Simon Madden looks at the newest of the Big Climbing Films
Warning: this article contains big time spoilers, if you don’t want to know what happens in the film The Alpinist then do not read it.
‘I don’t want to sound grim or fatalistic’, Marc-André Leclerc is standing in a hostel kitchen in El Chalten, Argentinian Patagonia, ‘but it is undeniable that every time you go to the mountains, it could be your last time.’ He is answering the question of what he eats for his final meal before a big climb. ‘So all these things that you love, you have to appreciate. Whatever dinner you would want to possibly be your last dinner, you have to eat it…because you are going to the mountains.’
For me, this is the most memorable piece of dialogue in the film. Marc is not dramatic or overly sentimental, he has a sweet smile and comes across as calm and matter-of-fact. When it’s being asked the question sounds like it is a sports question, not a philosophical one, as if the person wants to know about carbs and protein and kilojoules. The answer that Marc gives is not about fuel at all, it is about living and dying. In conveying that you need to enjoy yourself, because you might not come back, Marc comes across more as an aesthete than an athlete.
He does come back, after being blown off the mountain on his first attempt, he makes a solo ascent of Torre Egger. And the climbing world – at least the subset that pays attention to the big mountains – lauds him for a remarkable achievement.
‘The actual achievement doesn’t really change your life.’ Marc is reflecting on the worth of a big climb. ‘You think it might when you are building up to it. But what you are left with is the journey … And if you have this big journey where you had to figure a lot of stuff out and you had to plan and it was really immersive and you were somewhere beautiful for a long time and you had to work really hard and overcome some kind of mental barrier, you’re left with so much more of a story or like a memory and experience and that is what I find is most important.’
And after Cerro Egger the film ends.
At least it was supposed to end.
The filmmakers, Nick Rosen and Peter Mortimer, headed into the edit suite and started cutting together what in Rosen’s words was ‘a very simple story of us following this amazing young guy.’
Young obscure Canadian climber Marc-André Leclerc leads a life of abandon; with the help of a supportive mother he survives adolescence despite it being quite strangling, he succumbs momentarily to the lure of drugs (‘Everyone would want to take like a tab of acid and hang out and have a good time and I would want to take six tabs of acid and disappear for 20 hours.’), but through finding a love with Brette Harrington that is accepting and enabling he comes back to climbing, which he gets very, very good at, and some of his ascents are shown.
It’s a film about an awkward young guy who was doing amazing things in the mountains, even though no one had heard of him.
If, in the modern world of social media and camera phones, someone is doing incredible things and has no profile, there is a reason. It is because they don’t want a profile.
Making a film of an elusive climber is a difficult thing to do, like ‘catching lightning in a bottle’, Mortimer called it, and there is a tension between Marc’s apparent desire to fly under the radar and the filmmakers’ attempts to capture him on film.
‘It’s funny, because we kind of reconcile that by putting ourselves in the film.’ Mortimer said to me. This was something that struck me on watching The Alpinist, if you have a reluctant star then one option open to you is to make the chase part of the action. ‘We’re really in there as sacrificial lambs to bring out this thing about Marc…I think I’m saying it in the film, when I’m talking on the phone, I’m like, he doesn’t give a fuck. And I kind of admire him for that.’
‘He was naturally shy and reticent,’ Rosen said, ‘but I think he also was genuinely excited to share these mountainscapes and this style of climbing that he was doing.’
To be really, really good you have to be climbing all the time, and to climb all the time you can either live in penury or you can get sponsored. And part of being sponsored is getting your name out there and part of that is being in films. The hard part for many climbers is working out how to balance that, especially when you are so young. And Marc was wrestling with this during filming.
Marc did write something revealing about his solo of the Emperor Face on Mount Robson in the Canadian Rockies, one of the big moments of the film. ‘As a young climber it is undeniable that I have been manipulated by the media and popular culture and that some of my own climbs have been subconsciously shaped through what the world perceives to be important in terms of sport. Through time spent in the mountains, away from the crowds, away from the stopwatch and the grades and all the lists of records I’ve been slowly able to pick apart what is important to me and discard things that are not.’
‘He cared.’ Mortimer is adamant that it’s wrong to think Marc didn’t want to be in the film, but it is clear that Marc is only interested in being in it on his terms. ‘This is someone who when he was 15, 16, would go on obscure alpine climbing message boards and be like, “I don’t know why everyone’s talking about this success. This ascent wasn’t significant and the style was not the most cutting edge.” He cared that people understood the difference between an acceptable climb and something truly cutting edge.’
It is no surprise then that Marc has rules about how he solos; he carries no communication device that could be used as a lifeline if things go wrong. He climbs onsight. And he wants to be alone.
‘I would never let you guys actually come and shoot one of my real solos.’ Marc says to Rosen and Mortimer over the phone, ‘it just wouldn’t be even remotely close to the adventure that I was looking for…When you can walk up to a mountain with nothing but your ability to climb…being by yourself out there immersed in your environment, tuning in to the rustle of the leaves, the sound of the wind across the ridge. The aura that the mountain has.’
Despite Marc’s rules the film has some wonderful climbing footage, and in particular the soloing mixed rock and ice looks absolutely mental and quite terrifying. There is the obligatory foot-scrabble heart-in-mouth moment but for me the wildness comes through in the methodical movements made again and again, slow and composed and so exposed, front points contacting a tiny edge, scratching and breathing and wind, finishing up a hanging dagger, which as a physical feature itself is a falling disaster, just one that is on a different timescale to the human.
When Marc sticks a leashless axe in a crack or secures it in a notch that is out of shot, then makes free moves, transitioning from dry-tooling, to pulling on holds with his bare hands, back to thwacking his tools into ice, these sequences are sublime. It brought to mind BMXers doing a superman, flying through the air and letting go of all connection with the bike, what happens when you are untethered if you don’t get it back? It’s outstanding footage. Watching people solo on film always makes me feel uncomfortable, although I guess that is what they are trying to elicit.
What is it that these moments of the sublime and the terrifying tell us? Maybe by itself it doesn’t tell us that much, except that we are afraid of it. But when it is packaged up with the rest of the story Rosen says that it poses questions, ‘if you could get over your fears, and the self doubt, what would you do? Many of us are operating at an arm’s length from our dreams, and the closer that we can get, the richer that we’re going to live.’ Though it is a simple story about an amazing young guy, we the audience still have to wring as much meaning out of it as we can, and that is the point.
Another result of Marc being elusive is the heavy reliance on other talking heads to provide reflection and insight.
‘If you’re not young and brash between 17 and about 24 you might as well shoot yourself as that is when people are young and brash.’ Hevy Duty, Squamish climbing doyen, reminding us that youth is for the young and that being young and brash, as Marc was, is okay.
‘… he is definitely ambitious. He wants to improve upon what has been done before and make his contribution to the history of alpinism.’ Brette, Marc’s girlfriend, speaking to his drive.
‘It was physical freedom but it was also philosophical freedom, and the ultimate experience of freedom was to climb alone unfettered, unleashed, absolutely solo’. Bernadette McDonald, author and climber, provides some gravitas.
‘If you fall and die everybody thinks you’re an idiot. You’re a risk taker, you’re a daredevil. What an idiot. If you succeed then everybody celebrates you as a big hero. But the reality is you’re the same person either way.’ Honnold could be misconstrued here, it is a humble comment more than anything, that he (and all soloists) are the same person, neither hero nor fool, or maybe both, no matter the outcome.
‘If the death was not a possibility, coming out would be nothing. It would be kindergarten, but not an adventure.’ Messner is in there being classic Messner.
Of course the film does not end when Marc gets back to El Chaten after summiting Torre Egger.
Marc is killed in an avalanche in Alaska.
There is a cost to getting too close to some dreams. Though Marc died with a partner when they were descending a mountain, the film confronts you with the reality of why you feel the discomfort at watching the soloing scenes. I, as probably the entire audience does, spend a lot of time either consciously or unconsciously flinching at the what-ifs, weighing the costs and payoffs.
Honnold made his statement about the hero/fool dichotomy long before Marc’s death and reflecting on it Mortimer said to me ‘I didn’t change my opinion about Marc because of what happened, and I don’t think Marc’s mom did, or even Brett, who was obviously so devastated by his loss.’
The Alpinist is much more about a life than a death. ‘We really wanted to just let you experience that two year period,’ Mortimer said, ‘while we were with him, on this ride, this young, incredible athlete with this big vision at his peak. And then experience the other side of it too, which is if, if, when something happens.’ In this way death is a presence throughout the film, as it must be in a film about going to the mountains, but it is not the story.
The massive solos and the winter climbing are juxtaposed against the banality of hanging in El Chalten, where Marc looks so comfortable slacklining and mucking about with a child. We see a lot of simplicity, like that of living in a tent in the forest. A life without a phone. Bouncing on a trampoline. The banal and the sublime.
‘You control what you’re doing but you can’t control what the mountain is doing.’ Marc makes a long speech about control. ‘The mountains are alive all around you and you are kind of at their mercy. You have to think about avalanches, seracs that can collapse at any time. You have to learn to read the signals that the mountains are sending you. The conditions of the snow. The ice, what time of day is it gonna get sun. What the weather is gonna do. It is like a game of chess. You have this ultimate goal but then unpredictable things are going to happen. I think that interaction with the environment, with the mountain, is like a huge part of what makes alpine climbing so interesting. And if you’re smart and you make the right moves, you can sometimes, against the odds, pull off a great climb.’
This speech is made over footage of him going up Robson – hubris, hope, youth, honesty, but it doesn’t matter how smart you are and if you only make the right moves. The mountains can get you, this is not kindergarten.
‘One of the coolest feelings a human can have,’ Marc says, ‘is to feel so small in a world that is so big.’
You can see The Alpinist is in Theatres in Oz from 7 October and New Zealand 14 October.