Why on earth do people climb free solo? In 2018 Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi brought Alex Honnold’s solo ascent of El Capitan to our screens everywhere in the documentary Free Solo. It won Best Documentary at the 2019 Oscars and made climbing docs something of a mainstream hobby.
When Tim Ferris asked Alex Honnold on a podcast who he was impressed by, and who he thought was taking the next steps in climbing, launching new frontiers of what human bodies are capable of; his immediate answer was Marc-André Leclerc. The Alpinist.
Marc-André is a somewhat eccentric young man, as most climbers are. After ADHD caused difficulties in mainstream education, he was home educated and encouraged to find his passions independently. He begins climbing, initially in jeans and trainers and gradually developing into a skilled alpinist who leaves home for Squamish, British Columbia at the age of 16. Here he meets a group of likeminded climbing obsessed young (and a few old) people, who become his family away from home.
Marc-André isn’t happy to limit himself to the local climbs. He begins to look further for more and more dangerous faces to solo. Expanding to not just climbing rock faces in summer, but riskier ones in harsher weather including up sheer ice and snow. He seems to have an uncanny ability to read the rocks and ice in front of him, instinctively being able to pick out routes as he goes.
The directors of this documentary, Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen, are like in many more modern climbing films, actively engaged in the narrative. They annotate and narrate Marc-André’s climbs, building an impression of an ongoing relationship with him. Marc-André is an elusive figure at times though, unimpressed with the Instagram celebrity status of many high stake’s climbers, he disappears and climbs without telling them, agreeing to re-create his initial climb with them filming. We see them making desperate phone-calls, attempting to locate him and pin him down so they can complete their film.
Climbing a spiritual experience for Marc-André in a sense. Despite his ADHD, the focus he achieves on these walls is astounding. His movements appear calm, controlled, and effortless, as he manoeuvres his way up sheer rock faces, apparently oblivious to the enormous drops below him.
We are also introduced to another inspiring figure in his long-term partner, Brette Harrington. While so many documentaries of this type are primarily masculine affairs with occasional introductions to long suffering wives and girlfriends, Brette is an incredible climber in her own right. She climbs alongside Marc-André and joins him in his slightly eccentric living style (in a tent in the woods). They are true partners, encouraging and nurturing each other’s skills. It’s a wonderful and refreshing dynamic to see on screen, as rather than Brette watching Mark-André climb fearfully, she appears to be as calm as he is.
That’s not to say The Alpinist is not a tense piece of work, it absolutely is. It is difficult not to spend the runtime questioning just how far Marc-André can push his exploits. And certain sequences are spent on the edge of your seat fully expecting him to lose his footing and plunge out of the frame to his death.
The Alpinist stands to be this year’s Free Solo, and it deserves that label. Taking Honnold’s achievements and pushing them further, adding more complication, more risk, and more hair-raising tension.
The Alpinist is released on September 24th.