confidence and so much ability.

This would crop up again in the third episode, when Alex's confidence in his abilities is more directly tied to activity for which he's a singular talent: rock climbing. The difficulties of climbing Ingmikortilaq are myriad, yet Alex doesn't ever seem to sweat it. The tensions rise as his obliviousness affects his climbing partners.

Honnold already seems like he's not quite adept at reading his fellow humans' feelings, and when coupled with climbing, he's the equivalent of the beautiful friend you had in high school who couldn't understand why everyone was stressing about getting a date.

Honnold is simply too good at the task to be trusted to assess the risks objectively for anyone but himself. He seems to falter when the yardstick he's using is "Well if I can do it, why can't you?"

And it's genuinely interesting to consider the challenges of climbing with him (or doing any activity with such a preternaturally gifted individual who perhaps can't quite grasp just how good they are at it). Like why the rest of the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s were a mystery to Michael Jordan: Just be like Mike, right? That's what the song says, so what's so hard it? And he forgot that, for us mortals, basketball can be hard.

Honnold's hardly malicious about it; in fact, it's just the opposite. His already stilted onscreen presence seems to be straining to heap praise on his fellow climbers, to lift up their accomplishments and downplay his own because perhaps, quite anticlimactically, it wasn't that hard of a climb for him. "Thank goodness I don't have to climb that," he says in the first episode in a way that kind of sounded like, "I want nothing more than to climb that and wish I didn't have to share it right this moment."

Don't get me wrong; I'm sure it was a difficult climb. But that reality doesn't really come through in Honnold's words and actions on screen. What comes through is someone who feels like the polite thing to do is not to nonchalantly brush off what was just accomplished because it makes for bad TV.

Despite all these wonderings and suspicions on my part, it is good TV. All of it works, even the parts that I'm not sure I can trust. Regardless of whether the drama was real, the science and spectacle of it all is well worth your time.