There is a tone shift midway through “The Alpinist,” subtle and unmistakable. Fellow mountain climbers have been singing the praises of Marc-André Leclerc throughout Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen’s riveting documentary. The 23-year-old Canadian was pulling off unheard of feats soloing peaks and older, wiser rock stars were taking notice, often with their proverbial jaws dropped. And then comes a faint downshift in the admiration to make room for concern. “I’m definitely concerned,” says one. “The place he’s in is such a special, finite place, such an incredibly risky place.”
For those of us who are even skittish on a stepladder, concern was there from the start of this portrait of an alpinist as a young man. The filmmakers come by their awe for Leclerc honestly. In addition to being climbers, they’ve documented a scraggly crew that, to the chagrin of the National Park Service, staked a claim to Yosemite in “Valley Uprising.” Mortimer also directed — along with Josh Lowell — the SXSW audience award-winning “The Dawn Wall.”
Mortimer was intrigued by a climber he hadn’t heard of. “The Alpinist” begins with his search for this elusive spirit. In a world of guys (for they are nearly always male) with no qualms about hashtagging and Instagramming the heck out of their adventures, Leclerc stood out by being mostly off the social media grid. When the filmmakers find Leclerc, the climber proves to be a sweet guy with curly hair, a crooked smile and zero interest in self-promotion.
When “Free Solo” star Alex Honnold is asked on a clip at the movie’s start who’s impressing him, he replies, “This kid, Marc-André Leclerc.” As he gushes — which isn’t really a Honnold trait — a camera delivers an aerial view of a massive mountain range, slowly crawling toward it, slowly rotating around it. Wait, what’s that speck?
The images here are often dizzying and dazzling. A shot from above Leclerc during the Canmore ice-climbing confab shows his feet dangling as he uses only ice axes to hoist himself over an icy shelf. It’s mystery enough that the ice is anchored to the sheer rock, but this… “Filming Marc on this insecure terrain was terrifying,” Mortimer tells us. It is. “But he couldn’t have been more relaxed.”
Later in the film, a fast-moving blizzard upends his attempts to summit Torre Egger in the Patagonia range. The video missive he records for his girlfriend Britte Harrington is sweet and fairly calm, with the barest hint of unease. He survives the night, cocooned in a sleeping bag attached to the cliff wall. An image from afar gives us a sense of scale. A light indicating his location looks like the loneliest star twinkling in vast darkness.
Although 2018’s “Free Solo” was hardly the first jagged ascent documentary, the Oscar-winning film elevated climbing and its adherents to another level. And it’s already easy to see the tics, tricks and tendencies in this burgeoning genre. Much like “Free Solo” and last spring’s “Super Frenchie” (about skier and BASE jumper Matthias Giraud), “the Alpinist” looks to the daredevil’s romantic partner as well as his parents for insights. Leclerc’s mother, Michelle Kulpers, relates the story of a kid with excess energy. She honored his curiosity and gentled his restlessness by homeschooling. When Marc-André had to attend traditional high school, things got a little unruly.
His wild-guy days — including partying — gave way to a serious relationship with Harrington and a renewed love of climbing. Harrington stands out in this genre because she too is a climber. Her appreciation for Leclerc’s feats is anchored in a first-hand grasp of its risk-reward minuet.
Alpinism reflects what climber and historian Bernadette McDonald calls “a physical freedom but also a philosophical freedom.” Climbing unfettered and solo, becomes the keenest edge of that liberation. “If death was not a possibility, coming out would be nothing,” says Messner. “It would be kindergarten. Not an adventure. Not an art.”
Mortimer admits he’s driven to grasp the climbers’ will to experience the existential edge. He also admits, that “after 20 years of filming, I’m not sure I’ve gotten any closer to understanding at all.”