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This article first appeared on OutsideOnline.
Not so long ago, the headline “Dirtbag Rock Climbers Walk Down the Red Carpet to Accept Their Academy Award” would have seemed like an oxymoron—a violation of the very laws of nature.
But in 2019 it happened: light stopped being the fastest thing in the universe, up became down, and a little rock-climbing film called Free Solo won the Best Documentary Oscar. Sure enough, a bunch of climbers, who once were only recognized at dusty Camp 4 picnic tables in Yosemite Valley, strutted up onto that rarified stage. They even appeared to have showered.
The trajectory of the climbing-film canon tracks right alongside the progression of the sport itself—from the speed-metal-fueled flicks of the early nineties, to Hollywood’s extravagant mountaineering hyperboles of the 2000s, to the recent gripping vérité films showing the world’s best athletes laying their actual lives on the line.
Whether the below films are all “great” by today’s standards is beside the point—though great they all are in their own ways. They are mandatory viewing for anyone who calls themselves a climber. Watch them, quote them, be inspired by them, and, as Anderl Meier of The Eiger Sanction says, together “we shall continue with style.” Here are the 20 best climbing films ever.
20. North Face (2010)
Climbing the North Face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps was one of the first “last great problems” of mountaineering. It gained its fearsome reputation after various attempts resulted in climbers dying in horrible and gruesome ways. North Face (Nordwand, as it’s titled in German) dramatizes one of these horrific failures: the 1936 disaster in which Andreas Hinterstoisser, Toni Kurz, Willy Angerer, and Edi Rainer all perished. This subtitled German-language film veers from some of the historical facts but hews closely to the most haunting details from the tragedy, including a depiction of poor, doomed Kurz dangling for an eternity with thousands of feet of air beneath him, yet too far away from the mountainside to get himself back onto firm ground. The political subplots involving the Nazi regime’s ambitions around the first ascent of the Eiger’s “Murder Wall” slow the film down some, but hang in there—with all due respect to Herr Kurz—for some thrilling climbing drama.
Watch North Face on Amazon Prime
19. Sherpa (2015)
Mount Everest was the stage for two major films released in 2015. Everest, featuring Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, and Keira Knightley, is a dramatization of the infamous 1996 tragedy documented in Jon Krakauer’s iconic book Into Thin Air. But it is the other Everest film released that year, Sherpa, that delivers a better depiction of the tensions and dangers on the mountain today. Following the 2013 “Everest Brawl” that broke out after an unfortunate confrontation between a Sherpa rope-fixing team and three European hotshots, including the late Ueli Steck, Sherpa director Jennifer Peedom went to the peak in 2014 with the idea of doing a documentary on the Indigenous porters. That year, 16 Sherpas died in an avalanche while working to fix ropes and ladders across the dangerous Khumbu Icefall. The resulting film is richly textured, centering on a group of people who too often have been left out of the spotlight on the world’s tallest mountain. If you’re going to watch one thing about Everest, make it this.
Watch Sherpa on YouTube
18. Rampage (1999)
Go to any bouldering area in California today, where hordes of pad-carrying, tune-bumping young guns session five-star sickness, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine a time when most climbers didn’t take bouldering seriously, deriding it as “practice climbing.” Films like Rampage, though, helped usher in the bouldering revolution, opening up the sport to a wider and more youthful demographic. Rampage is the story of the then 18-year-old Chris Sharma, now considered one of the best rock climbers in history, and his charismatic, strong friend Obe Carrion, taking a road trip to some classic blocks around the West. Sharma slaps his way up dozens of first ascents of now iconic problems, demonstrating in the process why bouldering would be here to stay.
17. Masters of Stone I (1991)
The Masters of Stone videos were the first serialized climbing films. Eric Perlman (and also, originally, Mike Hatchett) directed a total of six Masters of Stone films over roughly two decades, beginning in 1991. But the first four, all released in the nineties, best represent the Masters of Stone brand of hardcore, heavy-metal-fueled extreme-sports action. These early works featured the day’s top brass, including Ron Kauk, Boone Speed, John Bachar, and, perhaps most memorably, Dan Osman. The latter performs some outrageous rope jumps and beautiful free solos, plus one in which he launches a totally reckless all-points-off dyno 400 feet up a wall. Choosing a favorite among the group is tough, but my vote goes to the OG: Masters of Stone I.
Watch Masters of Stone on Apple TV
16. Cliffhanger (1993)
Cliffhanger set the bar for contrived absurdity deliciously high. The characters of this fictional action flick are frequently shown free-soloing while wearing harnesses and full racks of climbing gear, for example. The film’s greatest gift to climbers, however, is the concept of a bolt gun, which shoots a bolt and hanger into the rock with a simple pull of the trigger. But peering behind the scenes of Cliffhanger, one finds legit authenticity: the climbing writer John Long inspired the concept, and none other than Wolfgang Güllich, perhaps the best climber in the world at the time, was Sylvester Stallone’s stunt double. (Stallone reportedly admitted to a fear of heights.) Then, after Güllich died in a car accident in 1992, Ron Kauk stepped in to finish the film’s stunts.
Watch Cliffhanger on Hulu
15. Vertical Limit (2000)
The first time climbers watch Vertical Limit, they laugh so hard that they start to cry. The Hollywood film is primarily set on K2, where everyone becomes an amphetamine junkie and then starts killing each other over the scarce supply of “dex.” But the opening scene, shot in Monument Valley, Arizona, is the best part. The two main characters, siblings Peter and Annie, are climbing with their father when a separate rope team above fully detaches from the wall. Right before they swing down, Peter shouts, for no reason, “We got amateurs at 12 o’clock, check your safety!” Then the dad blows a whistle (huh?). The falling climbers proceed to hit the lower team and shear bolts out of the rock, leaving everyone dangling from a single cam. This forces Peter to dramatically cut the cord, which kills his father. As you wipe away the tears (of laughter), you think, That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.
Watch Vertical Limit on Starz
14. The Eiger Sanction (1975)
Alex Honnold called the climbing scenes in The Eiger Sanction some of the “most realistic in all of Hollywood climbing.” And while the plot of this spy thriller doesn’t make sense, and the 1970s-era sexism and racism will make you cringe, the climbing scenes, at least, have stood the test of time. Desert-tower climbing aficionados in particular will appreciate the rare footage of Clint Eastwood sending the Totem Pole—considered the tallest, skinniest spire in the world—in Monument Valley. The film crew obtained permission to climb this striking, slender monolith from the Navajo Council, with the agreement that they’d clean all pitons left behind by prior climbers. Eastwood’s is considered the last legal ascent of this rare and beautiful tower. The beer that he and George Kennedy drink on top in the film must have tasted especially good.
Watch The Eiger Sanction on Starz
13. Dosage: Volume II (2003)
Dosage, from director Josh Lowell at Big Up Productions, was post–Masters of Stone and pre–Reel Rock Film Tour. Between 2001 and 2008, the Dosage series released five DVD volumes that featured some of the most memorable short films, or “doses,” of climbing in that era. Check out Dosage: Volume V to see Beth Rodden make the first ascent of Meltdown (5.14c), arguably the hardest rock climb ever established by a woman. And Chris Sharma sends the first ascent of Realization (now called Biographie) in Dosage: Volume I. The deep-water-soloing segment in Majorca with Klem Loskott in Dosage: Volume II, however, is a personal favorite that inspired me to take three trips to the Mediterranean island.
12. Torn (2022)
It’s hard to call Torn, directed by Max Lowe, a climbing film, yet it deserves its place on this list because it does a better job than any others here in capturing the emotional carnage wrought by a loved one’s death. Max’s father, Alex Lowe, was killed during an avalanche on Tibet’s Shishapangma in 1999, while his climbing partner, Conrad Anker, survived. Alex was considered the best all-around climber in the world, and stories of his legendary stoke and superhuman feats imbued him with hero status. His death left the climbing world reeling—and three young boys without a dad. Now an adult, Max set out to create a documentary about the loss of his father, whose remains were found in a glacier in 2016. In the process, he discovers that it’s a path to healing.
Watch Torn on Disney+
11. King Lines (2007)
Produced by Sender Films and Big Up Productions, King Lines was one of the first high-quality, feature-length climbing films to break out of the short-form dosage mold, raising the bar for climbing storytelling to something beyond mere climbing porn. King Lines is a profile of Chris Sharma, who spent at least two decades of his career widely being called the world’s best rock climber. This film centers on Sharma’s quest to establish the hardest deep-water solo in the world, on Es Pontas, an offshore arch in Majorca.
10. Hard Grit (1998)
The sound of a heartbeat opens the documentary Hard Grit, as we see a climber making his way up a plug of gritstone in the Peak District of England. The heartbeat quickens as he inches higher, entering the no-fall zone well above his last piece of gear. He lurches toward a hold but comes up short. He screams and takes a massive fall, nearly hitting the ground but instead crashing into the wall and breaking his leg. For this scene—and many that are very funny, thanks to some wonderful self-deprecating British humor—Hard Grit remains a timeless classic. It captures how many of the best and most important early rock climbers in the UK, from Jerry Moffatt and Ben Moon to Leo Houlding and Johnny Dawes, dealt with fear, and it shows why taking risks is important.
Watch Hard Grit on Vimeo
9. Progression (2009)
When the feature-length film Progression came out in the late aughts, climbing was on the brink of changing in a big way. Viral media bonanzas that swept the country, like the one surrounding the first Dawn Wall free ascent to climbing’s Olympic debut to the climbing-gym revolution, were right on the horizon. This film, about a series of climbers pushing the sport to the next level, seems especially prescient in hindsight. Progression features the first look at Tommy Caldwell’s vision for the Dawn Wall, for example, as well as Kevin Jorgeson’s big media debut as a high-ball boulderer; that these two would eventually team up to tackle the Dawn Wall is, perhaps in a small way, the result of this film. With footage of Chris Sharma sending the world’s first 5.15b, and a young Adam Ondra promising to one day take that torch, Progression lives up to its name in every sense.
8. 14 Peaks (2021)
The film 14 Peaks is about one of the most impressive mountaineering feats of the century: Nirmal Purja’s ascent of all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks in only seven months. The previous record was seven years. Purja is an utterly riveting character: charismatic, confident (sometimes even cocky), and fiercely committed to his very dangerous quest. The documentary is beautifully shot and displays some high-quality Himalayan footage, but the tender humanity in the contrast between Purja’s immense ambition and willingness to risk himself and his ailing mother’s mortality back home is what elevates the film.
Watch 14 Peaks on Netflix
7. Valley Uprising (2014)
They say that Yosemite is the center of the rock-climbing universe, and culturally speaking, it’s hard to argue otherwise. In the 1970s, the park’s Camp 4 campground was home to a band of rock-climbing hippies called the Stonemasters, which included Ron Kauk, John Bachar, Lynn Hill, John Long, Dean Fidelman, and others. They weren’t just pushing the limits and establishing big new routes, they were defining a kind of counterculture, dirtbag way of life that was more than an aesthetic. Their commitment to renouncing the creature comforts of mainstream society in order to party, do drugs, live free, and climb as much as possible persists in climbing today. The era is immortalized (albeit through a nostalgic lens) in Sender Films’ second feature, Valley Uprising. The documentary captures the essence of climbing’s bohemian background, and in doing so, it illuminates where the climbing lifestyle is going next.
Watch Valley Uprising on Amazon Prime or Reel Rock
6. Reel Rock 7 (2012)
The Reel Rock Film Tour is climbing’s annual movie celebration, premiering memorable, riveting, and well-told climbing stories. There’s always at least one outstanding work each year, alongside others that are merely great. Reel Rock 15’s Black Ice comes to mind for its affecting portrait of a group of Memphis, Tennessee, climbers who try ice climbing for the first time. So does Reel Rock 12’s Break on Through, which documents Margo Hayes’s journey in becoming the first woman to climb a 5.15. And who doesn’t love Reel Rock 11’s Dodo’s Delight, about Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll, Ben Ditto, and brothers Nico and Olivier Favresse’s sea-faring big-wall adventure? But if I had to choose just one year to watch, I’d have to go with Reel Rock 7; it captures the near Shakespearean drama of Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra’s battle to be first to climb La Dura Dura (5.15c), presents parts of the Meru Shark’s Fin saga (see below), and highlights the “Wide Boyz”—Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker, two brilliant trad climbers from the UK—doing a 5.14 offwidth in America, as well as Alex Honnold covering more vertical terrain in Yosemite in a single day than anyone in history.
5. The Alpinist (2021)
Marc-André Leclerc was one of the most enigmatic and boldest climbers of his generation. The Canadian, known for his mop of curly hair and goofy grin, completed unbelievable solos in the big mountains of Patagonia and the Canadian Rockies—and yet few knew much about who Leclerc really was. In The Alpinist, the Sender Films team attempts to capture the real person behind these daring feats, a difficult task not just because Leclerc proved to be elusive, but because he died during the film’s production. In 2018, he and his partner, Ryan Johnson, went missing in Alaska and were presumed buried in an avalanche on their descent. While The Alpinist features some of the most gripping free-solo footage you’ll ever see, the documentary’s true success is rendering a complete portrait of a talented young man whose life was cut short.
Watch The Alpinist on Netflix
4. Meru (2015)
The Shark’s Fin, or central peak of Mount Meru, in the Himalaya, has been an object of true obsession among elite alpinists around the world. For decades, many have tried and failed to reach the top of this big wall, which sits at nearly 21,000 feet. Meru is the definitive feature film documenting Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk’s eventual first ascent. Their achievement was years in the making and included the heartbreak of just missing the summit in 2008, as well as Ozturk’s subsequent recovery from a broken back in a ski accident. The married couple Chin and Elizabeth “Chai” Vasarhelyi’s directorial debut captures the maniacal commitment that is sometimes required to achieve really hard routes, and it speaks to the lengths to which climbers will go to get to the top.
Watch Meru on Amazon Prime
3. Touching the Void (2003)
Touching the Void, written by Joe Simpson, is perhaps the best mountaineering book ever, as the events it describes defy belief. In 1985, disaster struck while Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, descended from the summit of 20,814-foot Siula Grande, in Peru. After Simpson fell down a cliff and broke his leg, Yates was faced with the horrible decision of cutting the rope, knowing it would kill Simpson but that otherwise both would die. Yates agonized but ultimately did what needed to be done to save himself. Amazingly, Simpson was mangled but not killed by his fall into the crevasse. With two broken legs, he actually crawled out of it and off the mountain—but barely survived. Touching the Void honors the book with remarkable fidelity and a quality of filmmaking that quite possibly remains unmatched in any climbing film before or since.
Watch Touching the Void on Amazon Prime
2. The Dawn Wall (2017)
The Dawn Wall was the climb that went viral, marking 2015 as the year the once fringe sport finally gained mainstream awareness and interest. So much coverage and attention were paid to Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s first free ascent of this route on El Capitan that it seemed unlikely a subsequent film could ever impress hardcore climbers who were sick of hearing about it. And yet The Dawn Wall—which explores Caldwell’s incredible life story, from being kidnapped by Islamic terrorists in Kyrgzstan, to cutting his finger off with a table saw, to his painful divorce from fellow pro climber Beth Rodden—managed to surpass everyone’s expectations for how rich and rewarding a climbing film could be.
Watch The Dawn Wall on Amazon Prime
1. Free Solo (2018)
Of course Free Solo is number one on this list—it’s the only climbing film to win an Oscar. It dissects Alex Honnold’s completion of the first free solo of El Capitan, a goal he’d been working toward for a decade, building up his skill, confidence, and uncanny ability to turn off the part of the brain that should feel very, very afraid. I consider Honnold’s achievement not only the greatest climb of all time but perhaps the world’s greatest sporting achievement. Directors Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi could have filmed Honnold’s four-hour solo with a handheld iPhone from the Yosemite Valley floor, and it still would’ve had me gripped. Instead, the awesome top-down footage that Chin and his team captured of Honnold performing hard, scary moves without a rope, 3,000 feet up America’s biggest monolith, is just spectacular, palm-sweating, adrenaline-inducing goodness. Beyond the climbing footage, Free Solo seriously attempts to answer the question of why climbers are compelled to risk it all for such an elusive reward; it turns out, that answer can’t really be put into words, not even by Honnold himself, but must be experienced directly and viscerally, with your heart racing at the airy sweep of exposure beneath your feet. Free Solo helps viewers experience a taste of what that’s like. And for that reason, it’s everything a climbing film should be.