Words: Chris Binns
‘His climbs are almost spiritual,’ says Alex Honnold, of prodigious Canadian climber Marc-Andre Leclerc’s solo alpine exploits, showcased in stunning fashion in the recently-released documentary The Alpinist. ‘He’s having these incredible climbs, by himself, in these beautiful places.’
Coming hot on the heels of white-knuckle-inducing climbing movies Free Solo and The Dawn Wall, The Alpinist will no doubt be put in the same category, but that would be an off-target generalisation. While in the first two the viewer is on the mountain-face alongside the protagonists for hour-after-gripping-hour, Leclerc cared little for the camera crew assigned to capture his exploits and would go weeks without answering their calls. He’d then turn up in another hemisphere, thousands of metres toward the summit of an infamous peak long before anyone had managed to shoot a frame of the hero in action.
‘Filming Marc-Andre’s climbs was like trying to capture lightning in a bottle,’ says director, narrator, and highly acclaimed climber Peter Mortimer. ‘He’d never think of the cameras, he’d just go off and do his own thing.’ As a moviemaker that’s highly frustrating but according to Honnold, star of Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, it’s ‘kind of noble.’
Leclerc’s love of climbing came before everything else. ‘For him, the priority was to go into the mountains and have a solo climbing experience,’ says Honnold. The action in The Alpinist is often shot from a valley floor miles away, or a plane or chopper, and as much time is spent in the lead-up, the lighter moments and the celebration of victory, as is spent scaling mountains. That’s not to say there aren’t still mind-blowing moments of action—once you witness Leclerc hanging off a couple of axes smashed into a frozen waterfall you’ll never forget it, and the distance bolsters the spectacle when you see a tiny speck—Marc-Andre—in the midst of a majestic maelstrom of mountains and glaciers.
Leclerc’s reluctance to engage the camera means the filmmakers leant on friends and family to colour in the blanks about his character, and through Leclerc’s mother, Michelle Kuipers, we learn of an awkward kid, struggling to overcome ADHD, who is a better class clown than student and who turns to climbing for solace where he discovers his best-in-show ability—though his shyness stops him from enjoying the ultra-competitive climbing gym side of things. Once he takes his talents to the mountains of British Columbia it unlocks a life that we run into at 23, with the world at his hands and feet, even if he is living in a share-house stairwell at the time.
Solo alpinism is in a league of its own, as Honnold explains: ‘It’s kind of simple; going climbing by yourself. But then it’s also kind of complex; Marc-Andre often had a rope and equipment with him but he was climbing some of the biggest and most technical mountain faces in the world. He’d be rock climbing, but with boots and crampons on his feet as opposed to normal rock shoes. He was doing a very hybrid, complicated style of climbing. When I watch the film I find it pretty engaging, like “woah!” because it’s such a challenging way to climb.’ Can a world-renowned climber like Honnold learn from the movie? ‘It’s more like, there’s something I never want to do!’ laughs the Californian.
As the movie reaches its climax we venture to South America, where Leclerc is readying himself to free solo a trio of mythical Patagonian peaks. The vision is as spectacular as the climb, yet in the aftermath we see Leclerc, humble as you like, speaking Spanish and playing with local village kids; enjoying the whole experience more than just his incredible achievement. ‘Many of his big, cutting-edge climbs took him half a day to do,’ says Honnold, ‘Yet it took him years of training and preparation and travel to get into position. When you come away from it you remember the two years of effort a lot more than you remember the 12 hours of climbing.’
‘The actual achievement doesn’t necessarily change your life like you think it might,’ says Leclerc, ‘but what you’re left with is the journey that got you to that point. Where you have to plan, and it’s more immersive, and you’re somewhere really beautiful and have to overcome some kind of mental barrier… you’re left with so much more of a story and an experience, and that’s what I find the most important.’
‘I hope people are inspired to follow their dreams,’ says Leclerc’s girlfriend Brette Harrington, when asked what she wants viewers to take from the film. ‘I don’t think there are any other movies out there that represent this side of climbing, and honestly, it’s the modern era of alpinism. It’s something that’s remarkable and needs to be shown.’
The Alpinist is playing in cinemas now! Go to https://www.thealpinistfilm.com/ for local ticket information.