If You Liked ‘Free Solo,’ Here’s Another Climbing Doc to Make Your Palms Sweat: ‘The Alpinist’
The Alpinist, out September 10, captures some of the most awe-inspiring free solo climbing footage ever seen on rock and ice. Filmmakers Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen of Sender Films, core climbers who’ve documented the sport for 20 years, tell the story of Marc-André Leclerc, regarded as the best alpinist in history.
After getting a tip that the young climber had been hitchhiking his way across the Trans-Canada Highway and ticking off impressive ropeless ascents of demanding ice routes, Mortimer and Rosin, producers of Valley Uprising (2014) and The Dawn Wall (2017), find Leclerc living in a tent in the forest in Squamish, B.C. with his girlfriend and professional alpinist Brette Harrington. They follow him for two years to understand the young climber’s drive.
Along the way, they capture Leclerc free soloing vertical rock in Squamish, known as the Yosemite Valley of Canada. Here, he flows up the stone with such grace and intuitiveness that it’s like watching a ballet dancer execute a perfect routine—only he’s ropeless and risking death at every step. In one scene, he climbs overhanging rock and ice barehanded, frequently pausing to gently dust holds with one finger before placing a single crampon point onto an invisible edge.
In another section, Leclerc ascends a swath of seemingly blank limestone to reach an overhanging block of ice. Near the top, he cuts his feet free from the stone and dangles, effortlessly from one arm, leaving the filmmakers dumbfounded and mumbling, “Holy shit, dude.” Leclerc awkwardly shrugs off the experience and explains it’s just another day in the mountains. “A memorable one,” he says before injecting a half-smile.
The film also shows his footloose and fancy-free side, including hula-hooping with his close friend Hevy Duty, an older British expatriate who often has multi-colored hair and lives by the mantra: “climb, eat, dance, repeat.”
Otherworldly is one way to describe Leclerc’s personality. He began taking hallucinogens as a teen, preferring to take higher doses than his peers and disappearing for days on end. He’s a bit awkward and often stares off at nothing in particular.
Deeply driven and incredibly athletic, it’s clear Leclerc was free of the confines of this world. Whether it was his past visual experiences or real-life enriching ones in the mountains, he’s on his own path. And part of what makes this film work is that he could care less about the movie and being its central figure.
Mortimer and Rosen gifted him a cell phone so they could contact the nascent wanderer, which he naturally lost in the wild before disappearing. The absence drives the filmmakers crazy, especially after Leclerc climbed Mount Robson in the Canadian Rockies, considered one of the most difficult alpine solo ascents ever completed, and left them out of it. When they ask him why he didn’t tell them his plans, he returned plainly, “It wouldn’t be a solo if you were there.” Luckily for viewers, he agrees to return to the climb with cameras rolling, and the filmmakers capture scenes of ropeless climbing at the highest caliber on one of the most recognizable and intimidating peaks in North America.
After Robson, the film builds up to Leclerc’s winter, solo ascent of Torre Egger in Patagonia, a complex tower in the range known for having the world’s worst weather.
Here he’s accompanied by film editor and friend Austin Siadak, who follows Leclerc through deep snow, over thin ice runnels, and across exposed granite where crampons squeak and scratch underfoot. At halfway, Leclerc continues alone, making it within a few hundred feet of the summit before bivying on a snow ledge. That night, recording himself from his tent, he tells Harrington that he loves her before putting the camera away. Soon a storm erupts over the range that drives Leclerc down, where he rappels through the torrent and returns to camp battered but intact. Instead of turning tail, when the storm clears, he goes back up.
Leclerc was born in 1992 in Nanaimo, British Columbia, and disappeared in March 2018 while descending the Mendenhall Towers in Alaska. During his brief 26 years on Earth, he tallied up a resume of climbs that skyrocketed him to the top of his field, including solo ascents of Cerro Torre and Torre Egger in Patagonia, Mount Slesse in B.C’s Cascade Mountains, and the Emperor Face on Mount Robson in the Canadian Rockies.
The Alpinist is produced by Red Bull Media House in association with Sender Films. The film will be released by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment and Roadside Attractions on Sept. 10.