Movie Review: The Alpinist

The Alpinist is an unconventional sports documentary, which tracks Canadian mountain climber, Marc-André Leclerc, whose death-defying solo ascents are some of the boldest in history. It’s unconventional mostly because of its subject in Marc-André, who drew the attention of directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen, based on his extreme and meticulous ascents in Squamish. Garnering high praise on an obscure website, Peter Mortimer decided to find out more about a guy who actively avoids all forms of social media and communication technology. This is the tension that runs deep in The Alpinist, a documentary about a guy who isn’t in it for the accolades, glory or international recognition. As much as Leclerc deserves the limelight, if it were up to him, he’d rather go it alone.

This purity of spirit is what separates The Alpinist from other climbing documentaries where mountaineers are reaching peaks in record-breaking time or encapsulating a life’s worth of sporting achievement. Marc-André Leclerc didn’t ask for fame or fortune, a guy who just wanted to live free or die hard. Described as a “dirt bag” by close friends who he’d probably call family, the socially-awkward character isn’t easy in front of camera. An active kid who nursed a deep appreciation for the great outdoors, he’s the kind of guy who’d happily live off the land. Living in the moment, Leclerc’s bohemian lifestyle found him setting up camp in a stairwell with his girlfriend and fellow climber, Brette Harrington. Unafraid when it came to psychedelic experiences – photos and footage from parties underscore his affinity for being a real wild child.

It’s this wild at heart spirit that recalls films like Captain Fantastic and Into the Wild, both chronicles of people who purposefully slipped off the radar to seek a greater truth to this thing called life. Leclerc had his Squamish community and while they aren’t completely cut off from society, the climbing hub has an off-the-grid alternate culture. Said to have grown up a few decades too late for his temperament, the 20-something unplugged from most electronic devices, dedicating his life to relying on good company, nature and pushing the limits of new rockfaces. Actively distancing himself from mainstream culture and opting to live a “supertramp” life, The Alpinist has a number of strong parallels with Christopher McCandless’ epic cross-country journey, which inspired Sean Penn’s moving biographical coming-of-age adventure drama, Into the Wild.

You could also liken The Alpinist to Summit of the Gods, which gave more scale and experiential detail to the actual climb, something sorely lacking in the impressive yet quick-paced 14 Peaks documentary. While animated, Summit of the Gods dealt with mountain climbing and Alpinism from a purist’s perspective trying to unpack the enigmatic allure of the dangerous sport. While a tale about recovering long lost photos of a legendary climber who made the mountain his resting place, Summit of the Gods has a surreal and spiritual undertone. It’s in this special meditative space where The Alpinist operates, asking and answering some lofty questions… evanescent by the time the climber reaches the apex on each new climbing mission.

the alpinist film

“Last one to the top… gets to be last one to the top.”

The Alpinist serves as a stirring character portrait of Leclerc and an introspective hunt for the kernel of truth that belies the endeavour. It’s also a chronicle of a revolutionary with many other legendary solo climbers such as Alex Honnold, Reinhold Messner and Barry Blanchard chiming in with adulation for Marc-André Leclerc. Constantly citing just how ambitious and dangerous his climbs are, covering mixed surfaces and doing the near-impossible with next to no equipment – one gets a fresh appreciation for the mastery from dizzying heights. From breaking a longstanding speed record to ascending the notorious Torre Egger in Patagonia, Argentina in winter in “awful conditions” – Leclerc’s purity, graceful movements and calculated solo climbing are awe-inspiring and unreal.

Following his heart and dreams, it’s an inspirational documentary that dares people to live like their days are numbered. Taking more risks, not caring what others think as much, not working so hard and spending more time with those you love – Marc-André instilled things people typically lament from their deathbed. Leclerc knows the dangers, realises a misstep or avalanche could be fatal, yet plies this nameless philosophy into a deep love for the present and being mindful. His in-the-moment ascents recall the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius, who is quoted as saying “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live”. This becomes so apparent that the subject’s purity is often at odds with the nature of filmmaking, cutting through the irony of accomplishment and accompaniment.

Shirking his “responsibility” to the documentary crew and going back to his roots, Leclerc disappears wanting to experience new climbs for himself. It’s at this point that Mortimer’s narration gradually fades out to be replaced by Leclerc who tells his own story as the documentary changes tack. It’s this phenomenal and seamless handover that elevates a powerful story into a great one as the filmmakers attempt to transcend the medium in an effort to capture the proverbial lightning in a bottle and do Leclerc’s monumental story justice. To this end, they succeed, shedding their own documentary ambitions to become just as transfixed as their subject in relaying his story with the same love and purity he approaches (or approached) every rockface.

The bottom line: Stirring