An ice axe gently scratches at shale, searching for purchase deep within the Canadian Rockies. Almost 6,500 miles away in Nepal, crampons, steel spikes strapped to boots for better traction, dig into a steep slope, illuminated by small headlamps under the bulk of 8,000-meter peaks. Back in Bozeman, Montana, a family digs into their own history with the Himalayas.
This winter, three mountain films were released: The Alpinist, 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible, and Torn. They each tackle the allure and risk of mountains from different angles, putting new spins on a rich genre and igniting interest in climbers and non-climbers.
Climbing and mountaineering have a history of filmmaking. In 1968, Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, and his buddies set out from Ventura, California, for their first ascent of Cerro Fitz Roy on the border of Argentina and Chile. Their luggage was little more than skis, surfboards, and a 16mm Bolex camera. The subsequent film Mountain of Storms, however, sparked a new creative outlet and moneymaker in the action sports industry.
Since then, climbing films have modernized for their stars and audiences. Athletes don’t have to drive across the world for a year in search of their peak of enchantment like Chouinard; they can buy a plane ticket and be there in a day. Multi-hundred-foot rope systems, drones, and microscopic microphones bring the audience off their couches and to the cliffs. More action sports films are being made than ever before. That’s because mountain films still captivate audiences creating awe and everyday inspiration, amidst once-in-a-lifetime athletic achievements.
This awe and inspiration are on display in The Alpinist. The film profiles the late Canadian climber Marc-André Leclerc as he picks his way through life. Leclerc is a scruffy-looking 20-something year old whose vertical infatuation lies in an uncommon subsection of climbing: solo mixed climbing. This style ascends large swaths of rocky terrain intermingling with tongues of midwinter ice. This terrain can be handled with whatever gear on hand, ranging from crampons and ice axes to hands and teeth. The word “solo,” however, implies that the climber is unroped and protected only by their skill and mental fortitude. A mistake can lead to disaster.
In Leclerc’s case, however, mental fortitude is replaced with the same childlike wonder that prevents ten-year-olds from breaking their backs when they fall out of trees. Sender Films directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen portray Leclerc as a deeply skilled climber whose solo ascents of peaks like Mount Robson and Torre Egger put him at the pinnacle of the climbing world. They also present him as goofy and aloof. Leclerc lived in a stairwell in Squamish, British Columbia, for $180 a month so he could climb more. Mortimer also comments on the manhunt his film crew went on to find Leclerc, as the climber kept backing out of the film commitment to have an unadulterated wilderness experience. Leclerc eventually agrees to be filmed and even signs a contract with Arc'teryx, despite his views that sponsorships interfere with the purity of climbing.
The film’s youthfulness, however, doesn’t dull its soul. Leclerc’s lack of ego and rejection of society is admirable. His zeal for climbing is obvious in scenes of him high up on the wall with nothing but a small pack and a grin on his face. His relationship with his girlfriend and fellow professional climber, Brette Harrington, is both beautifully romantic and tragically enabling. Even through the mournful ending, Leclerc’s mom defends her son’s wondrous path, begging the question, what are you passionate about enough to live in a stairwell for?
The message of 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible challenges viewers as well, but in a more blatant way. Directed and produced by Torquil Jones, 14 Peaks follows another mountaineer, Nirmal Purja, in his attempt to climb all 14 eight-thousand-meter peaks in a record time of seven months. The previous record was seven years and 310 days, set by South Korean climber Kim Chang.
Purja is everything Leclerc is not: a former soldier in the Brigade of Gurkhas for the British Army, a former member of a special forces unit of the Royal Navy, and a proficient kick-boxer. Purja’s energetic, self-assured personality shines through on camera. He knows his goals and wants to achieve them. Even in the face of dangerous avalanche and serac conditions, Purja believes his skill is enough to keep him safe. Spirituality and connection to nature are of minimal concern; athleticism and speed are paramount. Purja’s speed is evident when he breaks the record at the end of the film, climbing the 14 peaks in six months and six days.
All this to say Purja is not without “deepness.” He was raised in Dana, a small village in Nepal's Myagdi district. His family was poor when he was young, as his parents came from two different castes, meaning their marriage was frowned upon. This resulted in being cut off financially to the point where Purja admits he “didn’t even have flip flops.” Despite early childhood difficulties and the danger of the mountains, Purja and his team, composed of five other Nepali -born mountaineers are able to persevere. Purja even saves a couple of other climbers along the way, sacrificing his well-being, and that of his team sometimes, for the greater good. The film’s message of “nothing is impossible,” may seem cheesy at first, but by the end of the film, Purja makes viewers question their own possibilities.
Purja’s success in the mountains is not without luck. Torn, from National Geographic shows the side of the story where luck turns and the consequences are devastating. This film tells the story of Alex Lowe, a legendary American mountaineer who died in an avalanche on Shishapangma in Tibet, leaving behind a string of first ascents around the world and his three kids and wife, Jennifer Lowe Anker. Following his death, Jennifer finds comfort in the presence of Alex’s climbing partner and best friend, Conrad Anker. The two fall in love in the wake of their shared grief and get married against the wishes of “naysayers” and even Alex’s son and director of the film, Max Lowe. The film interviews the couple, Conrad and Jennifer, and their sons/step-sons in an attempt to unravel the love they developed through the trauma of Alex’s death.
Unlike The Alpinist and 14 Peaks, Torn barely focuses on the mountains that captivated Alex. Instead, the film turns the camera on the Lowe-Anker family and digs into their grief. Conrad says that “survivor’s guilt is a bear” and throughout the film, this bear follows him. Despite the wishes of Jennifer, Conrad hangs onto his climbing partner’s knick-knacks and thinks of him every day. Jennifer, however, seems well-adjusted in the film; she accepts her former husband’s death stoically. She only cries once, when she talks about her son Sam imploring her to move on days after the avalanche.
The film’s true perspective, however, is Max. Max is the director of the film, son of Alex and Jennifer, and step-son of Conrad. Unlike his two younger brothers, Max never took Conrad’s name and maintained the singular Lowe. While the rest of the family accepted Conrad as the father quickly, Max hung onto Alex’s legacy, sitting on the roof at night during his childhood reminiscing. Throughout the film, Max works through his emotions about the subject and asks difficult questions about Jennifer and Conrad’s quick marriage. Max even confronts his mom during an interview, saying “I can’t imagine, in the wake of something so crushing—to come out of it so quickly in that way that you did.” Jennifer responds, saying “There wasn’t time to overthink it, Max. I just acted.”
This interaction underscores the out-in-the-open emotional tension in the family. Max struggled to get his family to participate in his film. His younger brother, Sam, says early in the film that “I feel like it’s probably just going to bring things out in the open, and then we’ll just see if we can recover from that.” Torn doesn’t answer the question of whether they’ll recover or not. But it does lay some of the family’s history to rest therapeutically. Alex’s body is recovered, his ashes and bones spread around Nepal and Montana. Max calls Conrad “dad” in a vulnerable moment towards the end of the film, symbolizing that the family is moving forward. And through it all, Jennifer establishes herself as the emotional rock of the grief-stricken family.
Torn, like The Alpinist, and 14 Peaks, indirectly asks the question of who we are responsible for; ourselves or others? In each film, male characters abandon their posts, whether it be a “normal” life in Squamish, a sick mother in Kathmandu, or a family in Bozeman, in search of a fulfilling experience in the mountains. That allure can bring happiness and even financial gain, but it can also bring life-altering tragedy. The climbers and mountaineers know this, but they still seek out this dangerous passion. Although they’re worshiped in death by the general population, these climbers ultimately leave an excruciating hole in their families’ lives.
But maybe Leclerc's mom, Michelle, knows best. In her speech at his celebration of life, she says that she believes Leclerc “lived the life he was intended to live.” Isn’t that what we’re all searching for?
14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible and The Alpinist are available on Netflix. Torn is available on Disney Plus.