Like ‘Free Solo,’ ‘The Alpinist’ Captures the Thrills and Dangers of Free Climbing

I nearly opted to pass on this since I assumed it would be similar to watching Alex Honnold climb in Best Documentary Oscar-winner Free Solo (2018), and that was a visceral viewing experience that should not be messed with. To ease my concerns, directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen interview Honnold early on, and Alex makes it abundantly clear how impressed he is with the solo climbing of Marc-André Leclerc, the focus of this film.

The opening sequence is truly breathtaking as we watch Leclerc climb. The filmmakers followed him, or at least attempted to, for the better part of two years. Honnold explains that Leclerc never sought adulation or recognition, and purposefully remained under the radar – a form of purity (and elusiveness). But even climbers have a grapevine, and over time the stories of Leclerc’s solo climbs became somewhat legendary.

Two things are well known about free climbing: these folks are a different breed – beating to their own drum, and the risk of death is extraordinary (we see a roster of some who have perished). Somehow Leclerc is even more extreme than this community of extremists. He owned neither a cell phone nor a vehicle. He had no home, and in fact, he and his girlfriend Brette Harrington recounted sleeping in a stairwell (for warmth, not comfort). As kindred spirits, Leclerc and Brette would sometimes climb together, while other times, he would take off on a new adventure.

As elusive and private as he remained, Leclerc’s own time on camera endears him to us – whether he’s climbing or just talking. For such a young man, his thoughts seem clear and deep. He understands what makes him tick, and his mother admits a 9-to-5 job was never a possibility. Leclerc recalls his hard-partying phase, and how climbing helped him recover. The filmmakers panic about halfway through when their star goes AWOL and they struggle to track him down.

The photography is stunning at times, and there are drone shots that capture the spectacle of a lone climber dwarfed by nature. Just when our nerves are frazzled to bits, the ante gets upped with Leclerc displaying his ice-climbing ability, and his trip to Patagonia to take on Torre Egger, the most challenging climb in the Western Hemisphere. Other climbers provide some insight into the mindset, as well as Leclerc’s accomplishments. Brette and Leclerc’s mother also provide perspective, and while we may have some comprehension of alpinism and solo climbing, it’s Marc-André Leclerc’s natural habitat, and the only place he could quiet his mind.

Sadly, Marc-André Leclerc and his climbing partner, Ryan Johnson, died on March 5th, 2018, while climbing in Alaska. Their bodies were never recovered.