‘Arctic Ascent’ follows ‘Free Solo’s’ Alex Honnold on his latest dizzying climb

After feeding the collective fear of heights with “Free Solo,” climber Alex Honnold sets his sights on tackling one of the highest unclimbed cliff faces on the planet, while delivering a climate-change message for good measure. “Arctic Ascent with Alex Honnold” works on both levels (one of them really high up), while making viewers appreciate sitting on a flat, stable surface.

Although sliced into three parts for consumption on National Geographic and later Disney+ and Hulu, “Arctic Ascent” is basically just a long-ish documentary, using arbitrary chapters to chronicle Honnold’s latest adventure: a 4,000-foot sea cliff in Greenland whose peak stands a full thousand feet higher than the surface he conquered at El Capitan, and seemingly more treacherous.

The difference here is that getting to the climb entails a perilous trek across a desolate land mass, made worse by changing conditions brought about due to the climate crisis – an issue Honnold hopes to shed light upon with his post-“Solo” exploits, enlisting glaciologist Heidi Sevestre as part of the team joining him.

Other things have changed since then too, with Honnold becoming a father, to a baby who mercifully has no idea at this point how dad spends his spare time. Honnold also strategizes with two other experienced climbers, Hazel Findlay and Mikey Schaefer, who share his enthusiasm but might not be as cavalier about the dangers associated with this particular climb, which includes having rock fragments rain down on those below.

Alex Honnold on the glacier in "Arctic Ascent With Alex Honnold." - Matt Pycroft/National Geographic
Alex Honnold on the glacier in "Arctic Ascent With Alex Honnold." - Matt Pycroft/National Geographic

“Arctic Ascent” again showcases dizzying imagery, incorporating aerial footage of Greenland’s natural wonder while making anyone who would choose to try climbing this summit, a spellchecker’s nightmare called Ingmikortilaq – or for that matter, sleep in a tent suspended high above the ground – seem like they need their heads examined. Notably, the interactions exhibit signs of the stress these endeavors can cause, and discussions about what level of risk is acceptable.

Honnold’s low-key demeanor makes him an unlikely modern-day heir to the flamboyant Evel Knievel’s daredevil legacy, but they still fall roughly within the same basket, which is to say, people who undertake extraordinary challenges for our amusement. (Granted, Honnold was doing this before “Free Solo” dramatically upped his profile, but as an executive producer of this latest project, he’s made the most out of that since.)

“Arctic Ascent” inevitably lacks the sense of discovery that helped propel “Free Solo” to an Oscar; still, anyone who can watch Honnold hanging on to a vertical rock face without having their pulse quicken a little must have the equivalent of glacier-ice water in their veins.

“Arctic Ascent with Alex Honnold” premieres February 4 at 8 p.m. ET on National Geographic and will stream the next day on Hulu and Disney+.

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