When Free Solo (2018) burst into the public eye after taking the Oscar for Best Documentary Picture in 2019, a revolution of documentaries focused on extreme mountain and cliff climbing emerged. At once challenging the idea of what a human body is capable of while also inspiring a deep sense of awe, these documentaries energize just as much as they distress. We anxiously watch these mountaineers and climbers ascend to unimaginable heights. But what makes these documentaries so alluring? What attracts people to these seemingly ludicrous acts of endurance, strength, and grit?
In many ways, this new fascination with extreme adventure docs serves as a figurehead for the emerging “outdoors” movement in an increasingly sedentary world. However, these movies show much more than a simple story of a climber: they chronicle a day in the life, enter the very gray matter of these individuals completing these impossible tasks, and explain their endless motivation in pursuit of a life worth living. They tell a humanistic story of success, and their true message is so much more than the sum of their parts.
Below, be prepared for some spoilers (most minor, some major). If you have not yet watched these documentaries, I highly suggest that you do so with no prior knowledge. No sneaky Googling either: these stories are best experienced going in cold.
The first documentary I watched in this genre was Free Solo, directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, just after it took the Oscar in 2019 and earned its well deserved 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. Free Solo covers the story of climber Alex Honnold, a free soloist (i.e., a rock climber who climbs without ropes or any other safety measures) whose eyes are set on soloing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. This documentary tells the story of Alex’s build-up to, and completion of, climbing one of the most infamous rock faces in history: El Capitan. Rising more than 3,000 feet, with an unflinchingly almost vertical drop, it is surely an unclimbable face to the untrained eye. But not for Alex.
Though this plot might seem overly simple at first glance — a straightforward story arc with a satisfying climax — the documentary kicks into gear in its surrounding story. Indeed, while viewers are intrigued by the impossible premise, the story of Alex’s imperfect childhood frames the true message of the story. Free Solo humanizes Alex Honnold, showing us that he is just a person trying to live out his dream after struggling in his youth.
In addition to Honnold’s relatable and admirable life story, Free Solo also successfully portrays the sheer scale of the climb and the terrifying dangers involved. Throughout the movie, I asked myself: how will Alex execute such a task? What are the obvious dangers involved? How does one go about filming such an endeavor?
These questions, and many more, are masterminded by Alex himself, as well as another free soloist Tommy Caldwell (who was featured in the 2017 documentary Dawn Wall) and the cinematographer Jimmy Chin. The risk of plummeting to his death while being recorded by multiple cameras is unfavorable to say the least. The filmmakers, by painstakingly mapping out each step and part of the route, give viewers a first-hand glimpse of the process of doing the impossible.
As the climax approaches, when Alex attempts the climb, viewers begin to feel a visceral solidarity with him. We’ve seen the ins and outs of his life. We’re up from bed with him at 5 a.m. and trekking to the mountain face. We hang off the side of a cliff, taking in the view. To me, this is what makes this film so magical. I began to care more deeply for Alex than for the characters of most other movies I’ve watched; when his hands begin to sweat, our palms become clammy too.
The next film in this genre I watched, after feeling so inspired by Free Solo, was 14 Peaks (2021), covering the audacious story of Nims Purja. Nims is a Nepali mountain climber known for his daring ascents of some of the highest mountain peaks in the world. In this story, he set his eyes on climbing the world’s fourteen highest peaks, all over 8,000m, over the course of seven months. For some perspective, the first person to complete this feat (Reinhold Messner) took over sixteen years. To succeed at this task would require great skill and endurance, but if anyone were up to the task, it would be Nims.
Narrated by Nims himself in a haunting and omnipotent voiceover, the documentary transports the viewer up to the mountains with him and his small team. We watch as they dance together, drink together, and sing songs well into the night, all while trying to keep each other company as the wind and storms put them to sleep. We also watch Nims’s family struggle with his questionable lifestyle choices, his wife and brother especially taking the brunt of the force. But even as the climbers must contend with death (Nims himself even watching a fellow mountain climber die in his arms) and a terrifying lack of oxygen, their community on the peaks keeps them going.
Importantly, the zone above 8,000m, where the oxygen concentration is so low to the point of incredible danger, is called the “death zone.” Nims says, however, that “in the death zone, [he comes] alive.” After what feels like forever, summiting peak after peak, in times unheard of before, Nims is finally able to bask in the glory of being the fastest man on the planet to summit all fourteen peaks over 8,000m.
What makes this film so enjoyable and fascinating is its sheer scale. We see these people we care deeply about plunge into the Tibetan winter to summit mountains of an unbelievable scale. But we find that, despite our great anxiety, we cannot look away. It begs the question: How far is one person willing to go? Nims goes above and beyond our wildest dreams in answering this question in the documentary.
The final film I watched was The Alpinist (2020), by far the most heart-wrenching of the three. It begins with Alex Honnold (from Free Solo) on camera being asked, “Who impresses you right now?” He soon answers, “this kid Marc-André Leclerc,” who was 22 at the time.
A mixed-medium free soloist (or someone who doesn’t limit himself to just rock faces or ice faces but rather climbs both — the difficulty of which cannot be understated), Marc-André, in my eyes, is by far the most impressive climber out of the three. Switching from climbing shoes to ice shoes while holding two ice picks in the process, a mixed-medium free soloer mixes cliffing and mountaineering, something that can only be described by watching it first hand in the trailer.
The documentary demonstrates, through speaking with his mother, girlfriend, and fellow climbers, that his sheer love for climbing is what makes his story so special. One of the most entertaining scenes is when Marc-André simply disappears for months on end in the middle of filming the documentary to go climbing with his girlfriend all around the world. For me, this was the most refreshing look at what it means to truly love what you do.
Marc-André’s historic goal as portrayed in the film was to free solo Torre Egger in Patagonia, a feat never before accomplished. We watch as this awkward kid we’ve barely met does just that — completes the first free solo of a mountain peak before thought to be impossible.
But soon after completing his monumental task, he goes to Juneau, Alaska, with a fellow climber to free solo many of the tallest peaks in the area. After being out of contact for days on end, his girlfriend and family send a search team who find his climbing rope buried in an avalanche on the peak he was climbing. The last fifteen minutes or so of the documentary are a sobering look at how a family and loved ones deal with loss. Their strength in the face of grief, however, is truly inspiring.
What I love so much about The Alpinist is twofold. First, it is the sense that there is a community of climbers. When Alex Honnold is asked who he is inspired by, we quickly understand that there is so much more to climbing than what is shown on the big screen. Even though we might have watched Free Solo and thought that that was the pinnacle of climbing, we are always reminded that there are more people doing even more impressive climbs. For about an hour and a half, we get an inside look at what one of the closest-knit communities on the planet looks like.
And second, the pure sense of joy we derive from watching these people experience such freedom. Many say that the reason they love adventuring is because it allows them to take a step back from the real world for just a minute, to take in the natural beauty that too often gets hidden behind to-do lists, laptop screens, and emails. We sense a radiating aura of happiness from these climbers. And we are able to simply sit like a fly on the wall and experience it as if it were first-hand. The sheer anxiety these films instill in us as we watch, counterintuitively, becomes what draws us in.
In the end, we get the sense that we are sitting at the table during a family dinner surrounded by the greatest skill and motivation in the world. We are being co-opted into a family of physical ability, mental toughness, and the creme-dela-creme of grit and perseverance. Indeed, it is a humbling experience that is rare in cinema in such a distilled form as in these forelisted documentaries. Though these documentaries present similar stories, which could be read as boring, they actually coalesce into one thriving story. Indeed, the boundaries between them blur and all the characters become part of one large, all-encompassing, loving community.
If you have not done so already, I would highly suggest checking all of these films out. They’ll surely change your perspective on community, ability, and just what humans can do.