As a climber, the debate between The Dawn Wall vs. Free Solo is one that many people disagree on. Almost everyone likes both movies, but when asking which is better, that’s a divided topic.
Both movies depict legendary ascents of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park. The difficulty of both climbs is staggering, and both films do a great job taking you through both the backstory and the days surround the climbs.
Personally, if I HAD to choose, I would pick Free Solo. The shear difficulty of the climb, and the consequences of a mistake during the climb had me on the edge of my seat, even knowing the outcome! That being said, The Dawn Wall was excellent, and I’ve seen both movies multiple times.
About The Dawn Wall
The Dawn Wall follows Tommy Caldwell’s seven year pursuit of climbing “The Dawn Wall” on El Capitan in Yosemite. This part of El Cap gained it’s name because it is the first section of the cliff face to be illuminated by sun in the morning.
Joining Caldwell in his attempt is Kevin Jorgeson. Their attempt, if successful, would be the hardest completed route in the entire world. 32 different pitches, including more 5.14’s than the rest of El Cap combined.
This movie allows you to follow Caldwell and Jorgeson on their 19 day journey in which time they didn’t leave the wall once. They slept in portaleges suspending thousands of feet off the ground and had food and water hauled or repelled to them.
The scope and magnitude of this climb is astounding, and we are lucky that it was caught on film and documented.
About Free Solo
Free Solo is also set on El Cap, but this one follows Alex Honnold as he attempts to Free Solo the Freerider route up the peak.
Free Soloing is a rare form of climbing where you climb free of any ropes or safety gear. When you are talking about a climb of over 3000ft, any fall would obviously prove fatal. Even knowing as I did the result of the climb, the visuals that were captured and the filming of this movie was simply astounding.
During the entire sequence of following Alex on his ascent up the wall I wasn’t able to relax. Even watching it now for the umpteenth time I still feel hairs stand on edge!
Add to this the quirky, sometimes odd character that is Alex Honnold and you have a film that is simply entertaining, even for non climbers.
Differences Between The Movies
While many of the differences will be obvious to an experienced climber, many casual fans of either film, or those just getting into the climbing world, may not full appreciate or understand.
In this section we’ll outline each of the major differences and explain why they are important, both to the films and the accomplishments.
The first is the style of climbing involved. Free solo, as the name would suggest, involves no gear, no rest, no safety net, nothing. There are only two likely outcomes, success or death. Alex Honnold has somewhat built a reputation as a Free Soloist, but he is part of only 1% of climbers that ever attempt it due to the high risk factor.
The Dawn Wall ascent was different in that it was done as a free ascent. While they didn’t use any aid to help them on the climb, they did have harnesses and ropes to catch them in case of a fall.
Due to the style differences Alex did all of the 3000ft wall in one climb, taking just short of four hours to complete the entire ascent. Tommy and Kevin, on the other hand, slept on the wall and took 19 days to complete their climb.
The Dawn Wall is completed on, you guessed it, The Dawn Wall section of El Capitan while Free Solo was done on a route known as Freerider. Neither route is easy and is likely harder than anything most climbers attempt.
Dawn Wall is rated at a 5.14d, and is the hardest route in all of Yosemite and one of the hardest routes in the entire world. Freerider, on the other hand, is “only” rated a 5.13a, which while still difficult is much, much easier.
While they were both filmed on El Cap, the routes and difficulty of each was quite different.
While Alex Honnold, Kevin Jorgeson, and Tommy Caldwell are all professional climbers, obviously the climbers differ between the two movies. Tommy Caldwell does make several appearances in Free Solo, helping Alex prep the climb and plan the ascent.
Tommy has been climbing professionally for over 20 years, winning speed climbing competitions and racking up 6 first ascents on El Cap alone.
Alex is known for living out of a minivan and has multiple very impressive free solo’s, including Half Dome, Moonlight Buttress, and huge boulders like “Too Big to Flail”.
Tommy and Alex are both well known, accomplished climbers who have many notable ascents on their resume. In this aspect, Kevin is somewhat the odd man out. His background is more in bouldering and somewhat local to California.
He has some great ascents to his name too though, including many highballs that other people have yet to match.
Both films won multiple awards and accolades. The Dawn Wall won the PGA Awards and the South by Southwest Film festival while Free Solo won 14 awards, including an Oscar and an Emmy.
Commercially Free Solo smashed the Dawn Wall, bringing in over $28 million compared to 1.6 for The Dawn Wall.
Both films got widespread attention, both won awards and made money, and both had their critics.
The Dawn Wall vs. Free Solo – Which is Better?
As I said in the introduction I would pick Free Solo as the better film. Alex Honnold is a interesting character to start with, then add in the risk of the climb and the stunning visuals the crew was able to catch and the film is more intense than any box office thriller or action movie I can think of.
The Dawn Wall is more of a slow simmer, it is good throughout but never has that moment of shear edge of your seat suspense.
I’ve watched both movies more times than I can count, and recommend all climbers or people interested in sports in general watch. It is amazing to watch humans, pursuing any discipline, and pushing the limits of what we are capable of.
The Final Pitch
A close race but with only one winner, I have to choose Free Solo because it has more of an edge to it, the filming of key moments, and the fear that is attached to the accomplishment. Although they both pushed limits for what was possible, Free Solo is more unique and intense.
Just my 2 cents, my girlfriend disagrees with me, and you may too! One thing is certain, both movies are worth a watch (or 10)!
Growing up in Fresno, CA, Yosemite has always called to Robert. From camping trips as a kid, he quickly became a regular to the parks granite walls.
His favorite, and most difficult climb to date is Serenity Crack at the Royal Arches in Yosemite, rated a 5.10d. Robby spends most of his time bouldering these days, and loves the Camp 4 Boulder area.