Once upon a time, climbing was a niche activity mainly of interest to the few who took part in it. Those days are long gone, however—today, climbing a big business with mainstream appeal, whether you’d like to book a trip to Everest, train for the Olympics, or just watch other people doing amazing things in stunningly photogenic surroundings. And yet there’s still space in the sport for people who climb simply to climb, and who are known primarily to others in the world of mountaineering. Such an individual is the Canadian solo climber Marc-André Leclerc, who many of the top climbers in the world identify as the best of the best.
Leclerc, known among his fellow climbers for his daring solo free climbs, is the subject of Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen’s The Alpinist. Outside the mountaineering community, however, he was basically unknown, by his own choice. Of course, that will all change with the release of this documentary, one of several paradoxes Mortimer and Rosen raise but never really resolve.
Leclerc as an adult comes off as an unusual but likeable guy, a role model for people who realize they’re not just like everyone else and find their own path to excellence rather than trying to conform. He leads a somewhat reclusive, nomadic existence, at one point living in a stairwell and at another in a tent, because he was all about the climbing. Exactly how that all worked out is elided over, but asking too many questions would impede the legend-building that is one of this film’s goals.
Besides being a chronicle of some amazing mountaineering, The Alpinist is the story of a guy who found his tribe—other climbers, including his girlfriend Brette Harrington—who love and accept him for who he is. And it’s the story of a guy who was extremely lucky to have been born to parents who realized that he was different in ways fundamental enough that he would never be able to fit into the kind of molds required by conventional schools and workplaces, and who allowed him to grow into the person he was meant to be. It’s frightening to think about what might he might have become had they been less perceptive or more conventional, so let’s take a moment to honor all the parents who love and support their children for who they are, rather than who the parents might have wished them to be.
You can’t have a mountaineering film without great cinematography, and Jonathan Griffith, Brett Lowell, and Austin Siadak are more than up to the task in The Alpinist. The opening sequence in particular will blow you away, and there’s lots of scenic beauty on display throughout this film. Unfortunately, the story fizzles out in the second half. due to things that happened in real life rather than any intention of the filmmakers. The result is that The Alpinist doesn’t quite rise to the heights of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Free Solo, which focused on Alex Honnold’s free solo ascent of El Capitan. Of course, Free Solo won the 2019 Oscar for Best Documentary, so that’s a tough standard to meet, and The Alpinist is still a must-see for anyone interested in climbing, and an enjoyable watch even if you’re not. | Sarah Boslaugh