When was the last time you did something adventurous without posting about it? Can you remember? Much of the modern climbing world unfolds in plain sight. Notable ascents and new grades of difficulty are highly publicized and celebrated. With the debut of climbing at the Tokyo Olympics, the sport has justifiably progressed to a global stage. Every now and then, however, the tip of the spear falls out of view and the evolution of a sport happens completely under the radar. Imagine Tony Hawk spinning a 900 that nobody was there to witness, or Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reaching the summit of Everest but neglecting to seek recognition for what they’d done.
Enter The Alpinist. From the same directors that brought us Valley Uprising (2014), The Dawn Wall (2017) and the REEL ROCK Film Tour, this new feature-length film was born from two documentarians’ efforts to capture a period of groundbreaking climbing progression and share it with the world. Boulder-based filmmakers Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen of Sender Films, along with producing partners at Red Bull Media House, follow the prodigious alpinist Marc-André Leclerc, whose free-spirited approach to mountaineering was both the triumph and tragedy of his short life. Leclerc traveled to Alaska in 2018 with fellow alpinist Ryan Johnson for a first ascent outside Juneau. They never came back, and questions remain about just what happened.
But The Alpinist is a celebration of Leclerc’s life. The directors tracked Leclerc to the Canadian Rockies for an ambitious first solo ascent of the Emperor Face on Mount Robson, a towering 2,200-meter (7,200-foot) sea of rock, ice and snow. The journey continued to Patagonia where, in the culmination of a year’s worth of training, Leclerc raised the bar with a winter solo ascent of the 950-meter (3,100-foot) Titanic route on Torre Egger, an immense, snow-capped pillar of granite in El Chaltén’s skyline. The resulting production is many things: moving and poetic, magnificent and awe inspiring—a snapshot of intrinsic motivation.
Of tall stature and rare character, the humble and genuine Marc-André Leclerc captured on film us a glimpse into his inspiring world and vision of adventure. Leclerc’s specialty was solo alpinism, the art of climbing alone and un-roped on big, wintery and unpredictable mountain faces. While solo alpinism is highly dangerous, in some circles it’s regarded as one of the purest forms of the craft. It’s an expression of, in Rosen’s words, “dedication, mastery and years of practice, judgment and preparation.” In the film, always-thoughtful Leclerc describes his alpine excursions like a game of chess, where the combination of skill, experience, intuition and decision-making play a pivotal role in the day’s outcome. Drawing on perspectives from a host of notable figures like Reinhold Messner, Barry Blanchard and Alex Honnold, in addition to Leclerc’s closest friends and family, the filmmakers investigate this cutting-edge alpine climbing equation; they weigh ability, aspiration and incalculable environmental variables. To complement these expert voices, the audience is pulled directly into the action with segments that pay close attention to small details that illustrate the nuance of difficult climbing on rock, ice and snow—the creak of an ice tool on tiny rock ledges or the crunch of crampons on fragile ice. Shots of vast and rugged terrain offer reminders of the mind-boggling settings that Leclerc sought out for his adventures.
Leclerc seemed to operate on an infinite supply of passion and courage, traits that, according to Rosen, seemed to be “both hereditary and learned.” In the film we learn about Leclerc—the experiences that shaped him and the people who helped along the way. At the center of this origin story is his mother: Michelle Kuipers. Born and raised in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, Leclerc first discovered mountains in the pages of books, perpetually captivated by their beauty and the explorers who venture into them. Having the wisdom and love to see that the structure of standard schooling wasn’t working for her son, Kuipers made the leap into home-schooling, teaching in the mornings and exploring the local woods in the afternoons. Over the years spent outside as a boy (often alone), Leclerc’s self-reliance, connection to the outdoors and appreciation for adventure grew deep roots, setting the foundation for the man he would become.
With an insatiable appetite for adventure and all things climbing, Leclerc dove head-first into the climbing scene in Squamish, B.C., after graduating high school. Long hours of devotion lead to immense progression in his ability. Leclerc displayed masterful craftsmanship and graceful style with regular solo ascents of the biggest walls in Squamish and bold solos on some of Canmore, B.C.’s, hardest ice and mixed climbing routes. It’s not long before he crossed paths with another character that transforms his life: professional climber and explorer Brette Harrington. The mutual understanding and partnership they cultivated as a team in the mountains, and in daily life, is something to behold—they shared a vision of the life they wanted to live and it took them all over the world. Together they were constantly laughing while repeating difficult ascents and forging new routes of their own (in all disciplines of climbing). Not one to always reveal his plans, at one point Leclerc, often with Harrington, fell completely off the radar for months on end. Rosen and Mortimer later found out Leclerc had been on a climbing rampage around places like Yosemite, Baffin Island, Scotland and the remote Canadian wilderness. It’s no wonder the filmmakers had a hard time keeping up. Leclerc and Harrington had singularly focused on spending every ounce of energy turning their dreams into reality.
Thanks to Rosen and Mortimer, The Alpinist presents an honest and real account of a one-of-a-kind individual. This intimate look into the life and mind of Marc-André Leclerc sheds light on his feats of near ineffable proportions, making The Alpinist a case study on the world of possibilities that’s opened by fostering passions to a sublime level. It’s a story about adventure, exploration and devotion. It’s a story about love, joy and playfulness, of triumph and heartbreak. Most of all, it’s a refreshing and vivid reminder that life is happening now: not yesterday, not tomorrow, but right now as you read these very words.
“The Alpinist from Red Bull Media House and Sender Films premieres September 7 with showings in Boulder and Denver, then opens on screens nationwide starting September 10. Find tickets and times at TheAlpinistFilm.com.”