In the hyper-competitive world of modern climbing – as in the modern world of just about anything, really – very little goes undocumented. Some 500 hours of footage are uploaded, for example, to YouTube every single minute. Among that footage you’ll find, new, dizzying and death-defying feats undertaken by world-class (and not-so-world-class athletes); the notion of a ‘sense of achievement’ apparently rendered outmoded and obsolete by likes and shares.
In the world of personal brands and corporate sponsorships, it isn’t enough to simply be very good at anything anymore: you must both be very good and very public about how good you are. After all: if a tree falls in the woods, and nobody posted it on Instagram, does it even make a sound?
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Alpinist Marc-André Leclerc, though, was different. Despite being a generational talent in the niche world of free-solo alpinism, the young Canadian preferred to tackle most of his climbs completely alone. No videos, no fanfare, no followers.
Luckily for us, a couple of filmmakers recognised Leclerc’s singular talent while he was still alive – he was killed in a climbing accident in 2018 – and were smart enough to point a couple of video cameras in his general direction while he quietly went about making history, one free solo climb at a time.
...to have somebody that committed to those kinds of solo adventures is almost unheard of.
The resulting documentary, The Alpinist, which sees its Australian release this month, tells the tale of a shy, social media-averse and socially awkward Canadian kid who just so happened to have a knack for making onsight free solo ascents look less stressful than a walk to the shops.
Though Leclerc had picked up a few sponsors, started an Instagram account and had featured in a few videos (he wasn’t a total luddite) his lack of a following was in stark contrast to his formidable list of solo accomplishments. “He’s so under the radar […] He basically just goes out and climbs the most challenging walls and alpine faces in the world,” says Alex Honnold, arguably the best-known climber alive today, during an excerpt from a radio interview in the movie’s intro. “The most challenging things that anyone’s ever climbed, really […] In such a pure style.”
“What he was doing isn’t unheard of for skilled alpinists to do as a team,” Honnold tells me over the phone from his home in Las Vegas, a month or so before the movie’s release date. “But to have somebody that committed to those kinds of solo adventures is almost unheard of.”
Canadian ice climber Will Gadd thinks watching The Alpinist is “as close to experiencing high-level alpine climbing as anyone will ever get without hearing the whine of rockfall on a big face.” And while the film has drawn comparisons to 2018’s Oscar-winning Free Solo, in which Honnold stars, comparing the two is a gross disservice to the protagonists: Honnold and Leclerc might both scale cliff faces without a rope for a living, but they are not the same people, nor do they share the same fundamental philosophies, approaches or methods.
[Leclerc's] soloing wasn't about the athletic activity, it wasn't about sport. It was about a spiritual commitment to adventure.
For The Alpinist’s filmmakers, Nick Rosen and Peter Mortimer, who I have a conversation with over Zoom one morning in September, Leclerc was an obvious choice of subject. “The idea that there’s this guy out there who’s so good, and so off the radar and not self-promoting, just doing his thing, that’s just fascinating to us as documentary filmmakers,” says Mortimer. “Then we actually met him, and he was just this humble, loveable human, who was a total God up on the vertical realm. It was the perfect recipe.”
Mortimer and Rosen had to get in touch with Leclerc via his partner, Brette Harrington – who features heavily in the film – because he didn’t have a phone of his own (he had a phone once, he explains on camera, but he left it in a stuffsack with some smoked salmon, which was stolen by a wild fox. “I feel like maybe I’m just better off without one,” he says on camera). Of course, getting Leclerc comfortable with the idea of a documentary was a gradual process, and Rosen and Mortimer took the time to get close to Leclerc and help make him feel at ease (although, as you’ll see in the film, filming didn’t always quite go to plan).
The Alpinist depicts Leclerc as a free-spirited vagabond who hitchhiked and couchsurfed his way around North America’s (and the world’s) best climbing spots in search of his next high, – both literal and spiritual. This freewheeling lifestyle resonated with the Rosen and Mortimer, who just couldn’t help but be inspired by spending time with Leclerc and Harrington. “Just letting things go and focusing on what you really want to do…that's what I take from Marc,” says Mortimer. “I think about it all the time, to this day. When I'm like, ‘Should I do that?’ I just think: ‘What would Marc-André do?’”
“He had so much of that really intuitive, almost sensory understanding of the landscape,” adds Rosen. “I’m really inspired by that, personally […] It’s easy to be lost these days. So that idea of real simplicity is something I can see Marc-André inspiring people to try and re-embrace a little bit.”
For casual viewers, perhaps the most alarming element of Leclerc’s approach to his life and his craft will be how absolutely not-alarmed he is, about anything – particularly climbing thousand-feet rock faces without a rope. “When I’m soloing rock climbs, I don’t really like to feel like I’m pushing myself,” he says over footage of him holding on to a cliff face with his fingertips. “I don’t like to feel like I’m doing anything intense or scary.”
“So then, why do it?” asks the interviewer.
“Like…more just to have a casual fun adventure, and cruise around,” he replies.
I ask Honnold if Leclerc’s radical calm is typical of seasoned climbers and alpinists. “I would say I aspire to the same comfort that Marc-André was exhibiting,” he says. “Certainly, my best climbs are very similar, but I’ve had worse climbs too, where it’s a bit on edge. I’m sure he had plenty of experiences where it went from being fun and casual to a little bit more serious.”
On a stylistic level, Leclerc scales sheer, barren walls effortlessly. There’s a kind of visual poetry to it, as if his limbs are moving through passages of air meant only for him; invisible pathways that only he can see. His movements are intentional, considered and pure, and he is completely in sync with the wall. “His soloing wasn't about the athletic activity, it wasn't about sport,” says Honnold. “It was about a spiritual commitment to adventure.”
Whatever dinner you want to possibly be your last dinner, you have to eat it. Because you’re going to the mountains.
As a viewer, you feel yourself drawn to Leclerc in a way that’s hard to articulate. He’s charming and affable, and he’s a generational talent, sure. But there are plenty of people in the world who are all of those things but lack the gravity to pull you into their orbit. It could be because we know Leclerc’s fate, but this feeling doesn’t come from a place of sympathy, either. It’s something more than that.
All any of us are ever looking for in our lives is a sense of meaning. Whether we’re alpinists, photographers, office workers, full-time parents, rich, poor, religious, atheist, educated or not – we are all born with a giant question mark hanging over us, and our job as we go through life is to try and come up with some kind of answer. More or less.
In the brief amount of time we get to spend with Leclerc, it becomes increasingly clear that we are getting to know someone who had banished that question mark from his life entirely. He seemed to have transcended the problems, doubts and anxieties that pin so many of us down and keep us from whatever the truest version of ourselves might be.
Of course, our relationship with Leclerc is superficial – we can’t really claim to know him simply because we watched a documentary. But for those who are prone to seeking answers to life’s bigger questions – and if you’ve read this far, I’d imagine you’re one of them – the manner in which Leclerc lived, and even the manner in which he died, has much to teach us about what makes a good life, and where (and how) to find meaning. Which isn’t to say we should all start climbing actual mountains, of course. But we all have mountains of some shape or form in our lives, and maybe it’s time to start approaching them. That’s all.
Towards the end of the film, for example, Leclerc can be found in Patagonia, where he’s preparing to climb Torre Egger and staying with the family of local climber, Hugo Acosta, who believes that Leclerc’s time spent in the mountains have helped elevate his consciousness “to another level”. The day before Leclerc is due to set off (into a sketchy-at-best, homicidal-at-worst weather window) he’s asked about his “general diet for getting ready for the mountains.”
Leclerc, standing in the kitchen with an open beer and wedge of blue cheese in front of him, replies: “I don’t want to sound grim or fatalistic… It’s undeniable, you know, that every time you go into the mountains, it could be your last time. So all these things that you love, you have to appreciate. Whatever dinner you want to possibly be your last dinner, you have to eat it. Because you’re going to the mountains.”
For Honnold, that “last supper” feeling is a familiar one. “Acknowledging that your life is finite, and that it's going to end at some point does help you lead a more intentional life,” he says. “And so, I think that's one of the real values [of extreme sport]. It reminds you that the rest of your time is precious, and you should use it the way that it gives you the most meaning.”
It’s kind of funny. The actual achievement doesn’t really change your life, like you think it might, but what you’re left with is the journey that got you to that point.
Interestingly, though Leclerc lived his life on the very edge of danger, few of his friends, family or those closest to him appear to have attempted to seriously discourage him from his vocation. Though of course they knew that his “casual, fun adventures” could result, at any moment, in his death, they also understood that those same adventures are what gave him Life. And though that deal would have been undoubtedly hard to reconcile at times, everyone around Leclerc seemed to understand that it had been made, long ago, and that there was no other way for him to live.
Later in the film, Leclerc talks about how he’ll feel a high for days, sometimes weeks, after completing a climb. His partner, Harrington, says that he has a “radiating energy” when he comes out of the mountains, as if he’d had an “extreme experience that moved him deeper than anything else could have.”
Leclerc adds: “When you’re in the mountains, with a mission, it’s like all of the superficialities of life just sort of evaporate, and you can often find yourself in a deeper state of mind, and that can stick with you for a while after a big climb. You appreciate everything so much…that you take for granted most of the time. It’s kind of funny. The actual achievement doesn’t really change your life, like you think it might, but what you’re left with is the journey that got you to that point.”
Marc-André Leclerc’s journey ended – along with that of his climbing partner, Ryan Johnson – on March the 5th, 2018, on the side of the Mendenhall Towers, just north of Juneau, Alaska, shortly after their completion of a new route on the north face. He was 25 years old. And though Leclerc’s time with us was fleeting, we are lucky, thanks to The Alpinist, and the generous insights and anecdotes from his family and friends, to have ever known him at all.
At Leclerc’s memorial service, held in Squamish, BC, a sign welcoming guests read simply: “Live like Marc-André”