Filmmaking partners Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen, known for their extensive documentary work on climbing and for their Reel Rock Film Tour films, set their sights on Marc-André Leclerc, a legend in the climbing world living in relative obscurity. The Alpinist is a portrait of a disarmingly awkward and charming young man, driven to the most extreme of experiences.
Despite Mortimer and Rosen’s pedigree in making their own climbing films, the first comparison that most viewers will make is with Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s outstanding 2018 doc Free Solo, released the same year that the Mortimer and Rosen were wrapping up shooting on The Alpinist. It’s tempting to view the latter film as something of a spiritual sequel to Free Solo. It’s little surprise, too, but still a delight, to see Free Solo’s Alex Honnold waxing lyrical about Leclerc. But like the differences in their climbing – Honnold distinguishes his competitive, sportsmanlike approach from Leclerc’s laid-back, quasi-spiritual adventuring – The Alpinist is best met on its own terms.
Leclerc himself is intensely charming, while his stonery, laidback persona is somewhat at odds with the extreme focus and physical demands of his all-consuming passion. His groovy coup de grace comes in the film’s first act, when he nonchalantly describes some of the most challenging and dangerous mountains as simply “relaxing, just cruisin’ around”. His guileless sincerity belies any suspicion of false modesty, too. He is utterly uninterested in acclaim, glory or, God forbid, Instagram likes. At one point the directors are forced to abruptly shift tack after Leclerc gets bored with filming, goes AWOL only to start appearing on other climbers’ social media accounts, having nicked off to have the time of his life with his mates. Why does the man climb the mountain? Not because it is there, not to conquer it, but simply because he can and because he wants to. It is the simplest, most Zen-like of reasons: he climbs the mountain to climb it.
And boy, does he. The footage of Leclerc ascending sheer, near-featureless sheets of rock is so defiant of physics that it is easy to forget just how mind-bogglingly dangerous it is. That is, until, we learn he also likes to climb up frozen mountains, too, dangling from enormous, fragile glaciers that could disintegrate at any second. We’re reminded that around half of all solo alpinists die falling, while his peers struggle to justify his, and their own, recklessness.
Yet somehow, every time he’s on screen, either on the ground on in the sky, all that melts away in awe of the vertiginous sorcery before us, until, in moments of deeply-felt emotion, we are reminded that Leclerc is as human and vulnerable as the rest of us.