Our Top Ten
- The Dawn Wall (2018)
- Free Solo (2018)
- Meru (2015)
- Valley Uprising (2014)
- Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia (2014)
- 180° South: Conquerors of the Useless (2010)
- King Lines (2008)
- Higher Ground (2007)
- The Sharp End (2007)
- Touching the Void (2004)
- Pretty Strong (2019)
In the world of elite sports, rock climbing is relatively young. Rock gods and goddesses were pushing the limits of the sport starting in the ’50s and ’60s, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that climbing started to be documented.
Even then, the quality of the documentation was mediocre, at best.
Since then, a number of movies and documentaries featuring the radical sport of rock climbing have been released. We’re here to give you a synopsis of ten of the best climbing climbing films of all time. Each of these documentaries are based on a true story - no Hollywood acting here!
Are you ready to stoke your inner climbing fire with the best climbing footage ever created? You may want to chalk up before sitting down to watch some of these harrowing tales from the rock!
1. The Dawn Wall (2018)
Runtime: 1h 55 min
A climbing documentary full of substance and heartache, The Dawn Wall showcases the arduous, seven year project undertaken by Tommy Caldwell (and later, Kevin Jorgeson) to free climb the hardest big-wall route in climbing history - The Dawn Wall of El Capitan.
Spanning 3,000 feet in height, and rating at 5.14d in the most technical sections of the route, Caldwell’s successful free-ascent of The Dawn Wall represents the pinnacle of his climbing career, and sets a new standard for elite climbing.
Like Caldwell and Jorgeson’s historic achievement, the resulting film breaks barriers in the realm of adventure sports documentary.
The Dawn Wall includes intimate interviews with Caldwell that expose the inner emotional turmoil he’s felt for years following his time being held hostage in Kyrgyzstan, and in light of a gut-wrenching divorce from his childhood sweetheart, Beth Rodden, both of which served as tragic inspirations for his decision to conquer the Dawn Wall.
The Dawn Wall is by far one of the greatest attempts to document the intricately complicated world of professional climbing while maintaining the often underappreciated human aspect of the sport.
2. Free Solo (2018)
Runtime: 1h 37 min
Alex Honnold’s generation-defining free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park has been chronicled with spectacularly breathtaking cinematography by co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“MERU”) in a documentary aptly entitled Free Solo.
Honnold’s selfish dedication to the lifestyle of dirtbag climbing and addiction to the pursuit of superhuman perfection is delicately portrayed through the lens of a superior athlete with a history of emotional detachment - Alex Honnold in a nutshell.
The gut-wrenching film is intricately interwoven with a touching, yet agonizing love story that stands to threaten Alex’s stone solid resolve required to complete this unfathomable feat.
Get ready for the ride of your life as you watch, perched on the edge of your seat with sweaty palms, while Alex Honnold prepares to scale 3,200 feet of sheer granite - without a rope.
Free Solo is not only the epic telling of one man’s journey to success - the film and the achievement itself serve as pillars for exemplifying the resilience of the human spirit, and represent the epitome of humanity’s quest for divine perfection.
A film not to be missed, for diehard climbers and humble humans alike.
3. Meru (2015)
Runtime: 1h 30 min
A film designed to tingle your senses while portraying a microcosm of the grandeur and torment of alpine climbing and first ascents, Meru is at once a story of survival and a paradox of defeat.
The attempt to climb the 21,000 ft Shark’s Fin of Meru in the Himalayas by Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk in 2011 started out as an unrivalled arctic ascent and grew into a blistering cold battle of the wits - a triumph over impossible odds and a tale of inconceivable recovery and redemption in the face of utter defeat.
Join alpine expedition climbers Anker, Chin, and Ozturk as they launch into the void by courageously venturing into as-yet-unclimbed snow capped glaciers to set out on the ultimate test of the master climber.
Meru will have you shaking in your boots with anticipation, hope, and moments of despair as these three men foray into the annals of arctic expedition and embark on an endeavour of galactic proportions, sure to captivate the novice climber and seasoned expeditioner, as well as the unacquainted bystander.
4. Valley Uprising (2014)
Runtime: 1h 43 min
One of the most iconic climbing documentaries of all time, Valley Uprising represents a deep dive into the rich history of rock climbing in Yosemite National Park.
Characterized as a counter-culture, anti-establishment sport from its very roots, climbing has a long history of attracting passionate renegades with subversive visions for how life should be.
The film aims to highlight the original Yosemite rock stars, who, with free spirits and raw, carnal energy, put up many of the first routes in the Valley.
Valley Uprising also strives to depict the evolution of rock climbing as represented by the impressive arc of progress made by climbers in Yosemite between the Golden Age of the mid-20th century (’50s - ’70s) through the Stone Masters of the ’80s and 90’s who first introduced free climbing to the sport, and concluding with the final evolution of sport climbing and free soloing, done by the millennial Stone Monkey generation.
Valley Uprising is a must-see documentary for anyone hoping to make the foray into the subversive history of rock climbing - you are sure to have a rollicking good time watching this documentary, and walk away with a whole new understanding of the world of climbing to boot.
5. Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia (2014)
Runtime: 1h 24 min
Metanoia: “A fundamental change of thinking; a transformative change of heart.” Jeff Lowe dedicated his life to the pursuit of the definition of the Greek word “metanoia.”
He is renowned as one of the greatest alpinists and mixed climbers the world has ever seen. Lowe is also accredited in large part with the invention and evolution of ice climbing.
This biographical documentary outlines Jeff Lowe’s shining achievements, the apex of which was his solo ascent of Metanoia, up the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland.
He completed the seemingly impossible climb in 1991, following a sobering mid-life crisis.
The previously unimaginable climb paved the way for a spiritual epiphany that later allowed Lowe to enter into the hardest climb of his life - an almost two decade-long battle with ALS - with patience and humility.
Inspirational and thought-provoking, Metanoia goes down in the books as one of the greatest biographical style documentaries of a climber to date.
6. 180° South: Conquerors of the Useless (2010)
Runtime: 1h 25 min
In this beautifully documented film, Jeff Johnson follows the 1968 journey to Patagonia originally taken by two of his climbing and conservation idols, Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) and Doug Tompkins (founder of The North Face).
In an attempt to recreate the trip of a lifetime, Johnson embarks on a six month adventure that starts on a boat and ends with an attempt to climb Cerro Corcovado, an impressive peak located in a park called Conservacion Patagonica that was founded by Tompkins and his wife.
Interspersed throughout the breathtaking cinematography and narrative of Johnson’s journey are clips of information about environmental conservation initiatives, making the film not only a documentary about outdoor adventure, but also a moving call to action to protect the natural world.
7. King Lines (2008)
Runtime: 60 minutes
At the dawn of the 21st century, the name Sharma became synonymous with climbing.
The creative route finding and climbing techniques of Chris Sharma are highlighted in his semi-biographical documentary, King Lines.
Sharma’s dedication to seeking out the “king line” - the hardest, most alluring line of rock that requires supreme creativity to climb - has been the driving force of his life since he was a young child.
King Lines allows the viewer to follow Chris Sharma on “his ultimate global quest to redefine the possible in the vertical world.”
A beautiful homage to one of the world’s greatest climbers, King Lines is by far one of the greatest climbing documentaries ever created.
8. Higher Ground (2007)
Runtime: 1h 30 min
Why do climbers choose to climb? Higher Ground tries to answer this question through interviews with climbers from a variety of disciplines.
Traditional and sport, big wall climbing, ice climbing, and alpine climbing are all covered in this remarkable rock climbing montage. Unlike other climbing documentaries which have primarily focused on men in the realm of climbing, Higher Ground features a section that highlights female ice climbers playing on a waterfall route in British Columbia.
It also offers vivid insight into the inglorious world of non-professional climbing and provides an authentic perspective into the “why” of why climbers climb.
The spectacular scenery showcasing classic climbs around North America combined with an awesome soundtrack make the film a pleasure to watch, even if you know nothing about climbing.
9. The Sharp End (2007)
This riveting documentary is a collection of stories from extreme athletes pushing the limits in all realms of climbing, from highball bouldering to wingsuit BASE flying and everything in between.
Get to know world-class climbers like Dean Potter, Lisa Rands, Steph Davis, Ammon McNeely, Renan Ozturk, Chris McNamara, Cedar Wright, and Alex Honnold while they attempt the world’s hardest (and sketchiest) projects.
Eye-catching scenery combined with compelling interviews and nerve wracking sequences on rock faces all over the world make this film simultaneously entertaining and inspiring. The climbers featured in The Sharp End showcase an intriguing blend of lunacy mixed with absolute dedication which allows them to accomplish seemingly impossible feats.
Definitely a climbing documentary worth watching if you’re interested in learning more about the extreme aspects of the sport.
10. Touching the Void (2004)
Runtime: 1h 46 min
Touching the Void is the harrowing tale of two young climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who set out on a first ascent of the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985 and barely made it out alive.
As is known in the world of climbing, and especially so in the treacherous realm of mountaineering, the ascent is often far less dangerous than the inevitable descent. Simpson and Yates discover this lesson the hard way, and are faced with the test of a lifetime.
Hazardous conditions mixed with an excruciating injury on the way down lead to an unforgettable story of survival, which has yet to be rivaled in the ever-growing world of extreme alpine climbing.
Simpson and Yates have gone down in history not only as the first climbers to successfully summit Siula Grande (21,000 ft), but also as one of the greatest single-handed mountain rescues in the history of climbing.
A feat hopefully to never be repeated, Touching the Void is worth the watch if you’re in the mood for a nailbiter that may leave you with nightmares of epic descents for years to come.
Bonus: Pretty Strong (2019)
In case you’re a lady climber wondering why your identity doesn’t seem to be represented in many of the climbing documentaries listed above, don’t fret!
A new documentary by the name of Pretty Strong, a Kickstarter funded initiative, featuring all female-identified climbers will be released sometime in the spring/summer of 2019.
Julie Ellison, former editor of Climbing Magazine, collaborated with a female-led, grassroots media organization called the Never Not Collective to pull together a feature-length film highlighting women in the esoteric world of rock climbing.
Keep your eye out for showings of Pretty Strong next summer, as it will surely be a climbing documentary not to miss! And if you’re looking for some lady power inspiration to fuel your desire to climb before Pretty Strong is released, check out REI’s Within Reach, a shorter documentary-style film that explores the advantages of women climbing together.
So that’s our top ten. What do you think? Is there kick ass climbing film that we’ve forgotten to mention, let us know in the comments below.