What drives someone to take part in an extraordinarily dangerous but also incredibly exhilarating sport such as free solo climbing?
This is what the documentary The Alpinist attempts to answer. The film focuses on Canadian climber Marc-Andre Leclerc who is relatively unknown when they started filming, but an incredibly ambitious climber who climbs solo and without a rope.
What makes Leclerc unique is that he wasn’t interested in fame or fortune. He isn’t interested in the lure of social media and all the fanfare that comes with it. He reluctantly carries a phone around with him, and sometimes doesn’t even own one. The only thing that Leclerc cares about is the rush and serenity that one gets from being completely lost in nature. He is a unique breed and perhaps born in the wrong decade and would have fitted in more in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen follow him, or at least try to, for the better part of two years as they capture some of his solo ascents and extremely difficult ones at that. Some of the footage is spectacular as you will be taken everywhere from rocky, ice-covered mountains in Canada to Patagonia in South America. If you are prone to vertigo and aren’t a fan of heights, like myself, you might find yourself looking away at times from the sheer size of some of the walls Leclerc climbs. But it is also intoxicatingly beautiful to look at.
The film explores his childhood and has several interviews with his mother and girlfriend Brette Harrington, herself a renowned climber. His mother, Michelle Kuiper, explains that Leclerc had a particularly difficult time at school as he had ADHD. He eventually went into homeschooling and his mother says learning was not confined to his desk and they often went on walks in the afternoon. Leclerc, accompanied by his mother, would spend hours exploring.
Leclerc also got into the partying crowd after school. Turning to alcohol and drugs, he could have easily gone down the wrong path. He says he freed himself from the scene and turned to the mountains.
I really feel that this was a missed opportunity by the filmmakers to delve deeper into the mental health subject. It seems to only touch on it from a superficial level. Perhaps they could have made use of an expert to explain what drives people to do these monumental but sometimes deadly feats. But this is one of the few misses in an otherwise enthralling documentary.
The film is the winner of the 2021 Critics' Choice Documentary Award for Best Sports Documentary and it’s easy to see why.
Even the filmmakers struggle to keep up with Leclerc at times. His lust for the beauty and quietness of the mountains knows no bounds. His free solo attempts get more and more audacious throughout the two-year period the film follows him. He often chooses to climb routes that he has no prior knowledge of – even world-renowned mountaineers are in awe of this young Canadian kid.
If you are an outsider, it’s difficult to imagine what would draw someone to a sport like this. Free solo climbing can be dangerous even for the most seasoned mountaineers. Leclerc climbs walls that are pretty much vertical with no rope and risks falls that will kill you almost effortlessly. He does it in such a casual manner that it is almost brazen. The film provides fascinating insight from some of the leading mountaineers on what motivates climbers.
If you’re a lover of the outdoors and hiking, you will love this film. Even if you’re not, it’s a gripping documentary about a phenomenal athlete who is barely known outside of his field. Some of the footage is truly astonishing as well. It is well worth a watch.
- The Alpinist is available to stream on Showmax