Watching rock climbing documentaries is kind of like stealing french fries off your friend’s plate at a restaurant: you can’t just sneak one—you have to eat them all.
From must-see classics like Free Solo and The Dawn Wall to films like Valley Uprising and Fine Lines that get into the real heart of climbing, these 12 rock climbing documentaries exemplify the mental and physically journey that comprise the sport.
The Alpinist just might be the best climbing documentary ever created. I know, I know, what about Free Solo. The thing is, this one’s just different. The documentary profiles Canadian climber, Marc-André Leclerc, an under-the-radar solo climber who tackles rock, ice, and everything in between, making incredible solo first ascents without practically anyone knowing about it. In essence, Leclerc was climbing in basically the purest possible form up until he tragically passed away in 2018.
A project years in the making, Tommy Caldwell finally makes the long-awaited first ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, a route that he came up with himself after spending years piecing together a possible path. The film tracks Caldwell and skilled boulderer, Kevin Jorgeson, and their arduous 19-day journey on the wall, which ended up becoming quite the media spectacle. On top of that, the documentary also focuses on Caldwell’s past, including a moment in Kyrgyzstan that changed his life forever.
If you haven’t seen Free Solo already, there’s a good chance you’ve probably at least heard of it: this Oscar-winning documentary hones in on the historic free solo climb of El Capitan by Alex Honnold. Sure, El Cap has been climbed thousands of times, but it had never been done without a rope until Honnold came along in June of 2017.
Unlike other climbing documentaries, Valley Uprising doesn’t focus on a specific climber, yet instead is a wider history following the changing groups of climbers who tore through Yosemite Valley starting in the 1970s. Knowing what we know now about what ended up being accomplished on these walls, it makes the first ascents discussed and shown in this film all the more important. On top of the physical climbing aspect of things, the climbing culture in Yosemite plays a huge role, as there were some major tensions between certain climbers and climbing groups in the peak climbing period of the ’70s.
Director of Free Solo (and this very film), Jimmy Chin, along with climbers Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk set out on the mission to be the first to ascend the Shark’s Fin on Meru Peak, which is located in the Himalayas in India. The team faces quite a few setbacks on their way to finally reach the peak, yet through injuries, freak almost accidents, and rough weather, they still had their sights on the top of the mountain.
I don’t understand how this was physically possible, but it was. Netflix’s original documentary, 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible, centers around Nepali mountaineer, Nirmal Purja, whose goal was to climb the 14 highest 8,000-meter mountain peaks in the world in just seven months. With a team comprised of his most trusted friends, Purja was able to complete his mission in just six months, one month earlier than he had originally intended. While this is a film about climbing and mountaineering, it’s also the story of Purja himself and his mother, which is perfectly intertwined throughout the course of the documentary.
The Reel Rock film series is a large collection of both veteran and lesser-known climbers pushing their talents past the limits, with each film and episode chronicling a different climber or set of climbers. Reel Rock 13 features one of the strongest climbers out there right now, Adam Ondra, as well as Madaleine Sorkin on the Valley of the Moon walls, and a look into speed climbing in the 2020 Olympics. On top of that, we’re let into a massive expedition in Antarctica led by Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, Savannah Cummins, Anna Pfaff, Alex Honnold, and Cedar Wright.
A real look into the mentality behind climbing, Fine Lines groups together some of the most daring climbers around and gets their takes on why they’re willing to risk their lives for the sake of climbing. Just a few of the 20 climbers they interview include Lynn Hill, Tommy Caldwell, Alex Honnold, Adam Ondra, Jimmy Chin, and Conrad Anker.
Africa Fusion pairs up Alex Honnold with Hazel Findlay as they explore the mountains of Africa, taking on some rough walls in Namibia and the South African red sandstone cliffs. Not only is the documentary highlighting the outstanding climbing in Africa, but it also dives into the overall culture and music of the continent.
More so a documentary profile as opposed to a snapshot of a specific climb, Dirtbag is all about Fred Beckey, one of the most iconic climbers in rock climbing history. He’s the epitome of true climbing, making tons of first ascents, including that of Mount Deborah, the Devil’s Thumb, Mount Hunter, the Forbidden Peak, and Davis Peak.
The most recent in the Reel Rock franchise, Reel Rock 16 was just recently released in March and highlights climbers like Pete Whittaker, Tom Randall, Charles Albert, Alex Johnson, Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, and Adam Stack. This time around, we focus on a massive crack climb, barefoot climbing, bouldering, and 17 alpine summits.
Released on April 22, The Last Tepui mixes modern exploration with climbing as Alex Honnold and Bruce Means pair up to climb a practically untouched mountain and discover new animal species along the way there. To reach the tepui, however, they have to hike through the Amazon jungle, which proves to be fairly difficult for Means as he’s 81 years old. Because of this, Honnold and the squad trek forward and up the mountain sans Means, though they’re closely following his directions of what species to look out for both on the route and on top of the tepui.