alpinist

The Alpinist

The more I have immersed myself into the study of symbolism, I’ve been struck by just how much of our lives, our activity, our communication, our sense of meaning and purpose, is laden with symbolic elements. Take the idea of the mountain. The Mountain, across time and culture, has stood for clarity of insight, definition, purpose, and identity, the summit of which is the dwelling place of the gods (for the Greeks), Yahweh (at Sinai) and the place where divine wisdom is passed down. The simple triangle, with a point of unity at the top, widening to a broad base at the bottom, represents the ladder of Being in Platonism, the dissemination of Divine Law from Mt. Sinai to the Children of Israel in the Torah, and the dwelling place of the gods atop Mt. Olympus in Greek Mythology. Living as we do, in this allegedly empirical and scientific, “modern” age, we nevertheless cannot help but borrow from this symbolic structure in various ways.

Alex Honnold, the rockstar climber and subject of the 2019 Oscar winning documentary, Free Solo, illustrates this when he refers to the exploits of fellow alpinist Marc−André Leclerc as showcasing a “journey to the gods.” Alex, in the film we are discussing today, The Alpinist, functions merely as a supporting character, a fan−boy in awe of the incredible climbing feats of Leclerc, the reclusive, socially awkward yet most assuredly brilliant subject of documentarian Peter Mortimer’s latest film.

The film is fascinating in that regard, because, in so many ways, Leclerc is a Moses ascending Sinai. Leclerc seems to exhibit elements of Christ at times on his way to Golgotha. Leclerc is Prometheus heading up Olympus. And he is certainly a John the Baptist, alone in the wilderness. But yet, due to the constant flirtatious relationship with death inherent in climbing, he could easily wind up as an Icarus. Watching the film, one is bombarded with language and imagery that seems to reach towards grasping that elusive relationship between the human and the divine.

Mortimer serves as the narrator for the character study, as we get a window into the two−year process of documenting the climbing exploits of Leclerc, who has astonishingly achieved so much in the world of Alpine climbing that he no doubt has become one of the “gods” of the climbing community. Leclerc approaches his solo climbs as if they are religious pilgrimages, making sure to, like Christ, partake in a self−described “last supper” before heading on the journey towards (potential) death. The danger involved in soloing, of course, means that any meal he has the night before a climb may very well be his last, and so he approaches it like a condemned prisoner, selecting and savoring the meal with appropriate gravity.

Similarly, he describes the ascents as functionally “elevating” his consciousness, as if receiving divine wisdom from the summit, which infuses his days following the descent with a hyper−awareness and gratitude for all aspects of life itself. Indeed his face after summiting (like Moses) is described as “radiating energy” by his girlfriend and fellow climbing enthusiast Brette Harrington. When climbing, Leclerc invokes the theological language of awe, the feeling of absolute dependence, as he seeks the visceral awareness of “being so small in a world that’s so big,” and the climbing community, for their part, reverie him as a mythological legend. And yet…

As Reinhold Messner, that pioneer of 20th century European mountaineers puts it in his interview: while Leclerc seems to be, by some miracle, “redefining the possible,” and appearing to sprout wings that can carry him to heaven; the fact remains that the nature of extreme soloing, that of pushing the limits, and going beyond the realm of mere mortals in attempt to “make real (his) dreams and visions,” Leclerc approaches that invisible line that ought not be crossed, that line described by Leclerc’s own mother as, “over the edge of the wild.”

The more I have immersed myself into the study of symbolism, I’ve been struck by just how much of our lives, our activity, our communication, our sense of meaning and purpose, is laden with symbolic elements. Take the idea of the mountain. The Mountain, across time and culture, has stood for clarity of insight, definition, purpose, and identity, the summit of which is the dwelling place of the gods (for the Greeks), Yahweh (at Sinai) and the place where divine wisdom is passed down. The simple triangle, with a point of unity at the top, widening to a broad base at the bottom, represents the ladder of Being in Platonism, the dissemination of Divine Law from Mt. Sinai to the Children of Israel in the Torah, and the dwelling place of the gods atop Mt. Olympus in Greek Mythology. Living as we do, in this allegedly empirical and scientific, “modern” age, we nevertheless cannot help but borrow from this symbolic structure in various ways.

Alex Honnold, the rockstar climber and subject of the 2019 Oscar winning documentary, Free Solo, illustrates this when he refers to the exploits of fellow alpinist Marc−André Leclerc as showcasing a “journey to the gods.” Alex, in the film we are discussing today, The Alpinist, functions merely as a supporting character, a fan−boy in awe of the incredible climbing feats of Leclerc, the reclusive, socially awkward yet most assuredly brilliant subject of documentarian Peter Mortimer’s latest film.

The film is fascinating in that regard, because, in so many ways, Leclerc is a Moses ascending Sinai. Leclerc seems to exhibit elements of Christ at times on his way to Golgotha. Leclerc is Prometheus heading up Olympus. And he is certainly a John the Baptist, alone in the wilderness. But yet, due to the constant flirtatious relationship with death inherent in climbing, he could easily wind up as an Icarus. Watching the film, one is bombarded with language and imagery that seems to reach towards grasping that elusive relationship between the human and the divine.

Mortimer serves as the narrator for the character study, as we get a window into the two−year process of documenting the climbing exploits of Leclerc, who has astonishingly achieved so much in the world of Alpine climbing that he no doubt has become one of the “gods” of the climbing community. Leclerc approaches his solo climbs as if they are religious pilgrimages, making sure to, like Christ, partake in a self−described “last supper” before heading on the journey towards (potential) death. The danger involved in soloing, of course, means that any meal he has the night before a climb may very well be his last, and so he approaches it like a condemned prisoner, selecting and savoring the meal with appropriate gravity.

Similarly, he describes the ascents as functionally “elevating” his consciousness, as if receiving divine wisdom from the summit, which infuses his days following the descent with a hyper−awareness and gratitude for all aspects of life itself. Indeed his face after summiting (like Moses) is described as “radiating energy” by his girlfriend and fellow climbing enthusiast Brette Harrington. When climbing, Leclerc invokes the theological language of awe, the feeling of absolute dependence, as he seeks the visceral awareness of “being so small in a world that’s so big,” and the climbing community, for their part, reverie him as a mythological legend. And yet…

As Reinhold Messner, that pioneer of 20th century European mountaineers puts it in his interview: while Leclerc seems to be, by some miracle, “redefining the possible,” and appearing to sprout wings that can carry him to heaven; the fact remains that the nature of extreme soloing, that of pushing the limits, and going beyond the realm of mere mortals in attempt to “make real (his) dreams and visions,” Leclerc approaches that invisible line that ought not be crossed, that line described by Leclerc’s own mother as, “over the edge of the wild.”

Justin Wells

Justin Wells is a documentary filmmaker and author. Find more of his work at justinwellsfilms.com.

In How to Film Truth, Justin Wells explores the history of documentary filmmaking as a search for truth by filmmakers, and a journey of discovery for subjects and audiences.