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A Review of The Alpinist—What It Means to Live, and Die, in the Mountains

The Alpinist is a bold new film about Marc-André Leclerc, a cutting-edge Canadian climber. Leclerc died in an avalanche in 2018. This film pays homage with depth and complexity.

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The Alpinist (2021)
Directed by Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen.
A Sender Films and Red Bull Media House production.
Film Website.


The best climbing stories are not about climbing. The same is true with climbing films. The Alpinist, which opens nationwide today, is about life and death, about what it means to live, and what it means to die. It’s a winning formula, like that of all great art, and the film treads this line with acuity, veteran savvy, and complexity. It might just be the best film ever made on alpine climbing, but that misses the point. 

The point is Marc-André Leclerc. His legacy. What drove him. Amid the breathtaking landscapes and mind-binding shots of his free soloing, the filmmakers do not lose their focus on Leclerc and what his life meant, and we shouldn’t either. 

Is the film a must-see? Yep.

In The Alpinist, directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen tell the life story of Leclerc, the late Canadian alpinist hailed by just about everyone as the one pushing the sport’s razor edge. Which he did. It wasn’t lost on the producers that this film, which will go big, is arguably the opening and closing of Leclerc’s entrance into the limelight. That’s undeniably a heavy burden. In 2018 Leclerc died in an avalanche alongside Ryan Johnson, after making the first ascent of a new route in Alaska’s Mendenhall Towers. Leclerc was 25 years old.

Though we reported on him, minus a few select insiders, no one really knew what Leclerc was up to, a secretive existence intentional on Leclerc’s part. And so, the main thrust of the film is about getting to know the “elusive” Leclerc. If Free Solo was about obsession, the Dawn Wall about depression and triumph, then The Alpinist is about falling in love. With mountains. And with an idea.

At times, the film is funny and self-effacing. Despite agreeing to be filmed, Marc ignores calls from the filmmakers. He skips town and heads to the mountains. He doesn’t have a phone. The filmmakers buy him one. He doesn’t use it. They get wind that he’s in the Ghost Valley, and so they send a local shooter to the backcountry to see what Leclerc is up to. He’s climbing with Brette Harrington, his girlfriend, putting up new routes! The filmmakers throw up their hands, and scenes of them stressed out on phones, talking to one another, trying to figure out how to get in touch with Marc, makes for light-hearted drama. 

Leclerc all smiles in Patagonia after a hard solo. Austin Siadak / Red Bull Media House

The first emotional entrance point for viewers is empathizing with Marc’s free wheelin’ existence, which most people will identify with, despite living vastly different lives. The second is from the filmmakers’ perspective—a small group who are trying to create every burgeoning professional climber’s dream: to be the star of their own feature film. Who doesn’t want a feature film on them? they are surely asking themselves.

Part of the deeper revelation of the film is in the answers they find, because those answers are revealing about who Leclerc was, and what he does, and doesn’t want.

The “making of” type of content, seen also in Free Solo, is excellent framing on the trials, comedy, and frustrations of chasing down an itinerant, early-twenty-something climber who just wants to go climbing. And yet, the film is not intrusive, and Marc isn’t being juvenile. He isn’t just annoyed with the film—it’s part of his romanticism, his idealism about what it means to live, or, more precisely, what you don’t need to live. Marc’s avoidance of cell phones, communication duties, a camera in front of him, a stable abode…all of this is reflected in his style of climbing, i.e., bring with you only what you need, and then cut that in half. 

Minimal distraction = maximal experience. I can’t disagree.

For those unaware, to be at the “avant garde” of alpinism means you are doing challenging snow/ice/mixed routes, on big faces, onsight, solo, and in alpine style. That there are few who live to 30 in this genre of climber is worth mentioning outright. To say it’s a dangerous game is an understatement: chess is a game, and most people think walking on a log across a river is dangerous. Personally, I found the footage of Leclerc soloing steep mixed routes on the Stanley Headwall very uncomfortable. Still, I’m drawn into these scenes, fixated, unbelieving, astonished, and worried. It’s hard to breathe when watching—even though I know he doesn’t fall. The camerawork, the silent grit and mastery of the climbing in these scenes, tells you exactly of the caliber of climber Leclerc was. 

Unless you have done difficult, overhanging mixed routes like that, it’s hard to explain how dangerous it really is. In 2016, Leclerc soloed three routes on the Stanley Headwall. No one had done that before, not even close. When the legendary Canadian alpinist Barry Blanchard says “wow, I never thought of that” in regards to soloing on the Stanley, that should tell you all you need to know.

Like the great soloists before him—Peter Croft, John Bachar, Derek Hersey, Alex Honnold—Leclerc climbs with poise and steadiness; he seems unperturbed by friable rock and delicate dry tooling high above the deck. “Clarity, calmness, control” says Marc. 

Overall, the scenes of Leclerc mixed climbing are top shelf, and I feel bad for future filmmakers who have to follow in these footsteps. Props to the rigging and filming crew to capture this type of winter climbing—sometimes rope-gunning a camera person up a steep ice route before Marc solos behind them, hot on their heels—because it’s a monumental feat in itself, hence why you don’t see a lot of it. 

A casual day out soloing in Squamish with Brette Harrington. Rick Wheater / Red Bull Media House

The film comes out swinging with some of the most mind-blowing footage I’ve ever seen—Leclerc free soloing the NE Buttress of Mt Slesse, in British Columbia, in winter. It’s right up there with Alex Honnold on the crux of Freerider and Ueli Steck scratching up an Eiger solo speed record. The footage of Leclerc perched high, ropeless, picking his way up steep ramps of dark choss and insecure snow is sublime (in the aesthetic sense) and visceral. Mt. Slesse sets a high bar cinematographically, but it’s also the meta commentary on what, and who, you are about to learn about.

The film can roughly be divided into sections: Leclerc’s roots in the Squamish climbing scene, his onsight solo of the Emperor Face of Mount Robson, and Torre Egger in winter. Marc’s beginnings are framed in a few manners, with the help of local characters—Hevy Duty comes to mind, a real gem—as well as Brette Harrington (Marc’s girlfriend and a professional alpinist in her own right) and Marc’s mother, Michelle Kuipers. Barry Blanchard, Reinhold Messner, Alex Honnold, Will Gadd and a few others provide context for the young climber and his position vis a vis the boundaries he was breaking. 

Frequently, when Leclerc is on camera, or his mother is talking about him, there are faint sounds of organs, or pipes (I’m sure it’s not really organs) but that somber, almost funereal vibe, is there. The cuts of interviewees are slice and dice, small punctuations on a film otherwise focused squarely on its target. A thread is picked up in The Alpinist that you find in Free Solo as well, that of a dorky outsider who didn’t fit in at school, finds his place in a counter culture, i.e., climbing, and who then, like the reveal at the first dance of the semester, walks in the door and stuns everyone. The Squamish scene certainly didn’t see it coming, until it did.

Leclerc comes across as charming, likable, easy going, and aloof, at times. The men in the film tend to talk about his climbing and feats, while the women—mainly Brette and his mother—paint the young climber as easy to love, a free spirit, compassionate, different. Perhaps Free Solo normalized ropeless climbing, or maybe it’s just me, but the scenes of Leclerc and Harrington free soloing together on The Chief are the climbing film equivalent of Hollywood’s romance bike ride through the park. Brette was great to Leclerc—she helped him see himself and his climbing with more clarity, which meant, at the time, moving on from drugs.

After watching the film a few times, it struck me that struggle is somewhat absent in the film. Leclerc has a wonderful companion, seems care-free, and accomplishes all his goals. What drug habits he had, he got rid of them. Where is his darkness?, because we all have it. And yet, the more I thought about it, the answer was there in the film—Marc’s struggle was in living up to the vision he set for himself. That ideal was the sounding board through which all needed to pass: what climbs to do, in what style, to bring a camera crew or not. 

While The Alpinist could have been made in the 1970s, as just about any of the Stonemasters would have been amazing character studies, it also couldn’t have been made. The appetite, and hence the budget, just didn’t exist. Back then, the counterculture of climbing was a liability, not a curiosity, to culture writ large. Pop culture is now fascinated with climbers, which itself is equally fascinating to climbers. Who, us?…Really? 

As a lifelong climber, I’m incapable of putting myself in the shoes of my uncle, for instance, who will browse and watch the film online. What will he see? I imagine he will see a free thinking “thrillseeker,” yes, but he will also get a heavy dose of one version of the climber’s life, however vague a phrase that is. Climbers, and the climbing life, is about unplugging, or at least that’s the idealism of it, you know, the Beatnick, Camp 4, now #vanlife quality to it all. To that effect, the film pits Marc’s vision of life against that of “media,” and all the word represents. What makes Marc tick is, in so many ways, not what makes the rest of us tick. Understanding this question is, as Mortimer and Rosen imply, understanding Leclerc. And they’re right. The answer says as much about climbing as it does about (modern) mediated life in general.

This question mark is brought to the surface in the narrative of Marc as indifferent to press or fame. That in-itself is cathartic, and it’s delightful that such a person exists. We need more of them. And yet, to think LeClerc’s indifference to media is an aside, or simply adjacent to his penchant for hard alpine solos would be misguided. Unplugging is a form of plugging in. The intensity and focus of hard alpine soloing amplifies being plugged in, or, better yet, is the prerequisite thereof.

There are several times where you want to sit Marc down and say, “you’re going to die if you continue like this.” As a fellow alpinist, one who has lost friends, written obits, and had to report on the near cleaning-out of next-gen alpinists in 2019when David Lama, Hansjorg Auer and Jess Roskelley died in an avalanche on Howse Peak, in the Canadian Rockiesone thing I would have liked to see in the film is a climber, whether Gadd or Blanchard or Slawinski, going on record that they approached Leclerc and said something to the tune of, “son, you need to slow down.” I say that because the life of an alpinist is often a short one. Marc wasn’t a careless climber, quite the opposite, but he rolled the dice and won a lot, so much so his risk tolerance only increased. 

The Emperor Face of Mt. Robson, Canada, which Leclerc would solo in a day. Scott Serfas / Red Bull House Media.

Leclerc’s first attempt on the East Pillar of Torre Egger, in Patagonia, saw him get four pitches from the summit. He wisely bailed due to a horrific storm. On the same trip, sans bivy gear, he succeeded. Torre Egger does not get climbed a lot in the winter (Leclerc’s was only the second winter ascent). Much less soloed. With discipline and subtlety, the film underscores that Torre Egger was more than just a chest-pounding “first ever.” For Leclerc, it was a dream realized, a dream extending from his earliest days reading about the alpine greats (he was a book worm and devoured such literature). Torre Egger was symbolic of his romantic leanings. Leclerc, and the film, frames his bold ascents in terms of what the mountain brings to him, not what he brings to it. 

Once again, Honnold nails it with commentary, unabashedly laying bare his competitive nature—against LeClerc for the Grand Wall’s speed record—but also their two different approaches. “He doesn’t even care if anyone even knows what he’s climbing,” Honnold says….He cares about the experience in the mountains, and the journey, and just wants to have a good time while he’s out there.”

Marc was very protective of the climbing experience. In one telling clip, the filmmakers are talking to Marc, and they are frustrated as to why he keeps avoiding them. Marc tells them that soloing with a camera crew isn’t really soloing, since you are not alone. Mortimer’s face lights up with a wry smile, indicative of truth being told. On the other hand, I wonder if Marc should have been equally protective of those he loved, specifically Brette and his mother, whom he left behind. Some will call him reckless with his life, others noble in how he spent his time. Everyone and no one is right.  

“It’s difficult to defend,” Messner states. “If the death was not a possibility, coming out would be nothing. It would be kindergarten…but not an adventure, and not an art.” For the record, I don’t think Messner is right, but ironically, of his early childhood, Leclerc noted that “kindergarten was awesome,” but then, in first grade, his school experience declined. 

What do you do with that? Leclerc managed to remain playful in the midst of death. He was a master in his craft, a savant, dedicated, and in love. Near the end of the film, his mother says that Leclerc’s journey is about “not holding back.” We need to heed her advice.

>>Find the film near you.

This article is free, but for just $2 a month you can access thousands more like it on climbing.com, PLUS receive a year of Climbing magazine in print, delivered right to your door. Click here to join the Climbing team and reap the rewards!



Francis Sanzaro
is the Editor-in-Chief of Ascent and Gym Climber. Find him HERE.


 

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