Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen are filmmaking legends, with dozens of classic climbing movies to their names. Having seen most, if not all, I can say that The Alpinist is my favourite, and far surpassed any expectations that I had.
I was lucky to be at the unofficial world premiere of the film at the Arc’teryx Climbing Academy this past weekend. There were thousands of climbers packed into Squamish’s downtown Pavilion Park. Arc’teryx’s Justin Sweeny had locked in the screening after talking to Red Bull, and filmmakers and producers flew up from the U.S.A. for the show. Mortimer and Rosen stood in front of the audience and introduced their multi-year project, telling folks that it would be their first time seeing it on the big screen, and with other climbers. The emotions ran high.
I was good friends with Marc-André Leclerc, and while I didn’t spend much time roped up with him, I did spend months over years living with him. I got to see the side of Leclerc that everyone wondered about, the side that made him tick, the side that prepared him for big free-solos and the side that made him truly unique. The Alpinist captures that side, and at the same time it explores what it means to be an alpine climber.
Once the film started, the only sounds were laughter, crying and cheering – and the odd baby cry and truck rev – but not bad for a group of high-energy climbers.
The filmmakers walk us through their passion of understanding what makes a climber push it to the next level as they narrate throughout. We’re introduced to Reinhold Messner, Barry Blanchard, Will Gadd, Raphael Slawinski, Bernadette McDonald, Jim Elzinga, Alex Honnold, Jon Walsh and more legendary alpinists. They explain what makes the best climbers, the best, and the viewer knows that the protagonist of the film isn’t like anyone else in the world of climbing.
The first act follows Leclerc through his youth and into climbing, and then into high school, where he finds himself drawn to the party life. It takes us on a journey to when he meets the love of his life, Brette Harrington, and they move from living in a stairwell to living in a tent. For any climber, the lifestyle portrayed, and the mountain places are familiar. For non climbers, the film is set up so that you don’t need to know any more than what’s shown. Leclerc’s mom talks us through his early life, and about how she insisted that he should just go climbing if that’s what he wanted to do.
We watch Leclerc free-solo the Grand Wall in a mesmerizing video by local climber Matt Maddaloni. You’ve never seen Squamish free-soloing, or ever rock climbing, like this before. It brings us to Leclerc’s free-solo speed record of the route, which was a few minutes faster than Honnold’s. Then we see Honnold race back to Squamish to take back the record. This is when we get insight into Honnold and Leclerc’s thoughts about speed records.
When we’re introduced to Leclerc, he doesn’t own a cellphone, is a little camera shy and comes off as goofy. His intensity and focus is always on the rock, or as we are soon drawn to – the alpine.
The second act starts with Leclerc in the Canadian Rockies, with his focus now on winter ice and rock climbing. We see him soloing Hydrophobia WI6 in the Ghost, and then see the epic footage of him soloing Nightmare on Wolf Street, a 170-metre WI6+ M6+, on the Stanley Headwall. His was the first free-solo, and he linked it with French Reality 5.8 WI6 150m and Nemesis WI6 160m. He returned with Jon Walsh and Jon Griffith to re-solo the hard mixed sections for the camera.
Leclerc did a lot of climbing, and we’re given highlights from here and there, like that time he ditched the film crew and went to Baffin Island or Scotland, but the focus all comes back to Infinite Patience on the Emperor Face on Mount Robson. I don’t want to give away any of the drama, but it ends with Leclerc making the first solo ascent of the Emperor Face, which he returned to solo again with a film crew. The reasons for all of this is explained in the film.
At this point, I want to give a shoutout to the vision of the filmmakers. They don’t include any grades and only a few route names. Instead, they let the footage and accolades by other top climbers represent the level of commitment Leclerc was climbing at. And unlike some films, we don’t see Leclerc’s friends and family crying as he ventures off. Nothing seems forced or fake, in fact, you might never see a more real climbing film.
The second act ends with Leclerc making the first winter solo ascent of Torre Egger in Patagonia, thanks to videographer Austin Siadak. It’s still one of the greatest alpine climbing feats of all time, and we get to be right there. How cool is that?
But, as we know, Leclerc dies in Alaska in spring 2018. The film includes the circumstances of his death, but it doesn’t overdramatize things. This is the third act, and it’s when things get sad. It’s also when I joined hundreds of climbers as we wept, huddled together below The Chief, with Leclerc’s family and closest friends. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. Then the film ends.
Leclerc embodied what it means to be an alpinist – a climber so dedicated to his passion, to the mountains, and to doing what others had never done that he’ll take it to the edge and beyond. He didn’t just push alpinism, he changed it all together. And, yes, I’m leaving a lot out, but that’s because you just have to see it.
Mortimer, Rosen and the entire team that helped bring this to the big screen did Marc-André Leclerc the justice he deserves. I know that his peers, friends and future generations will all take something away from the powerful experience that is The Alpinist – I know that I did.
It brought me back to the moments when Leclerc returned from another groundbreaking adventure with a big grin and a story to tell. It brought me back to the days when soloing the Emperor Face was still just a dream. And those are good memories to have.
Synopsis: As climbing progresses from the niche pursuit of a daring few to the glare of nightly news and the Olympics, Marc-André Leclerc climbs alone, far from the limelight. The free-spirited 23-year-old ascends massive and remote alpine faces that represent some of the boldest climbs in the history of the sport. But he draws scant attention. With no cameras, no rope, and no margin for error, Marc’s approach is the essence of solo adventure.
After the film premiered in Squamish, everyone made some noise for Leclerc in a moment of loud, watch below. The film starts screening at theatres in the U.S.A. next week, and will be available to screen online in Canada this fall.