Colorado duo bring elusive climber to the big screen in ‘The Alpinist’
New documentary chronicles free solo alpine climbs by Marc-André Leclerc
It’s not easy to capture lightning in a bottle.
Colorado directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen had to do just that while making their newest documentary, “The Alpinist.” The duo followed climber Marc-André Leclerc for two years, trying to chronicle his astounding free solo alpine climbs while overcoming his need to roam and aversion to publicity.
“One of the characteristics of Marc that drew us to him in the first place was how elusive and off the radar he was, and how no one knew about these incredible ascents that he was doing,” said Mortimer. “Our goal as filmmakers was (to figure out) how would we capture that.”
Leclerc, a rock climber and alpinist, is best known for the first winter solo ascents of the Torre Egger in Patagonia and the Emperor Face of Mount Robson. That meant he scaled both huge, ice-covered mountains without a partner or a rope, using only ice axes and his grip to make his way up. Then, he would take a picture at the top, the mountains spread out behind him.
“Being on location in these massive mountain environments with Marc, filming with him, was the most memorable thing for me,” said Rosen. “The great thing about what we do is we make films about these amazing people who do things in these amazing places. Being there is really seared into my memory.”
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Though word of his accomplishments spread among serious climbers, they only spread to the wider community in the form of occasional blog posts. It was one of those posts that first caught the attention of Mortimer, founder of Sender Films and director of the well-known climbing documentaries “The Dawn Wall” and the Emmy Award-winning “Valley Uprising.” Wanting to know more about the climber, he tracked down Leclerc through some climbing friends and talked to him about making the documentary.
Rosen co-directed “Valley Uprising” with Mortimer, as well as the Emmy-nominated series “First Ascent.”
“He was a diligent studier of climbing history, and he knew the films we made,” Mortimer said. “I think there was some level of respect for us.”
As time went on, however, even that respect couldn’t overcome his hesitation at being constantly followed by film crews.
“I think there were parts of it that were just cramping his scene a little bit, and so he would take off,” said Mortimer. “When we was ready for us, when he felt comfortable having us around, he would invite us back in.”
That was when Mortimer and Rosen made the unusual decision of including themselves in the documentary.
“A year into the process, we were ending up filming scenes of ourselves calling each other, calling producers and talking to people in the film trying to track him down — and we’re like, ‘This is how you capture how elusive Marc is,’” said Mortimer. “It’s the meta-narrative of that story.”
That wasn’t the only story the duo was trying to tell, however. Free solo climbing is one of the most dangerous forms of climbing, with many well-known free soloists such as Derek Hersey and Ueli Steck dying in the mountains. Alpine free solo climbing, Leclerc’s specialty, is even more dangerous.
“The alpine realm, where Marc did his greatest work, is such an unpredictable, transitory, and dangerous environment,” said Rosen. “The ice and snow and frozen rock that he’s climbing on is such an unpredictable and unstable medium, there’s just a tenuousness to it that I think really kind of makes your palms sweat.”
It’s a feeling that both he and Mortimer strived to capture accurately.
“It was something Pete and I really had to really wrestle with – really trying to authentically portray just how bold this stuff was that he was doing,” said Rosen.
Even after they finished shooting, Mortimer and Rosen still needed to put the movie together before they would know if they’d accurately captured Leclerc onscreen.
“There were two different sort of stages of editing it,” said Rosen. “We were getting into the edit room and starting to craft, and it really was a straightforward adventure story about us following this elusive and brilliant climber in this sort of two years where he made climbing history.”
Then, Leclerc went up to Alaska, and the duo realized that there was still more of his story they needed to figure out how to tell.
Once we came back from Alaska and were finally ready to come to terms with what to do about the film, it was a question of looking back at the film we were making and how we would change it,” said Rosen. “The journey we were on really didn’t change very much – it was just about reconciling with what happened at the end of the film.”
It just became a more somber and more serious endeavor, in the end,” he said. “There was an onus to tell the story right and to do Marc justice.”
As part of that, he hopes what people remember most about the movie is Leclerc’s light.
“I know it’s sad, but I think the way Marc lived his life was so inspiring to the people around him and to us,” said Mortimer. “The simplicity with which he lived, his pure focus, his dedication to these things that he loved. He just had this big vision for what he wanted to do here with his time. I think people can take that into their own lives however they will.”