The best climbing documentaries showcase the world’s finest climbers pitting their skills against the world’s toughest climbs
Recently, we watched two great climbing documentaries: the acclaimed Free Solo (2018) at our local cinema and then The Dawn Wall (2018) on Netflix.
Both films focus on attempts on Yosemite’s El Capitan via different routes and using different climbing styles.
While Alex Honnold’s free solo of El Capitan was perhaps the most vertigo-inducing film we’ve ever seen, it was the human story behind Tommy Caldwell in The Dawn Wall that we found more compelling.
In my opinion, the best climbing documentaries should provide edge-of-the-seat entertainment combined with touching stories of human nature facing adversity and so-often tragedy.
The Dawn Wall, with its tender insights into Caldwell’s personal battles, did just that and was much more than just a terrifying climb.
Inspired by these two films, I’ve put together a list (in no particular order) of the best climbing documentaries. They cover everything from classic Californian rock climbs to Herculean high-altitude assaults.
Best climbing documentaries
Alpinists Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk attempt to climb the Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru, a 21,000ft peak in Northern India and the ultimate challenge in the high-stakes world of big-wall climbing.
Sherpa charts the Everest story from a perspective rarely seen and subtly asks the question: is continued foreign obsession with Everest bad for Nepal, Khumbu and the Sherpas?
Mountaineers have long used Scotland in winter to train for Himalayan expeditions. A mixture of ‘proper’ winter technical climbing and personal narrative, Distilled examines what makes the climbing there so effective.
|4.||The Epic of Everest (1924)|
The official documentary of the legendary 1924 Everest expedition was lovingly restored by the British Film Institute (BFI) and is probably the first climbing documentary ever. Filmed in harsh conditions with a hand-cranked camera, the footage captures some of the earliest records of life in Tibet.
|5.||The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest (2010)|
A documentary exploring the mysteries around the death of mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Sandy Irvine on Everest in 1924. Conrad Anker retraces their journey in an attempt to answer some of the questions around Mallory’s demise.
|6.||The Beckoning Silence (2007)|
Joe Simpson travels to the treacherous North Face of the Eiger to tell the story of one of mountaineering’s most epic tragedies. It was this story that first captured Simpson’s imagination and inspired him to take up mountaineering.
This giant-screen IMAX motion picture was filmed during the infamous 1996 storm that claimed eight lives. It documents the filmmakers’ harrowing rescue efforts to help surviving members of the ill-fated group.
|8.||The Man Who Skied Down Everest (1975)|
This Oscar-winning documentary tells the story behind Japanese daredevil Yuichiro Miura’s 1970 effort to ski down the world’s tallest mountain – after climbing it. Six members of Miura’s team died during the ascent which is the backbone to much of the film’s poignant drama.
|9.||Valley Uprising (2014)|
An alternative take on the climbing counterculture lifestyle of Yosemite. The 90-minute documentary examines the 60-year legacy of revolutionary rock climbing and its thriving (if sometimes controversial) counterculture.
|10.||Free Solo (2018)|
Acclaimed climber Alex Honnold prepares to scale the 1,000m El Capitan in Yosemite without a rope. Outside magazine declared Free Solo the “the best climbing movie ever made”.
|11.||Cerro Torre: Snowballs Chance in Hell (2014)|
After more than three years of trying, Austrian sport climber David Lama finally realised his dream of becoming the first person to free climb the infamous Compressor Route on Patagonia’s Cerro Torre. Tragically, Lama died this year in an avalanche in Canada.
|12.||Beyond the Edge (2013)|
This docudrama chronicles the first conquest of Everest by Hillary and Norgay. Charting the treacherous conditions endured during the 1953 expedition, the film uses re-enactments and archive footage to recount the event that would stun the world.
A gripping adventure of six blind Tibetan teenagers who set out to climb the 23,000ft Lhakpa Ri on the north side of Mount Everest. The journey soon becomes a seemingly impossible challenge.
|14.||The Summit (2012)|
In one of the best mountaineering movies made, filmmaker Nick Ryan interviews the survivors of the 2008 K2 expedition and, together with footage recorded on the mountain, offers an insight into the reasons why 11 lives were lost.
|15.||The Dawn Wall (2018)|
In 2015, American rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson captivated the world with their effort to climb a 1,000m rock face in Yosemite. The pair lived on the vertical cliff for weeks, igniting a frenzy of global media attention.
|16.||Touching the Void (2003)|
Simpson and Yates’ now infamous ordeal is re-enacted on the Peruvian Siula Grande. The docudrama is utterly engrossing and the haunting interviews add an emotional depth to this thrilling piece of cinema.
|17.||Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey|
Hailed as one of the most prolific and influential climbers of all time, Fred Beckey conquered more unclimbed peaks than anyone in history during his 80-year career and was perhaps just as well known for pioneering the freewheeling American ‘dirtbag’ lifestyle. This film explores both feats.
A visually thrilling film featuring narration by Willem Dafoe, Mountain takes viewers to the summits of some of the most beautiful mountains in the world from Tibet to Australia, Norway to Alaska.
|19.||Dark Glow of the Mountains (1984)|
In this made-for-TV documentary, filmmaker Werner Herzog follows mountaineers Hans Kammerlander and the legendary Reinhold Messner during their 1984 expedition climbing the 8,000m Gasherbrum mountains. At the time, they were considered some of the most difficult peaks still to be conquered.
In the first documentary on Messner since the aforementioned Herzog film, the eponymous climber looks back over his career with surprising candour and self-revelation. His solo climb of Everest without bottled oxygen in 1980 was described by Jon Krakauer as “the greatest mountaineering feat of all time.”
|21.||Alone on the Wall (2010)|
A 23-year-old Alex Honnold attempts the 610m-wall of Half Dome, which was the greatest free solo ever attempted at the time. The climb took the high-stakes sport of free solo climbing to new heights – heights Alex would later take even higher.
|22.||The Alps (2007)|
On the sheer rock-and-ice wall known as the Eiger, an American climber is about to embark on the most perilous and meaningful ascent he has ever undertaken: an attempt to scale the legendary mountain that took his renowned father’s life.
|23.||K2 and the Invisible Footmen (2015)|
K2 and the Invisible Footmen documents the unsung efforts of Pakistani high altitude porters (HAPs) who for decades have facilitated the ascent of Earth’s second-highest mountain. Against a backdrop of breathtaking scenery, this documentary explores the courage and sacrifice of the men who call the ‘Savage Mountain’ home.
Over 26 years, 16 expeditions tried and failed to climb one of Pakistan’s 8,000m peaks in winter. In 2011, three men became the first. The journey nearly killed them. This 19-minute documentary short is their story seen through the raw, honest perspective of one team member’s lens.
|25.||Bonington Mountaineer (2017)|
The life story of one of Britain’s most loved and most successful mountaineers could have been a much longer affair. Instead, the 80-minute documentary focuses on the most groundbreaking and significant expeditions of his long and illustrious climbing career.