Review: ‘The Alpinist,’ starring Marc-André Leclerc

November 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Marc-André Leclerc in “The Alpinist” (Photo by Jonathan Griffith/Red Bull Media House/Roadside Attractions)

“The Alpinist”

Directed by Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen

Culture Representation: Filmed from 2016 to 2018 in various parts of North America and South America, the documentary “The Alpinist” features an all-white group of people talking about Canadian alpinist Marc-André Leclerc.

Culture Clash: Leclerc was a daredevil mountain climber/adventurer who ignored warnings about his dangerous mountain climbing.

Culture Audience: “The Alpinist” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in non-fiction movies about people who are compelled to engage in extreme, life-threatening physical activities.

Marc-André Leclerc in “The Alpinist” (Photo courtesy of Red Bull Media House/Roadside Attractions)

“The Alpinist” can get inevitable comparisons to the Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo,” because each movie is a profile of a daredevil mountain climber who doesn’t use wires, ropes or other safety equipment when climbing. (This practice is known as “free soloing.”) Marc-André Leclerc is the subject of “The Alpinist” (directed by Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen), while Alex Honnold is the subject of “Free Solo,” directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. “The Alpinist” is more of an underdog film than “Free Solo” is, because “The Alpinist” is about a mountain climber known for not seeking out any media attention, even though he engaged in stunts that blew away even the boldest of risk-taking mountain climbers.

Leclerc had such a daredevil reputation that many of the well-known mountain climbers (including Honnold) who are interviewed in “The Alpinist” marvel, as well as show alarm, at all of Leclerc’s hazardous mountain-climbing accomplishments that he achieved, often in record-breaking times. And he did so in a few years (from 2015 to 2018), all by the age of 25. However, unlike most of his peers, Leclerc did not like to call attention to himself by putting his exploits on social media. He also rarely did interviews. Most people (including “The Alpinist” directors) who found out about Leclerc heard about him through word of mouth.

Leclerc (who was born in 1992 in Nanaimo, British Columbia) had occasional sponsors to help pay for his excurisions, but he never got rich off of these sponsorships or other deals that he could have made. In fact, “The Alpinist” shows that Leclerc’s life as a mountain climber was one in which he lived near poverty level, and he was frequently homeless. He often camped outdoors or lived in hostels as a way of life.

Because he wasn’t a media star, many people watching “The Alpinist” might not have heard about Leclerc before seeing this movie and won’t know what happens at the end of the documentary. Therefore, that information won’t be revealed in this review. However, it’s enough to say that the massive summits that Leclerc is shown climbing in “The Alpinist” include Torre Egger in Patagonia and the Mendenhall Towers near Juneau, Alaska.

Needless to say, the documentary’s mountain-climbing cinematography (by Jonathan Griffith, Brett Lowell and Austin Siadak) is absolutely stunning. This movie should be seen on the biggest screen possible to get the best sense of how breathtaking (and dangerous) these alpinist activities are. However, this isn’t just a movie about mountain climbing, because “The Alpinist” also presents an emotionally moving portrait of a young man with an unquenchable thirst for extreme mountain-climbing adventures.

In the production notes for “The Alpinist,” co-director Mortimer says that Leclerc’s appeal was precisely because Leclerc didn’t want to call attention to himself: “Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to punk rock and I’ve always been fascinated by people who stay true to an ideal and refuse to sell out. But as soon as I heard about him, I really wanted to get to know him.”

In order to get this documentary made, the filmmakers had to gain Leclerc’s trust. You can see that over time (“The Alpinist” was filmed from 2016 to 2018), Leclerc felt more comfortable in front of the camera. In his initial interviews for the movie, he seems shy and uneasy when talking on camera.

Through his own words and through interviews with his loved ones—including Leclerc’s mother Michelle Kuipers and Leclerc’s girlfriend/fellow mountain climber Brette Harrington—a picture emerges of a once-troubled kid who dedicated his life to his greatest passion, even if it came a life-threatening cost. Leclerc’s parents split up when he was young; he was raised primarily by his mother, who worked as a restaurant server. His father Serge Leclerc worked in construction.

Kuipers says that her son (her only child) was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “He liked kindergarten, but he hated first grade, so he was homeschooled for a while.” As a child, Leclerc was “a voracious reader,” especially in reading adventure books. At the age of 8, he was introduced to rock climbing to by his maternal grandfather.

Kuipers said that when her son went from being homeschooled to going to a regular high school, he had a difficult time adjusting: “It [high school] was like a form of incarceration for him.” Leclerc describes his childhood as being a resteless rebel, including his teenage years when he began using drugs. After graduating from high school, he moved to Squamish, British Columbia, and had an aimless life. During his early 20s, Leclerc said he was still heavily into the drug scene (frequently taking hallucinogenics such LSD) because he liked the idea of going on mind-altering trips.

Harrington says of Leclerc’s drug-fueled lifestyle: “I could see where Marc could’ve easily slid down that life.” However, Lerclerc says he decided to stop abusing psychedelics and instead get his highs from something that required a certain amount of athleticism and enormous amounts of bravery: extreme, free solo mountain climbing. That doesn’t mean Leclerc completely gave up drugs, since a few scenes in “The Alpinist” shows that he and his mountain-climbing pals indulged in marijuana and hashish when they partied.

Leclerc says taking psychedelics had some mind-expanding effects on him that he implies might have had something to do with his lack of fear in climbing mountains and cliffs, literally without any safety nets. He describes not feeling any anxiety during his climbs—only incredible peace, calmness and the intense focus to get to the next level of the climb. Leclerc often wouldn’t wear gloves during his climbs, since gloves can interfere with a hand’s natural grip. To climb ice-covered terrain, Leclerc would use ice axes.

In the documentary, Harrington describes Leclerc as a “brash” and “broke” (as in financially broke) mountain climber. However, Leclerc’s brashness in this documentary only comes out in his fearlnessness when he climbs. Off of the mountain, he’s mild-mannered and unassuming.

Harrington and Leclerc met in 2012, and they bonded over ther love of free solo mountain climbing and other extreme sports. Harrington says of Leclerc: “He was different from anyone I ever met. He’s socially awkward, but that’s what I like about him.”

And this was no fairy-tale romance: Harrington says that she knew from the start that being with Leclerc would mean not living in regular dwellings. She describes how early on in their relationship, they lived in a tent and were often starving for food. But more than having a food-deprived, nomadic lifestyle, the bigger threat to their existence was knowing that their mountain climbing could result in death.

Several well-known alpinists interviewed in the documentary essentially say the same thing: To be a free solo mountain climber, you have to be a little bit crazy and you have to prepare for the likelihood that you could die while climbing. Among the climbers interviewed are Honnold, Will Stanhope, Jason Kruk, Alan “Hevy Duty” Stevenson, Will Gadd, Bernadette McDonald, Raphael Slawinski, Barry Blanchard, Ryan Johnson, Hugo Acosta, Jon Walsh, Jim Elzinga and Reinhold Messner. “If death is not a possibility,” says Messner, “then the adventure would be nothing.”

Honnold remarks that Leclerc is one of the alpinists he admires the most because Leclerc wasn’t motivated by getting accolades: “He cares about the experience in the mountains and the journey. I really respect that.” Hevy Duty comments on Leclerc’s extraordinary boldness in mountain climbing: “He belongs in the ’70s and the ’80s [decades], when it was wild. He’s a breath of fresh air.”

Although Leclerc allowed this documentary to be made about him, the movie shows that he still had mixed feelings about it. During the documentary’s production, Leclerc broke a record by doing a first-ever solo climb of the Infinite Patience route on the Emperor Face of Canada’s 13,000-foot Mount Robson. However, this achievement was never filmed because Leclerc kept this climb a secret from the filmmakers until after the fact.

To make up for this exclusion, Leclerc let the filmmakers document his journey to Argentina, to climb Patagonia’s Torre Egger during a brutal winter. Only one camera operator was allowed: Leclerc’s friend Siadak. And the trip wasn’t easy, since snowstorms caused some problems. In the lead-up before the climb and after the climb, Leclerc shows how friendly he is in his interactions with hostel owner Hugo Acosta and Acosta’s young son, who seems to look up to Leclerc as a hero.

The final climb in the documentary is when Leclerc, accompanied by experienced climber Ryan Johnson, went to the Main Tower of the Mendenhall Towers in Juneau, Alaska. This trip also took place during snowy weather. It was one of the few times that Leclerc uploaded videos of his progress on the Internet, since he generally shied away from social media.

The takeway from watching Leclerc in this documentary is how determined and focused (some would say obsessed) he is on his mountain-climbing goals. He’s also very humble and self-aware that his obsession with mountain climbing comes at a heavy cost to his personal life. Harrington and Leclerc share the same passion for mountain climbing, but they admit that trips away from each other, as well the very real possibility of death while mountain climbing, can put a strain on even the strongest of relationships.

Viewers will immediately notice that every time Leclerc conquers one of his mountain goals, he doesn’t rest on his laurels and is eager to go on to the next goal. It’s like he’s in a race against time and against himself to accomplish as many of these goals as possible and try to surpass himself and others with these goals. After all, mountain climbing this extreme is not an elderly person’s game. If there’s anything to be learned from “The Alpinist,” it’s that Leclerc’s choice to dedicate his life to free solo mountain climbing came not from having a death wish but from being motivated to live his life to the fullest and in the most authentic way possible.

Universal Pictures Content Group and Roadside Attractions released “The Alpinist” for one night only for a sneak preview (via Fathom Events) in select U.S. cinemas on September 7, 2021, followed by a limited release in select U.S. cinemas on September 10, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital and VOD was November 2, 2021.