‘The Alpinist’ is a Stunning Testament to Human Achievement (FILM REVIEW)

Rating: A-

There’s a special kind of brilliance that, when seen from the outside, looks a lot like madness.

Most of us would probably look at solo alpinists with mix of awe and chagrin. Far evolved from the days of exploration, alpinists have become something of limit pushing athletes, scaling up the sides of sheer cliffs with no ropes and, quite often, with little more than basic supplies.

We can’t really help but think of the people who engage in these activities—which, again, typically include traveling to distant lands to tackle inherently dangerous terrains—as people who are out of their minds. These are people who risk their lives chasing a feeling most of us cannot fathom. To us, they might seem insane but their goals are perfectly logical.

Marc-André Leclerc was an alpinist that was looked upon by other alpinists the way most of us look at them. At 23, he was breaking records and engaging in some of the most difficult free solo climbs imaginable. Not only was he free climbing sheer rock, he also tackled ice covered cliffs with nothing but his crampons and his picks. He was an alpinist’s alpinist, and very few people knew his name.

Actually, to hear filmmakers Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen tell it, Leclerc wasn’t even too widely known inside alpinist circles. While many adventuring thrill seekers these days can’t wait to post pictures of their summit on The Gram or to have their exploits written about and talked about, Leclerc did the things he did for the pure and simple reason that he wanted to.

Mortimer and Rosen’s documentary, The Alpinist, explores the life of this intrepid madman, helping us to understand what motivates a soul to risk their lives and well-being chasing the (literal and metaphorical) highs of their sport. It is, at times, a stunning portrait that reveals that there’s quite little madness to their methods, even if we have trouble seeing that for ourselves.

The concept of free soloing might be familiar to documentary fans. The 2018 film, Free Solo, explored the sport and free climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to climb the sheer face of El Capitan. That film was a wild examination of the mindset required to excel at this sport, and it eventually won the Oscar for Best Documentary. Honnold serves as a talking head in The Alpinist, often speaking with a mix of awe, respect, and disbelief at Leclerc’s journeys.

That should give you some sense of how incredible Leclerc was. The Alpinist paints a shockingly relatable portrait of not just Leclerc but of alpining in general, taking us deep inside the mindset and revealing the powerful, soul-stirring motivations of those who would push the limits of human endurance, self-preservation, and ability.

What we eventually see is not the same thing as what we think we see in the beginning. As the film starts, Leclerc seems like any number of free-spirited young men living in British Columbia. He lives in tents and small alcoves, holding no job and, instead, always searching for the next mountainous high. His wild hair speaks to his disregard for convention and standards and, it is clear, he lives by his own rules and ideals.

He was, quite clearly, not meant for these times. But he never let that stop him. There’s something inspiring about the way he chose to live life, caring little for the niceties of modern living and choosing his own terms at life. We might be tempted to scoff at him, to call him a bum or a lay about, but that doesn’t matter.

Leclerc was far from a bum, of course. It’s hard work risking one’s life; harder still to make life tempting endeavors the whole of one’s life. And, again, we might call him crazy but, by the end of The Alpinist, it’s easy to start wondering if we’re not all suffering some mass delusion from which he was spared.

Indeed, looking at the ways most of us choose to live our lives, it’s not hard to see where we’re the crazy ones. How many of us don’t both pursuing our strange dreams and bizarre passions? How many of us settle for the banality of convenience and comfort when faced with a choice that would lead us in new directions? Is it more mad to spend 8-16 hours a day in a cubicle than it is to climb mountains?

Perhaps what The Alpinist shows most clearly is the heights (again, literally and metaphorically) a human is capable of reaching when one dares to engage in a pursuit so insane as following one’s dreams. We are undeniably a magnificent species with the potential inside all of us for great things and astounding abilities. Leclerc is proof positive of that, whether we choose to believe it or not. It’s hard not to stand in awe of the man and his accomplishments, even if they do seem a little bit crazy.

The Alpinist is now playing in select theaters.

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