The Alpinist: Don’t look down

Dizzying climbing documentary best viewed on the largest possible screen

The Alpinist is ‘a fine yarn that arcs towards a memorable denouement’.

Film Title: The Alpinist

Director: Peter Mortimer, Nick Rosen

Starring: Marc-André Leclerc, Britte Harrington, Alex Honnold, Reinhold Messner, Barry Blanchard

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 93 min

Fri, Sep 24, 2021, 05:00


The shadow of Free Solo, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s dizzying climbing documentary from 2018, inevitably hangs over this latest contribution to a burgeoning sub-genre. As was the case with that film, viewers with a stable stomach are advised to seek out The Alpinist on the biggest screen available.

The early shot of a tiny Marc-André Leclerc hanging implausibly from a soaring snow-capped peak offers a startling introduction to the most unusual of heroes. Free Solo had its own oddball protagonist in Alex Honnold – who appears briefly here – but Leclerc seems more remarkable still. He is obsessive, but kind and open. He is helpful to the film-makers, but prone to veering off on his own without warning. “It wouldn’t be solo if somebody else was there,” he says of one climb that remained unrecorded (and, to be fair, you can’t argue with that impeccable logic). Few so potentially infuriating men have come across as so likeable.

The opening section works hard at filling in background details about climbing and, more specifically, about the rawest, most dangerous corners of the activity. “It is more than a sport. It is an ideal,” somebody says. That sort of recreational grandiosity can be hard to take for the uninitiated and, sure enough, some of those interviewed come across as exhaustingly earnest. You get the same with surfers, marathon runners and cave divers. The rewards seem to be similar to those offered by religion: community, purpose, transcendence. None of which quite explains why anyone would put themselves so close to martyrdom. It is here claimed that half of solo climbers end up dying. “If death is not a possibility then coming out would be nothing,” Reinhold Messner, the veteran Tyrolean mountaineer, tells the camera.

With all this in mind, some may jump to the unstable conclusion that something must have been missing from the early life of a man like Leclerc. What drives a fellow to teeter so close to annihilation? Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen’s film wisely offers no glib solutions. “These are just dumb questions,” another climber says early on when asked why he doesn’t attach himself to a rope. True, Leclerc, raised in British Columbia, does seem to have gone through a period of what North Americans call “heavy partying”. His family note that he has a version of ADHD. But he has a charming, enormously supportive mother and an equally friendly girlfriend. We see him connecting casually with children at base camp. Just as there is no easy explanation for genius, there is no easy explanation for the urge towards mortal danger. It would be insulting to all kinds of individuals to pretend there is. 

The film certainly does a good job of showing quite what challenges the ambitious alpinist encounters. However overpowering the images of dangling bodies may be, one is always wondering how the GoPro camera got so close to the film’s subject. Such a film would be inconceivable just 10 years ago. We see fingers easing into unaccommodating cracks. We see crampons scratching against resistant ledges. To the idiot, uninformed observer, the activity seems to proceed on the basis that some hidden Godly hand has provided steps and handholds for those gifted enough to discover them. The climber is, in that sense, like the artist seeking the sculpture that lies hidden within the stone.

The Alpinist does not, perhaps, have quite so many heart-in-your-mouth climbing sequences as we encountered in Free Solo. The film-makers’ decision to layer irritating music beneath too many of the ground-level sequences is to be greatly regretted. But, as a study of a remarkable young man, Mortimer and Rosen’s film cannot be faulted. A fine yarn that arcs towards a memorable denouement