I have a fear of heights. I don’t mind being in a skyscraper or looking out the window of a plane (I prefer the window seat). I work in a building at the top of a ridge that’s at least 500 feet above the street. Some visitors that come up express terror at the height, but the building has been on top of the ridge for over 50 years and the ridge itself has been there for millions more. My fear of heights only kicks in when I’m insecure about that on which I’m standing. I worked at a grocery store in high school and college and sometimes had to change the fluorescent tube lights on the ceiling. I have no idea how high the ceiling was, but on the rickety ladder we had, it felt like a mile. My nerves would kick in and my legs would begin to shake. No one was assigned to steady the ladder, so I was up there alone, near the top step, the ladder wiggling far too much for my liking, and having to extend my arms up nearly as far as I could to remove and replace the fluorescent tubes while not dropping any and not falling to my certain death or serious injury. While the mountains climbed by young solo mountaineer Marc-Andre Leclerc, the subject of the documentary “The Alpinist,” have stood tall and strong for millennia, they can turn into monsters that eat you alive and never spit you out and you couldn’t pay me enough money to begin to train to climb one.
Marc-Andre Leclerc is a climbing savant. Tackling the most difficult mountains in the world, with as little equipment as possible, 23-year-old Marc-Andre is likely the best climber in the world no one knows about. He shuns attention, keeps to himself with his girlfriend Brette Harrington, lives with meager possessions amongst a loose knit community of other climbers in Squamish, British Columbia, Canada, in a tent in the forest, and lives to climb. People within the climbing world are only vaguely aware of Marc-Andre and his fearless climbs, often barehanded, up some of the world’s most difficult rock faces. Listening to a podcast, documentarian Peter Mortimer hears Alex Honnold, subject of the Academy Award winner documentary feature “Free Solo,” talk about Marc-Andre, and becomes interested in filming the unique climber. Marc-Andre’s aversion to attention, and his personal code for climbing, makes filming an even more difficult endeavor than just the dangers of the mountain.
Marc-Andre Leclerc is a goofy kid. In the documentary, we learn from his mother that Marc-Andre was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, or ADD, in first grade. As an adult, he seems to be calm and focused but able to cut loose and have fun with his friends. The documentary takes most of the first half of its 92 minutes to introduce Marc-Andre, his life and philosophy of climbing.
The film is both gorgeous looking and terrifying as Marc-Andre is filmed hanging from bare rock faces by only his hands and from frozen waterfalls by ice axes. He contorts himself to go from grip to grip, foothold to foothold, only stopping to look up at the path ahead and to reach behind him to get more chalk powder on his hands. Anyone with a significant fear of heights, who can’t stand even seeing someone in a film on a high perch, should avoid “The Alpinist” at all costs. On the other hand, if you are an armchair adventurer, looking for vicarious thrills, this might be the perfect choice. The documentary footage, along with scenes shot by Marc-Andre himself with small cameras, offers a glimpse of the wonders of nature from thousands of feet above the rest of the world. Dense lush forests, snowcapped peaks, wilderness from around the world is featured in “The Alpinist” and it is often breathtaking.
Peter Mortimer and his crew are also frequently seen as they need to develop a relationship with Marc-Andre. To get inside his world, they needed to become a part of it without getting in his way. Mortimer has filmed other climbers’ expeditions and knew the difficulties of shooting on the side of a mountain, but Marc-Andre added more complications. He takes the concept of “free soloing” to the next level, disappearing for a time so he can do his thing his own way. You can feel Mortimer’s frustration at his finicky subject, but that doesn’t last for long. Marc-Andre has no malice in his heart. He just likes to do things his own way.
“The Alpinist” is rated PG-13 for some strong language and brief drug content. There is discussion of Marc-Andre’s drug use, and we see a lit joint being passed around. Foul language is scattered with two uses of the F-bomb.
There’s a peace and joy radiating from Marc-Andre Leclerc that shines through the screen in “The Alpinist.” He’s a decent, sweet kid that doesn’t care about material possessions, or being a financial success, or having a house, new car and smartphone. Marc-Andre finds his fulfillment not in gadgets or cash, but in his unity with the mountain and the love of Brette. We should all be so lucky as to find a thing we completes us the same way climbing completes Marc-Andre Leclerc.
“The Alpinist” gets five snowcapped peaks out of five.
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