For a moment while watching Oscar winning documentary, Free Solo, I forgot to breathe. Literally. Even though I knew the outcome of Alex Honnold’s free solo climb of El Capitan, I could barely move for fear of somehow, in some way causing him to fall… to his death.
Thankfully for my respiratory system, Free Solo then cuts to the glorious safety of the Yosemite National Park valley floor and we watch as a cameraman turns away from his lens. If I can barely stand the sight of Honnold’s ropeless ascent, I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be there and film the endeavour.
Documenting this feat and filming the expeditions taken by other climbers presents a host of challenging ethical questions for documentary filmmakers. Could the filming equipment get in the way? Will the act of making a documentary make the climbers more likely to take additional risks (a phenomenon called Kodak courage)?
As a result, few movie sub-genres are as inherently dramatic and cinematic as that of the climbing documentary. Whether they take place in the heat of California’s Yosemite National Park or amid the freezing temperatures of the Himalayan mountains, these films contain action, danger, high drama and emotion.
Gripping, horrifying and immersive, climbing documentaries are full of inspiring feats of incredible human strength and feature breathtaking visuals - allowing audiences to experience some of the highest locations on earth. The rewards of capturing these events are, of course, astonishing. Without such films many of us would never get to experience the views from high on the rock face of El Capitan, from the summit of Mount Everest or from the top of Mount Meru’s Shark’s Fin.
However, climbing documentaries are not just interested in the physical act of scaling mountains and other rock formations. They also ask the question why. Why do these climbers feel compelled to take on such dangerous pursuits? Why would they risk their lives in the name of extreme sport?
The best films of this sub-genre also go beyond the “sport” and explore the more emotional aspects of why many climbers seek ever more strenuous and dangerous challenges. How can they subject their loved ones - mothers, fathers, partners, children, friends - to such stress, anxiety and fear? Why would they risk their own lives?
The answer is not that these climbers have a death wish (although it sure seems that way at times). It is not that they are flippant risk takers - the best extreme climbers are acutely aware of the dangers inherent in their expeditions. They prove their mastery by pushing themselves to the limit but no further. To fall is to fail in more ways than one.
The answer to the question why seems more likely to to lie in the fact that conquering these incredible feats makes these climbers feel free and more alive. There is no doubt that this feeling is addictive… they are compelled to climb. Watching, you get the sense that the rock faces and mountains issue a siren call to the climbers.
The climbing genre of non-fiction cinema is full of remarkable films - including Free Solo, Touching The Void, The Dawn Wall, Valley Uprising, K2: Siren Of The Himalayas, Sherpa, The Alpinist and, my favourite, Meru.
Click the links below to read my reviews of these astonishing documentaries!