The Alpinist

The tragic story of audacious climber Marc-André Leclerc told by his partner Brette Harrington
By Ella Joyce | Film+TV | 5 October 2021

When Brette Harrington met Marc-André Leclerc he was paying $180 a month to live in a stairwell, and she saw a soulmate. Partners in love and work, both elite climbers in their own right, together they shared a vision of climbing unlike many others: a joint passion for thrill-seeking, and an appreciation of the artful skill needed to execute climbs of the highest calibre. However, after Leclerc’s tragic passing in 2018, Harrington was left without her partner and wondering if she’d ever climb again, so she sought solace in the place they both considered home – the mountains.

“I’m Marc-André Leclerc, I’m a climber… generally speaking,” is Leclerc’s humble introduction in Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen’s new documentary The Alpinist, which documents the climber on his unfathomable ascents across some of the world’s most challenging terrain. Graced with an awkward yet endearing charm, he fails to mention the gravitas of his impact as a climber – not in an attempt to coyly undersell himself but because he climbed to seek adventure, not fame.

No strangers to the climbing genre – previous credits include the likes of First Ascent and Valley Uprising – Mortimer and Rosen’s latest cinematic peak is visually astounding, placing viewers side-by-side with Leclerc as he clings by his fingertips to cliff faces or precariously manoeuvres across glaciers. But as a subject, Leclerc was not always easy to track down. Both appearing on-screen and as narrators throughout the film, the directors share their exasperation yet admiration of Leclerc’s dedication to climbing as he drops off the grid without warning in search of pure soloing adventure.

Although this lone wolf trope underpins the documentary, it is as much a story of Marc-André’s climbing career as it is of his love for Harrington. In the conversation below, Harrington reflects on Leclerc’s unique outlook on the world of climbing and the unbreakable bond they shared.

Ella Joyce: The film is stunning, what was the initial process when Marc-André was approached?
Brette Harrington: The first time we spoke to [the directors] they’d approached to do a small film on me and it was a Zoom call like this. I was at my parent’s house in Tahoe and then they asked me about Marc-André, I think that was about 2014, so Marc and I had been together for two years and I was trying to summarise his character to them because they brought up the idea of doing a bigger film about soloing as a topic in general. So that was the basis of the film and I was like, “Oh yeah we could partake in that, we could help you with that.” But then they eventually changed the entire film and made it just about Marc which is kind of remarkable and it was a little bit scary for him.

EJ: Definitely, it’s quite apparent in the documentary that he was somebody who chose to step back from the limelight.
BH: I think Marc had a hard time in public in general and relating to other people because he was focused on climbing. So I think the idea of making a film about him was a bit scary because he wasn’t a very social guy, he was wonderful when we were around climbers but I think he was more reserved or hesitant or scared when talking to others.

EJ: More of an introvert?
BH: Definitely an introvert.

Still, ‘The Alpinist’ – by Peter Mortimer & Nick Rosen, 2021

EJ: How did Marc-André’s relationship with climbing begin, was it a similar start to your own? It sounds like your journeys were on a similar path from the beginning.
BH: I suppose so when you think about early on. We both grew up around mountains and I learned about Himalayan climbing by reading books about the first ascent of Everest with Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hilary. I know Marc also read all these mountaineering books. So as children we were reading those types of books and then he took it a step further and started looking for climbing partners when he was a young teenager. I fell in love with it immediately through climbing trees and gym climbing, but we both kind of fell on the same path because we were both in love with it.

EJ: What was Marc-André like when he wasn’t climbing, was there a side we didn’t get to see?
BH: These type of questions are really hard for me to answer. I mean, he loved dancing, music and stretching, like the things we did were all just taking care of our bodies and trying to be as healthy as possible, and then preparing. In the winter of 2018, we were living in British Columbia and we’d go into the mountains on this big excursion, come out of the mountains, take all of our gear off, throw it all over the living room floor, dry it out and then spend the next day or two stretching, going to the pool and preparing for the next time – then we’d pack up our bags again and go back into the mountains. We just did that repetitively on and on and on. Or sometimes we’d go to the climbing gym because he was always trying to help me with my rock climbing goals, at the end he didn’t really enjoy going to the climbing gym but I did so he’d come with me.

“…when I was with Marc I always had a partner and he always had a partner, we were always supporting each other and each other’s projects.”

Still, ‘The Alpinist’ – by Peter Mortimer & Nick Rosen, 2021

EJ: There’s been a delay in the film being released, I imagine it would be quite a weird process for you seeing all of this footage a few years after Marc sadly passed. Has that been difficult? I guess everything has sort of fallen on your shoulders, interviews like these and everything that comes with the release of a movie.
BH: Yeah that has been so strange because for the first year after he passed away the filmmakers didn’t even get in contact with me or anything so that was a year of silence on their end, which is fine, I was deep in the mountains. Then the second year they came back and did some interviews with me which was nice because I’d had a year to process what had happened, those are at the end of the film where I’m crying and really emotional, which happened in 2019. I’d had that full year to really convey my feelings. I watched the film in July this year for the first time in a very long time and it was so sad to me because I try not to think about it anymore, I try not to think about the past too much and instead stay present, that’s my key: to stay healthy you must live in the present. So watching it that first time was shocking because I hadn’t seen it in a long time and then now I feel like I’m accustomed to it because I’ve gone to different premieres and I sort of know the boundaries of where I’m okay to dive in or avoid.

EJ: It must be such a strange experience to all of a sudden have to answer questions about such a private part of your life.
BH: Yeah it’s such a personal movie it’s crazy.

EJ: Has your relationship with climbing changed in any way since not having Marc next to you? It’s clear from the documentary you spent a lot of time climbing together.
BH: The main thing that changed was when I was with Marc I always had a partner and he always had a partner, we were always supporting each other and each other’s projects. There was never any need to look for anyone else who had a similar vision because we always had that together, so climbing was just this continuous roll – we never stopped. Now I have to really seek out partners who have a similar vision or find people who are willing to support me or care enough. I feel like it’s been a lot more challenging, but I’ve found a good rhythm with it and I’ve found some really good partners. I don’t have a partner that can do everything with me but I have ones who love alpine climbing, or love sport climbing, or big wall climbing, so I’ll kind of try and tap into their visions versus with Marc; it was just him.

EJ: Almost like a telepathic connection in a way.
BH: Definitely.

The weather window was so small, it was like a half-day weather window so I think he slept in a crevasse and I slept in this little cave and then we came back to the valley bottom the next day.”

Still, ‘The Alpinist’ – by Peter Mortimer & Nick Rosen, 2021

EJ: What was your favourite climb that you did with Marc?
BH: We did so many climbs together. One really unique climb was going to the Ghost Wilderness. Actually, they filmed part of it where it shows Marc off the grid and they come in to find us, that was a really beautiful climb that we actually did the year before, so it was just he and I, it was before Robson and before any of that. We put up this big route and then in the movie, the following year we went back with our friend and put up more routes there but the big route we did initially, just the two of us, took like a month to establish… it was just a unique experience.

I think that may have been my favourite route with Marc, but we also soloed mountains together, which was extremely special. We did this climb in Patagonia, this is so cool, so the film talks about him soloing Cerro Torre but it didn’t mention that in that same day I soloed another mountain just across the valley on Saint Exupery. We soloed them on the same day, he helped me with that because the mountain I climbed was a pretty difficult grade and I wanted to be sure that I was comfortable soloing at that level. It was 750 meters, so pretty big, and so a week before we climbed it together solo and we were just like climbing unroped and having a really good time. We climbed it in three hours, which was really amazing, super fast. Then we had to repel and when we went back the following week he went to solo Cerro Torre ‘The Corkscrew’ and I soloed Saint Exupery, so we were climbing up different mountains in Patagonia solo. The weather window was so small, it was like a half-day weather window so I think he slept in a crevasse and I slept in this little cave and then we came back to the valley bottom the next day.

“…when I was with Marc I always had a partner and he always had a partner, we were always supporting each other and each other’s projects.”

EJ: You’re so accomplished in your own right, completely aside from Marc-André. What’s next for you in your career?
BH: I have a bunch of ideas, currently I’ve gotten back into rock climbing, which I hadn’t focused on for a couple years. I was just alpine climbing and then in May, I started getting really inspired to go back to El Capitan in Yosemite and do more free climbing, so I’ll spend the fall there. I want to see if I can potentially push my rock climbing grade to a really high level, and then also I’ve gotten really into ski alpinism. I have this friend up in British Columbia and she and I have done a bunch of really big ski ascents, but she’s an incredible skier so we have some trips planned this year to go do some big ski lines.

EJ: Did you ski a lot when you were a child too?
BH: Yeah, skiing has been a part of my life throughout, I started when I was two.

EJ: Are you happy with the final cut of the documentary, do you think Marc-André would be proud of it too?
BH: I am. I wasn’t really sure during the process, I was always trying to be sure they were conveying messages that I think Marc would want. Before he died, the first cut I watched I was not very happy about. I just didn’t feel like it had much soul to it, so I was a bit worried that they were going to try and make our characters something we didn’t resonate with, but in the end I’m really happy. I feel like they did their best to show who he was and what he wanted.

The Alpinist is out in cinemas now.

Still, ‘The Alpinist’ – by Peter Mortimer & Nick Rosen, 2021

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