The Alpinist is about Canadian climber Marc-André Leclerc, a relative unknown in climbing circles who nonetheless set records scaling peaks without ropes, also known as free soloing. The closest point of comparison, of course, is Jimmy Chin’s Free Solo, the Academy Award-winning 2018 documentary about climber Alex Honnold. Free Solo was an in-depth look at the sport, with painstaking detail about the level of preparation required by the climbers and the emotional toll it takes on their loved ones. These climbers don’t just see a rock wall and start their way up; their climbs take months of study, mapping and preparation. Even so, it’s incredibly risky. Director Peter Mortimer’s The Alpinist is less about the sport itself and more about the singular character of Leclerc, who, at the time of his death in 2018 (after this documentary was mostly complete), had broken records but remained relatively reclusive — a climber for the sake of his soul rather than attention or material reward. Why was he drawn to climb without ropes?
Leclerc was born in British Columbia. He found himself uncomfortable in school and, after setting out on his own, came to find comfort living with as few material possessions as possible. He and his partner, fellow climber Brette Harrington, camp and climb together. Everyone Leclerc meets talks about him fondly, and even climbers like Honnold are impressed — and a little shocked — by his climbing accomplishments.
What sets Leclerc apart from many other climbers is that he largely has zero interest in participating in Mortimer’s project. The plan was to have the camera team accompany him on his record-breaking climbs; the film itself is structured in such a way that it builds to him breaking new records on camera. But Leclerc ghosts them. Climbing with a crew isn’t really going solo, is it? Of course, Leclerc was either under contract or just a good dude, so he does re-create the climbs with a crew later. Leclerc’s free-spirited, individualistic nature is what the film ultimately emphasizes. This is a man who climbs on his own terms. He has no interest in marketing himself.
This makes The Alpinist a little frustrating. Part of the fun of watching this type of documentary is watching the athletes do their work on the rock faces, which is an unimaginably intricate sport I’d never have the patience, dexterity, stamina or, frankly, intelligence to pull off. Few people do, which is the point. It’s not the filmmaker’s fault that Leclerc didn’t feel comfortable climbing with a crew’s eyes on him, but it does deflate the buildup to his crowning achievements. There are plenty of other climbs filmed, of course; it’s particularly incredible watching him climb a frozen waterfall, which is perhaps the most harrowing climbing footage I’ve seen in any documentary on the subject.
The specter of death haunts Leclerc’s free-soloing pursuit, and many of the interviews with him, his mother and Harrington touch on the subject. Even the best climbers are at constant risk of a single slip-up; the mountains themselves offer no real promise. Any hand-hold could slip out at a moment’s notice. Without a rope, you’re at the complete mercy of nature.
Leclerc lost his life in 2018 in an avalanche while climbing in Alaska. He wasn’t soloing; it was a fate that has befallen many climbers and hikers. The coda to the documentary is about those he left behind and his legacy as a climber. I hope this doesn’t sound crass, but the portion about Leclerc’s death and his memorial give form to a film that otherwise lacks a real ending due to Leclerc’s evasiveness as a subject. These movies are, after all, about a life-or-death activity, and the latter is as much a part of the former.
What would’ve been just another interesting documentary about a climber engaged in a dangerous sport becomes a standing memorial to a man who lived his life on his terms and left those around him better for having known him.