The sport of climbing has come incredibly far since its days as an activity for the bohemian, becoming something of a contemporary phenomenon that has seen young millennials, in particular, embrace its upper-body physicality. Featuring for the very first time at the 2021 Olympic games in Japan, its popularity was boosted by the release of Free Solo in 2019, the Oscar-winning documentary that followed Alex Honnold, a fearless eccentric who scaled sheer cliff faces with no rope.
Three years later, and the perfect companion piece to Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s groundbreaking documentary has been released, titled The Alpinist. Following the life, backstory and titular hobby of climber Marc-André Leclerc, the comparisons to Free Solo’s Alex Honnold are evident, though Leclerc and The Alpinist are really different beasts.
Speaking in the documentary, Honnold himself mentions how his passion for rock climbing is purely athletic, whilst for Leclerc, climbing seems to allow him to access a higher state of consciousness. Scaling the rock, ice and slushy snow with an effortless vigour, Marc-André Leclerc approaches climbing with total fearlessness, despite not being hooked to any inkling of safety equipment.
He is following in the tradition of the ‘alpinist’, individuals who would scale tall mountains on their own in tasks of physical endurance. It is the sheer danger of the task at hand as if a modern explorer pioneering a search for a new world that attracts such an appeal for the select few. As fellow alpinist Reinhold Messner reports in the film, “If death was not a possibility, coming out would be nothing”.
Delving into the climbers backstory reveals an early diagnosis of ADD in which Marc-André found it almost impossible to sit still, with an insatiable urge to explore and adventure. Though the skill of rock climbing doesn’t exactly compare to the wild thrill of skiing, for example, it is instead an intricate game of logic that requires quiet, patience and composure, far from Marc-André’s energetic urges. For him, it seems climbing is more of a philosophy of solitude rather than an avenue to channel his frenetic energy. On the silent rock faces, he can cope with his own racing mind.
Such is when Peter Mortimer Nick Rosen’s film is at its very best when it stops and reflects on Marc-André’s careful approach to his art form. When the camera is motionless, and the sound merely captures the gristle of ice-pick on stone and the climbers tranquil breathing. These moments create the pinnacle of what is a captivating and inspiring tale of true bravery and individualism.
Rejecting the frivolities of everyday living, Marc-André is not doing this film for fame, refusing any necessities for his adventures to be captured on camera. He is truly the purest of souls, representing an individual yearning for personal experience in a labyrinth of modern-day life that demands you look outwards. Just like Chris McCandless of Into the Wild, Marc-André Leclerc is trying to access the very carnal urges of the human soul, pushing past the very limits of individual endeavour.