When I first watched the trailer for The Alpinist I was in… I was all in. Despite being terrified of heights, I absolutely love climbing documentaries. While I was not aware of Marc-André Leclerc’s free soloing career, the trailer hinted at a gripping story and the footage of his climbs looked stunning.
From that moment on, I tried my best to steer clear of all potential “spoilers” and reviews of Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen’s film. Inevitably, however, I couldn’t avoid seeing a comment about The Alpinist on social media. “This year’s Free Solo!” the post exclaimed… and my heart sunk. I don’t want another Free Solo, I thought. If I want to watch Free Solo, I’ll watch Free Solo - Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s Oscar winning film about Alex Honnold.
Having now watched The Alpinist, I understand this comment. The comparisons with Free Solo are many and obvious. The film features familiar Free Solo-style themes, interviews, camera angles and breathtaking/terrifying shots from high in the mountains.
Mortimer and Rosen are far from leaping on the Free Solo bandwagon, however. They have already made brilliant films about climbing (I would highly recommend both Valley Uprising and The Dawn Wall). And there is plenty of room, of course, for more than one film about free soloing.
It is a credit to The Alpinist that the film embraces the Free Solo comparisons. In the documentary’s opening seconds, Alex Honnold tells us why we should be interested in Leclerc’s story. We see your concerns, Mortimer and Rosen seem to be telling us, but just wait. We have a different story to tell. An amazing story that is well worth your time.
While The Alpinist may not surpass my love for Free Solo (or my all time favourite, Meru), Mortimer and Rosen’s documentary is a thrilling, compelling and moving cinematic experience. Leclerc himself is wonderfully endearing - his preternatural talent for climbing is magnificent to behold.
Climbing, once the domain of a mysterious few, has claimed the spotlight. It is now recognised as a sport (and an Olympic sport at that) rather than a "make your own rules", intimate experience between man and nature. Climbers have sponsors, active social media accounts and are happy to talk to the media about their new records and competition successes.
Leclerc is different. While just as driven and as ambitious as any in his field (and highly motivated to attempt increasingly challenging ascents), he is, we learn, an off the grid, under the radar climber. He is not interested in accolades. He doesn’t really care about setting records or winning medals.
Brette Harrington, fellow climber and Leclerc’s girlfriend, explains in the film that he is interested in intense experiences. As a result, he attempts alpine ascents that astonish Harrington, Honnold and many of the other climbers featured in The Alpinist. “It’s like so crazy,” says Honnold.
Like in Free Solo, The Alpinist explores the key question why. Why would anyone want to climb without ropes? How can the risks ever outweigh the rewards? How can the climber’s loved ones support their endeavours - knowing the dangers? While Leclerc and Honnold are markedly different characters, both films draw similar conclusions.
Unlike Honnold, however, Leclerc is uncomfortable on camera. This, in turn, makes for some uncomfortable viewing. It is almost as if Mortimer and Rosen have captured a rare wild animal and are encouraging it to perform. If Free Solo made us wonder about the ethics of filming free solo climbers, The Alpinist makes us wonder why someone like Leclerc would want to be the subject of a film.
As I was watching, I began to worry - was this documentary misguided? Mortimer and Rosen have similar concerns when Leclerc goes rogue. He disappears for months, ignoring their many calls (on a phone that the filmmakers bought for him). However, Leclerc’s eventual explanation makes sense. He climbs solo for a reason. This, for him, is the point - the transcendent joy of his experience. Climbing with a film crew just wouldn’t be the same.
A solution is reached in the end - Leclerc would first climb solo and then repeat the endeavour with cameras. This development might have robbed The Alpinist of its immediacy. It does not. This feels like the right move for the film and the scenes that follow are no less powerful as a result of the compromise.
The Alpinist reveals that Leclerc will often climb on sight. This means no rehearsal. The very idea is chilling - it all seems so incredibly dangerous. Leclerc relies on his climbing experience and his innate ability. He is amazingly calm as he climbs - never panicking and always confident that he will surmount any of Mother Nature’s challenges. Fellow climbers are awestruck. They are also deeply worried for his safety.
For good reason, of course. Many scenes in The Alpinist are utterly terrifying to watch. I found myself holding my breath on more than one occasion. The footage of Leclerc is thrilling - so impressive. His ascents and the sheer heights involved are hard to comprehend. As the film moves into its final act, the sense of unease deepens. After all, when Alex Honnold tells you a climb is crazy, you cannot help but worry.
Many of us would likley find the risks unacceptable. However, in The Alpinist Leclerc explains how willingly he accepts these dangers in order to pursue his love for climbing. His passion is both infectious and inspiring - his ability and achievements simply astonishing.