Credit: Jonathan Griffith/Red Bull Media
by Selina Lee Featured Film Horizon Line

The Alpinist | Peter Mortimer & Nick Rosen

September 9, 2021

The Alpinist suffers a bit thanks due to a lack of access and more substantive commentary, but the frequent breathtaking feats captured are memorable enough to keep things lively.

Just as rock climbing has moved from fringe activity to Olympic sport, the climbing documentary subgenre has followed a similar trajectory, with the Oscar-winning Free Solo making palms sweat since 2018. Filmmakers Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen are so sure of their audience’s climbing knowledge that they open their newest film, The Alpinist, with an interview clip of Free Solo’s Alex Honnold casually name-dropping their subject, the 23-year old Canadian daredevil Marc-André Leclerc. His climbs are “pretty full on,” Honnold says, which should tell you everything you need to know. How full on? Leclerc practices a super-niche, highly dangerous, extremely technical form of climbing known as onsight soloing, meaning he doesn’t train for a route beforehand, but simply walks to the foot of a peak and starts climbing with no rope or harness (the most preparation he allows himself beforehand is checking the weather). He also excels at nearly every discipline you can think of (well, probably not speed), frequently toggling between ice, snow, and rock on the same peak, gamely changing shoes as he goes.

Mortimer and Rosen have contributed heavily to the climbing film canon with Yosemite Uprising and The Dawn Wall, while Mortimer and producer Josh Lowell are behind the long-running Reel Rock short film series. This latest addition builds on a tried and true formula: they’ve assembled a crack team of climbing buddies and loved ones to weigh in on Leclerc’s talent and indulge the obligatory dive into his childhood, complete with homeschooling and an ADHD diagnosis. What makes Leclerc stand out in a crowded and growing field of fearless climbers isn’t his innate talent or sheer bravado — unlike Honnold, the soundness of his amygdala is never called into question. Instead, it’s his completely anachronistic approach to a sport that has recently exploded in popularity. Unlike many — some might argue most — climbers out there, he doesn’t do it for the ‘gram. In fact, for most of the film, he doesn’t even have a phone. He’s content to live in a stairwell for years at a time, until he finds even that too luxurious and decamps to a tent in the woods where he can be closer to the mountains. Leclerc is a relic of an earlier, simpler era, someone whose sole focus is ticking off the next big climb.

Unsurprisingly, this uncompromising attitude poses a bit of a challenge for the filmmakers. At one point, he loses his patience with interviews and photoshoots and straight-up vanishes, essentially putting the entire production on pause while they scramble to track him down. Mortimer, who also narrates the film, doesn’t seem too bothered by his subject’s flightiness; in fact, he muses that it’s actually “noble” to care about climbing so much. But this sentiment is difficult to believe and a little hard to swallow; it feels both disingenuous and condescending. Throughout the film, the idea of free soloing as the “purest” form of climbing comes up again and again, and Leclerc’s off-the-grid, climb-everything-all-the-time lifestyle is celebrated and envied; old-timers relive their glory days through him while peers marvel at his single-minded focus. As in Valley Uprising, “dirtbag” is a compliment, and only ever shorthand for young, white, and middle class. It’s not worth debating here the ethics of free soloing, but it is fair to question why the climbing community persists in lionizing a lifestyle that is out of reach for so many of its members.

One of the most interesting aspects of Free Solo is the meta-dialogue between Honnold and directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi about potentially capturing a deadly fall on film. Leclerc avoids this possibility by simply denying Mortimer or Rosen access to his more dangerous climbs; as he says, “It wouldn’t be a solo to me if somebody was there.” Instead, Leclerc snags a first ascent and lets the crew tag along for the second try or has them chronicle an “easier” climb where their presence won’t break his concentration. It’s not an ideal way to make an adventure movie, but the filmmakers manage to overcome these obstacles and capture some truly breathtaking footage. Leclerc’s climb of Patagonia’s 8,800-foot Torre Egger is particularly monumental, and the scenes of him carefully picking his way up frozen waterfalls, confidently swinging ice axes into pin-sized crevices that will soon wash away, beautifully capture the meditative side of climbing that makes this sport (and in these moments, this film) so unique and beloved.