The Dawn Wall vs Free Solo

By: Derek Vitiello | Last Updated on May 2, 2024

Climbing documentaries have long served as sources of inspiration, aspiration, and flat-out awe for audiences. But it’s not often that two films, each its own cinematic masterpiece, shine so brightly in mainstream media around the same time. Enter The Dawn Wall and Free Solo, two documentaries that stormed into public consciousness in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Both films focus on historic climbs on El Capitan (aka El Cap) in Yosemite National Park, yet they couldn’t be more different in their narrative, climactic focus, and even the types of climbing they depict.

In this article, we’ll delve into the nuances that set these two incredible documentaries apart and why each is a must-watch for anyone remotely interested in climbing or the human spirit. Keep reading to learn more about the people, the climbs, and the styles of filmmaking that make The Dawn Wall and Free Solo truly exceptional in their own right.

What is The Dawn Wall About?

The Dawn Wall movie is a gripping documentary that follows the incredible journey of professional climber Tommy Caldwell as he attempts the first free ascent of one of the most daunting rock faces in the world—the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Tommy Caldwell is no ordinary climber; he’s a legend in the climbing community, known for his technical skill, unparalleled endurance, and unwavering determination. A man who endured captivity in Kyrgyzstan and even sawed off his own index finger, Caldwell’s story is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

The Dawn Wall itself is a colossal, 3,000-foot sheer granite face that was long considered “unclimbable.” What makes this wall unique is its lack of cracks and natural holds, making it an extremely technical and demanding climb. This rock formation that has been the mecca of the climbing world for decades, the Dawn Wall offers challenges that even the most experienced climbers would hesitate to tackle.

The storyline of The Dawn Wall goes far beyond the climb itself, delving into the complexity of Caldwell’s life—his past struggles, losses, and his camaraderie with fellow climber Kevin Jorgeson. Why does this event warrant a movie? Because it’s not just about about free climbing; it’s about pushing the boundaries of what is considered humanly possible. The film captures a monumental moment in climbing history while painting an intimate portrait of a man who refuses to give up, no matter the obstacles. It addresses themes of friendship, perseverance, and the limitless capabilities of the human body and spirit. This isn’t just a film for climbing enthusiasts; it’s a human story that anyone can relate to, making The Dawn Wall a universally resonant documentary.

What is Free Solo About?

Free Solo is another awe-inspiring rock climbing documentary, but it takes a different tack by focusing on the perilous and highly controversial practice of free soloing—a form of climbing where the athlete ascends without ropes, harnesses, or any other protective gear. At the center of this high-stakes drama is Alex Honnold, an unassuming yet incredibly skilled climber whose name is synonymous with this risky style of ascent. Alex Honnold is an enigma in many ways, his calm demeanor sharply contrasting the death-defying acts he casually undertakes.

The film’s focus is Honnold’s attempt to free solo El Cap on the Freerider route in Yosemite. It’s one of the most iconic climbing routes in the world, but the idea of ascending its 3,300-foot southwest face without ropes is almost inconceivable. The very thought sends shivers down the spines of even the most seasoned climbers. To climb El Cap is a huge undertaking, to climb it without ropes seems inconcievable.

Free Solo isn’t just a chronicle of an unbelievable athletic feat; it delves deep into the psychological and emotional aspects of its protagonist. We see Alex Honnold grappling with the implications of his endeavor, not just for himself but for those who care about him, including his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless. This adds a layer of emotional complexity, making it more than a simple sports documentary. The film offers an intimate look into Honnold’s life and thoughts, as well as the ethical and emotional dimensions of extreme sports. It begs the question: How much risk is too much in the pursuit of greatness? Whether you’re a climbing aficionado or a newbie, Free Solo challenges you to confront this dilemma, making for an unforgettable cinematic experience.

The Dawn Wall vs Free Solo

Now let’s dissect the key differences between The Dawn Wall and Free Solo, which are both masterpieces in their own right but divergent in many aspects. While they share a stage (El Capitan in Yosemite) and a general subject matter (rock climbing) each film captures a wholly distinct narrative, approach to climbing, and ethos. We’ll explore the nuances that set these films apart, from the climbers themselves to the types of climbing showcased, the routes, preparation, and their respective accolades and box office performances.

AspectThe Dawn WallFree Solo
ClimbersTommy Caldwell, Kevin JorgesonAlex Honnold
Climbing StylesFree climb, using ropes for safetyFree solo, climbing without any safety equipment
Main Route (on El Cap)The Dawn Wall routeFreerider route
FocusPerseverance, emotional journeyMental and physical challenges, psychology
Preparation6+ years15 years
Box Office PerformanceAcclaimed and successfulAcademy Award for Best Documentary (2019)
A table comparing the two movies: The Dawn Wall and Free Solo.

The Climbers

The first and most obvious difference between these two movies is the climbers around which they are based. Tommy Caldwell (The Dawn Wall) and Alex Honnold (Free Solo) are very different climbers who have dramatically different life stories and climbing styles.

alex honnold's free solo el cap free soloists
Wall where the Freerider route is located.

Tommy Caldwell is a seasoned professional climber known for his perseverance and meticulous planning. He’s been climbing since childhood and has notched numerous record-setting ascents, but the Dawn Wall was a seven-year-long obsession born out of personal and professional turmoil, including being held hostage in Kyrgyzstan and a painful divorce. His storyline is deeply emotional and motivational, demonstrating the power of resilience. Caldwell’s approach to climbing is analytical; he’s about solving problems and overcoming significant physical and emotional barriers. He views climbing as a way to transcend life’s challenges, and this mentality spills into The Dawn Wall, making it a saga about much more than just climbing.

On the other hand, Alex Honnold is a prodigy in the sport, famous for his audacious free solo climbs. He started climbing in indoor gyms and quickly gained fame for climbing routes that most wouldn’t attempt without ropes, let alone solo (such as Half Dome and Moonlight Buttress). A free solo climb isn’t just a type of climbing for Alex Honnold; it’s a lifestyle, a mental state where he feels most alive. His film Free Solo captures this psychological tightrope as much as the physical one he scales on Freerider. Honnold’s motivation seems to emanate more from a place of mastering fear and seeking perfection, rather than overcoming external life challenges. He sees climbing as an arena for pushing human limits, and this makes Free Solo a heart-pounding psychological thriller as much as it is a climbing film.

Types of Climbing & Climbing Styles

The second biggest difference between these two movies is the type of climbing. Where rock climbing is a general term covering a wide range of specific kinds of climbing, these two movies dive into two very specific types of climbing: free climbing and free soloing. Even though they sound very similar, they are remarkably different.

In The Dawn Wall, Tommy Caldwell and his climbing partner, Kevin Jorgeson, engage in what is known as big wall free climbing. In this climbing style, climbers use ropes and other equipment solely for safety, meaning they don’t assist in the actual climbing. Free climbing means they are scaling the wall using only their hands and feet on the rock features; the ropes catch them if they fall but do not help them ascend. Big wall climbing often involves multi-day ascents where climbers either return to a base or camp out on the wall itself, hanging in suspended tents known as portaledges.

In contrast, Free Solo showcases Alex Honnold ascending the Freerider route on El Capitan without any ropes or safety gear, a climbing style known as free soloing. Imagine walking on a tightrope thousands of feet in the air without a safety net, and you have an inkling of what free soloing entails. In this high-stakes style, there is absolutely zero margin for error; a single slip or miscalculation is fatal. Unlike big wall climbing, where the physical and technical challenges are spread over multiple days and can be approached in a more analytical fashion, free soloing means the the mental and physical demands are compressed into a shorter timeframe, requiring absolute focus and control.

The Route

The Dawn Wall and Freerider routes on El Capitan are both iconic, but they offer very different climbing experiences. Both routes are marvels of climbing complexity, demanding a high level of physical fitness, technical skill, and mental fortitude. However, the Dawn Wall is often likened to a vertical chessboard that requires intricate planning and problem-solving, whereas Freerider, especially when tackled without ropes, is more of a high-stakes obstacle course that demands real-time decision-making and unwavering confidence.

hardest big wall climb

The Dawn Wall

The Dawn Wall is located on the southeastern face of El Capitan and is known for its exceptionally smooth, nearly featureless granite surface, making it one of the most difficult free climbs in the world. Spanning around 3,000 feet, it’s a vertical jigsaw puzzle that took years for Tommy Caldwell to decode. The wall is a series of pitches—individual sections of the climb—that vary widely in difficulty, including some that are among the toughest in the sport. Climbers often have to use “micro holds,” tiny imperfections in the rock that are barely enough to grip, adding to the route’s extreme difficulty.

The NY Times has an awesome interactive map of this route.

The Dawn Wall Stats

  • 2,500 feet tall, 32 pitches
  • Grade VI, 5.14c
  • FA: Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell
  • FFA: Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson (2015)
  • First Repeat: Adam Ondra in 8 days (2016)

Freerider

In contrast, the Freerider route is located on the southwestern face of El Capitan and is generally considered to be less technically challenging than the Dawn Wall. However, the concept of “less challenging” is relative when talking about one of the world’s most famous big walls. Freerider still offers a diverse array of climbing challenges, from delicate slab climbing to physically demanding overhangs. The route also features the notorious Boulder Problem, a sequence of holds that is very difficult to navigate and presents one of the climb’s main challenges. Unlike the Dawn Wall, which has very few resting spots due to its relentless difficulty, Freerider offers more opportunities for breaks, although the lack of ropes in Alex Honnold’s free solo attempt meant he had little room for rest.

Free Solo Stats

  • 3,300 feet tall
  • 30 pitches
  • Grade VI
  • 5.13a PG13
  • FA: Thomas and Alexander Huber (1998)

The Preparation

The preparation involved in both Free Solo and The Dawn Wall is intense and meticulous, but the approaches of the climbers were fundamentally different.

Tommy Caldwell’s years-long odyssey to climb the Dawn Wall involved not just preparation but also innovation. A new route had to be established, and that meant endless days of route-finding, practicing, failing, and re-strategizing. For Caldwell, the preparation was both physical and mental, requiring an understanding of rock formations, identifying potential hand and foot holds, and then attempting to climb them, often failing and going back to the drawing board. The Dawn Wall movie was an exploration project as much as it was a climbing endeavor. It was not just about conquering a mountain; it was about deciphering an incredibly complex puzzle and then physically manifesting the solution.

On the other hand, Alex Honnold’s preparation for climbing the Freerider route was based on perfecting an already-established climb. While the route was well-known, the sheer audacity of climbing it without any ropes or safety gear meant that Honnold’s preparation had to be extraordinarily thorough. Over the course of 15 years, he memorized every handhold and foothold on Freerider, practicing repeatedly until he felt confident enough to make the solo ascent. Unlike Caldwell, who had to deal with the uncertainty of an uncharted route, Honnold’s preparation revolved around eliminating all variables, reaching a level of certainty and familiarity with the route that would make it as “safe” as possible for a ropeless climb. Both approaches to preparation are awe-inspiring but represent two very different philosophies and relationships with the rock.

Accolades & Box Office

first free ascent tommy caldwell the dawn wall route el capitan
The Dawn Wall. You can see how it looks like a sheer rock face.

When it comes to accolades and box office performance, both The Dawn Wall and Free Solo have had significant impacts, but in slightly different ways. Free Solo enjoyed more mainstream success, winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2019. The film also was a box office hit, grossing over $28 million worldwide. Its mainstream appeal extended beyond the climbing community, captivating audiences with the death-defying nature of Alex Honnold’s feat and the stunning cinematography that captured it. This recognition not only shone a spotlight on the sport of climbing but also elevated it to mainstream consciousness in a way that few other climbing films have done.

The Dawn Wall, while not an Academy Award winner, received critical acclaim and performed well within its genre. The film was praised for its storytelling, delving deeply into Tommy Caldwell’s life and the many obstacles he had to overcome, making it resonate even with audiences who had no prior interest in climbing. Although it didn’t match Free Solo in box office numbers, The Dawn Wall has been influential within the climbing community and beyond, receiving various awards at film festivals. It’s also worth noting that the film has been highly praised for its cinematography and storytelling, much like Free Solo.

In summary, while both films have been celebrated for their compelling stories and breathtaking visuals, Free Solo has the edge in mainstream recognition and box office earnings. On the other hand, The Dawn Wall holds its own as an inspirational and critically acclaimed film that delves into the complexities of a long and arduous climbing journey. Both films are landmark entries in the genre of climbing documentaries, but their differing accolades and box office performances reflect the ways in which they have connected with diverse audiences.

The Dawn Wall vs Free Solo – Which is Better?

Free Solo is better than The Dawn Wall. That being said, this is a matter of opinion and you should watch both so you can decide for yourself.

While the term “better” is subjective and varies from person to person, some might argue that Free Solo is a more engaging film based on its ability to appeal to a broader audience, including those who have little to no interest in climbing. When I watched both movies, I was struck by the level of tension and suspense in Free Solo, which seemed to translate well even for viewers who are not well-versed in climbing terminology or culture. The film delves into the psychological aspects of free soloing — a type of climbing that involves ascending without ropes or safety gear — and the inherent life-or-death stakes offer an immediacy and tension that’s hard to match.

Another aspect where Free Solo shines is its cinematography. The filmmakers employed cutting-edge technology and took great risks to film Alex Honnold climbing, offering a visceral experience that puts the viewer right there on the rock face with him. These elements, combined with Honnold’s introspective and somewhat enigmatic personality, make for a movie experience that is not just about climbing but also about human limits, fear, and ambition.

Free Solo also does an excellent job in exploring the ethical concerns around filming such a dangerous feat (in fact, free soloing is so dangerous that Cliff Bars withdrew their sponsorship from Alex Honnold and other free soloists in 2014). The filmmakers themselves become characters in the story, sharing their own fears and dilemmas about the possibility of witnessing a fatal fall. This adds an extra layer of depth and complexity to the film, raising questions about the role of media in extreme sports.

In summary, while both The Dawn Wall and Free Solo offer compelling stories and stunning visuals, Free Solo might edge out as “better” for some due to its broader appeal, psychological depth, and ethical complexity. Of course, this is just one perspective, and fans of The Dawn Wall would have their own valid reasons for preferring that film.

Conclusion

In the end, both The Dawn Wall and Free Solo serve as compelling testaments to human determination, skill, and our eternal quest to conquer seemingly insurmountable challenges. While they center around the same sport and even the same iconic rock formation, the two films offer markedly different narratives, types of climbing, and protagonists, making each a unique cinematic experience.

The Dawn Wall provides an in-depth look at the relentless preparation and collaboration involved in pioneering a new climbing route, whereas Free Solo taps into the psychology of risk and the awe-inspiring capabilities of the human body and mind when pushed to the edge. Whether you’re a climbing enthusiast or a newcomer to the sport, both documentaries offer valuable insights into what drives people to scale the heights of human potential. Ultimately, which film is “better” might just depend on what you’re looking to discover—about climbing, about the human spirit, and about yourself.

FAQ’s

Was Dawn Wall harder than Free Solo?

It’s challenging to directly compare the difficulty of The Dawn Wall and Free Solo as they involve different types of climbing and different sets of risks. However, in terms of technical climbing, The Dawn Wall is considered one of the hardest climbs in the world due to its challenging pitches

Is The Dawn Wall the same as Free Solo?

No, The Dawn Wall and Free Solo are different films that document different climbs and climbers. The Dawn Wall focuses on Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s first free ascent of a particularly difficult section, while Free Solo follows Alex Honnold as he climbs the Freerider route (both on El Capitan) without any ropes or protective gear.

How many people have free soloed The Dawn Wall?

No one has free soloed The Dawn Wall due to its extreme technical difficulty and risks involved.

What is the difference between The Dawn Wall and Free Solo documentaries?

The Dawn Wall is a documentary that chronicles Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s historic ascent. It focuses on their personal stories and the challenges they faced. On the other hand, Free Solo is a documentary that follows Alex Honnold’s remarkable free solo ascent of El Capitan’s Freerider route. It provides an intimate look into Honnold’s journey and the mental and physical challenges of free soloing.

*Movie posters from IMBD

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