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Best Climbing Documentaries: 10 Thrilling Films

Watching the best climbing documentaries on outdoor projector

People who play football for a local team, or just enjoy kicking a ball around the park with their children, get to tune in every week to Sky Sports or Match of the Day to see highly skilled professionals do what they can only dream of doing. Sadly, there is no equivalent for us amateur climbers; instead, we must turn to climbing documentaries to see the very best perform in our chosen sport.

To help you decide what to watch, 10 of the best climbing documentaries are listed and reviewed below. They feature a range of different climbing types, including trad, sport and bouldering, as well as aid, free soloing and mountaineering, and you’ll be transported around the world, from California to the Himalayas, and from Scotland to South Africa.

The variety should mean there’s something to appeal to all climbers, but being a personal collection, it’s invariably weighted towards my favourite types and styles. I am especially fond of trad climbing, for example, so there’s a healthy dose of long run outs above suspect gear. I am also drawn to documentaries that give insights into the climbers’ characters, and their motivations for putting themselves through extreme emotional and physical battles. And to be a great documentary I feel it must include an interesting and often nuanced relationship between the climber and someone close to him or her, which is explored in light of the climber’s obsessive drive.

The Wall: Climb for Gold

Year of release:2022
Duration:1 hr 36 mins
IMDB rating:7.2
Where to watch:Netflix

The only documentary on the list to feature competition climbing, but it’s not any old minor competition; it’s the greatest of them all – the Olympics! Tokyo 2020 was the first games to feature climbing, and The Wall tells that story through the experiences of four of the leading female competitors: Janja Garnbret, Shauna Coxsey, Brooke Raboutou and Miho Nonaka. We get to witness their gruelling training sessions and the stresses of qualifying, before having to re-peak and manage the psychological low after the games’ postponement due to Covid-19.

In addition to watching the three different climbing disciplines (speed, boulder and sport) the main strength of the documentary is the backstory of the climbers, and what each had to overcome to get to Tokyo. For Janja, it’s the challenge of being the favourite and staying motivated; for Shauna, it’s coping with injuries and operations; for Brooke, it’s the pressure of being in a family of climbing superstars; and for Miho, it’s dealing with the added expectation of a home Olympics. On the relationship side, I liked the tough-love dynamic between Janja and her coach, and the bond between Shauna and her dad is touching, especially as he raised her alone and nurtured her precocious climbing talent.

Free Solo

Year of release:2018
Duration:1 hr 29 mins
IMDB rating:8.1
Where to watch:Amazon

I’m sure there’re very few of you reading this article who haven’t seen Free Solo, so I won’t dwell too long on what happens: one man called Alex climbs 3000 feet of vertical granite in under four hours – that’s it. Oh, and he does it without a rope! Instead, I’ll focus on four reasons why it’s such a good documentary and rightly deserved the Oscar.

To begin with, it doesn’t overhype nor downplay the dangers. Whether it’s the producers questioning if they should be making such a movie at all, to the cameraman who can’t watch what he’s filming, to the accomplishment being compared to getting an Olympic gold medal or dying if you don’t, you are constantly reminded of the risk.

Secondly, the documentary’s been pitched correctly to appeal to seasoned climbers, with enough shots of pure climbing and close-ups of Alex’s smooth technique, and non-climbers, who might wish for more context and to learn more about the personality behind the climber.

Which leads on to the next point: Free Solo would be a much weaker documentary if it didn’t reveal Alex’s motivations, and didn’t tell us about his childhood, his relationship with mother and father, and especially the relationship with his new girlfriend.
And finally, in spite of Alex’s supreme confidence in his ability, there are enough obstacles to be overcome – especially his injuries and aborted first attempt – to sow some doubt and drive the story onwards to its climatic ending.

Spice Girl

Location:Devon, UK
Year of release:2017
Duration:21 mins
IMDB rating:/
Where to watch:Red Bull TV

This one’s for the lovers of bold British trad climbing. Featuring Hazel Findlay, it tells the story of the first female ascent of an E9 (one of the hardest possible trad grades) on a route called Once Upon a Time in the South West. It’s only a short documentary, but it packs in some great shots of the striking fin of smooth Culm on the north coast of Devon, up which Hazel must teeter on what she describes as ‘hilariously s**t’ gear. In addition to managing poor and spaced protection, the climbing itself is very technical, with delicate moves on small and crumbly crimps. It’s a remarkable achievement on a hard and scary route.

The personal element of the documentary is provided by her dad, Steve Findlay, who not only got Hazel into climbing, but is the one belaying her. He’s a calming presence throughout, and says how it was a real treat to hold his daughter’s rope for this breakthrough moment in British female trad climbing.

Climbing Blind

Year of release:2020
Duration:1 hr 21 mins
IMDB rating:7.2
Where to watch:Vimeo

Climbing is difficult; paraclimbing even more so. Jesse Dufton, the star of Climbing Blind, is a trailblazer in paraclimbing, but not content to settle for the relatively safety of competition climbing, he is best known for leading ‘non-sight’ traditional routes. Without being able to see where he’s going, he’s climbed up to E3, a grade that most sighted climbers are proud to lead.

The first half of the documentary shows Jesse climbing some classic gritstone routes in Yorkshire and the Peak District, with professional climber Neil Gresham wearing a blind fold to demonstrate how hard it is, before moving on to the main focus: the Old Man of Hoy sea-stack in Scotland. Beyond the obvious challenges of not being able to see, it’s a particularly tough undertaking as there are times on the route when his fiancée and belay partner, Molly, loses sight of Jesse as he weaves around the sea-stack and is therefore unable to direct him to holds. He is totally on his own to feel for each hold and somehow stick to the route. It’s scary to watch at first, but the calm demeanour of Jesse, and the trust between him and his partner, means that you begin to relax and saviour what you’re witnessing.

The Dawn Wall

Year of release:2017
Duration:1 hr 40 mins
IMDB rating:8.1
Where to watch:Amazon

The second documentary on El Capitan, but this one involves harnesses, ropes and bolts securely attached to the rock. That being said, while Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson do not risk their lives to climb it, the route they choose is much harder than the one Alex Honnold’s scaled in Free Solo, and the story is equally as gripping. The Dawn Wall follows Tommy and Kevin’s 19-day ascent, after six years of trying and failing. At 5.14d and 32 pitches, it is one of the hardest big wall free climbs in the world, and that alone makes it worth watching.

But discovering more about Tommy’s life is also worth the rental cost, particularly how he was taken hostage in Kyrgyzstan and escaped by pushing his captor over a cliff, and how he lost half his index finger in a sawing accident, but didn’t let it compromise his climbing. The documentary is also interesting due to the tough decision that Tommy has to make when Kevin struggles on the crux traverse pitch, and Tommy is unsure whether to wait for his partner or fulfil his own ambitions and head for the top.


Year of release:2006
Duration:53 mins
IMDB rating:7.8
Where to watch:Vimeo

As indicated by the title, this documentary is about an E11 climb, the highest British trad climbing grade and the first to be climbed. The honour of that record goes to Dave MacLeod, who after two painful years, finally topped out on Rhapsody at Dumbarton Rock, north of Glasgow. To suggest it’s a new and never-before-achieved grade is to leave yourself open to criticism from the climbing community if it’s unwarranted (see the case of James Pearson on The Walk of Life) but Dave felt confident in the grade and it hasn’t changed; its difficulty is due to very hard climbing (f8c+ or 5.14c) a long way above gear, with a 60-foot fall if you drop the final move, which Dave did four times before finally hanging on to the last hold.

E11 is compelling viewing, and once you’ve watched it, I recommend you check out Dave’s YouTube channel for further trad, bouldering and ice climbs in and around Scotland, as well as informative videos on training and nutrition.

Wide Boyz

Year of release:2012
Duration:48 mins
IMDB rating:7.4
Where to watch:Amazon

Another trad climbing documentary, but one that specialises in the dark art of off-width crack climbing, a technique that most climbers never learn and never wish to learn. Featuring Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker – known collectively at the Wide Boyz – the documentary charts their quest to conquer Century Crack in Utah, a 120 ft roof crack agreed to be the world’s hardest off-width at 5.14b or French 8c.

The only way to climb it is to be suspended upside down, hanging from your feet (in what Tom and Pete call a ‘wide pony’ position) and shuffling sideways on stacked hands. It’s an extraordinary feat of endurance and pain tolerance, one that took two years of preparation, training most nights in Tom’s cellar in Sheffield.

As much as the brutal climbing is fun to watch, the brotherly relationship between the two friends in endearing, and how together they achieved more than they ever believed they could; as Tom says, it ‘feels a like a story I’ll tell someone one day that someone I knew did and it wasn’t really me. I’ve never done anything like that. Never.’

14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible

Year of release:2021
Duration:1 hr 41 mins
IMDB rating:7.7
Where to watch:Netflix

The only mountaineering documentary on the list, but you get a lot of mountains in one sitting – 14, to be precise! – and those 14 happen to be the highest mountains in the world, and the only ones over 8000m. But if that’s not enough, how about one man attempting to summit them all in a record-breaking time? Nirmal Purja, a British-Nepalese climber, took on this feat in 2019, and 14 Peaks superbly documents that experience. What is extraordinary about it is the speed he climbed them, under seven months, when the previous record was over seven years. This put him under immense pressure to manage the short and variable weather windows on each mountain, and immense danger if he chose to climb in less than perfect conditions.

But in spite of that pressure and desire to complete the goal, the most fascinating dynamic of the documentary is that Purja does not let it override his moral sense of duty to help stricken climbers. On multiple occasions he stops to support and rescue others who aren’t part of his team, thereby risking his own life by spending longer in the ‘death-zone’ and also potentially jeopardising his time-sensitive objective. And away from the snow, ice and crippling altitude, there are further emotional obstacles that could derail him, particularly the anxieties of his family and his mother’s fading health.

Africa Fusion

Location:South Africa
Year of release:2016
Duration:52 mins
IMDB rating:7.2
Where to watch:Amazon Prime

This is probably the least demanding to watch of the documentaries; it’s perfect to have on in the background while you chat to a friend, or do the ironing. There is no real narrative to it, no one particular climb to conquer, but rather a series of climbing adventures in South Africa, all beautifully filmed with a well-funded camera crew.

What ties it together though is the relationship between the two main featured climbers: Alex Honnold and Hazel Findlay. While not a couple, they talk to the camera as if they are! Their conversations are both amusing and revealing. We learn, for example, that Hazel does and doesn’t like the way Alex pushes her and his brutal honesty, and how she isn’t scared by a dangerous route when she’s fully psyched to do it. The climbing itself is mostly sport and free soloing. One of the best images of the documentary is Alex soloing up Table Mountain with Cape Town in the background.

Psycho Vertical

Year of release:2017
Duration:1 hr 4 mins
IMDB rating:7.9
Where to watch:Vimeo

Andy Kirkpatrick, the star (although he would not use that term) of Psycho Vertical, is what would be described in matey terms as a ‘character’, but that’s doing him a disservice, for there’s a lot more going on beneath a funny and off-hand exterior. The documentary, based on a book of the same name, hinges around his 18-day rope solo aid climb up El Capitan. Aid climbing, the preferred method to ascend difficult routes in the early days of the sport, is now a niche and less popular type of climbing. But that’s not to suggest it’s a lesser challenge than free climbing, but rather a different one, and done on your own on a multi-pitch Big Wall, it takes an extensive knowledge of rope systems and extreme trust in what you’re doing, as well as high levels of endurance and persistence to reach the top.

And interlaced amongst shots of climbing El Capitan is Andy’s biography, of his childhood in Hull, of his absent father and how he’s in danger of repeating that pattern by abandoning his own children in the pursuit of his goals. It’s not always the most comfortable documentary to watch due to Andy’s punishing self-criticism and especially the short-lived satisfaction he feels on completion of the route, suggesting that his motivation to climb is more akin to an addict’s need for the next hit; rather than fulfilling a pleasure, it seems more about the absence of pain, of temporarily plugging a hole before the joy quickly drains away.

That’s it – my top 10 best climbing documentaries. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did, and if you’re still hungry for more, here’s another dozen:

  • Sherpa
  • Meru
  • Torn
  • The Sanctity of Space
  • Valley Uprising
  • Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey
  • Mountain
  • Touching the Void
  • Pretty Strong
  • Statement of Youth
  • Silence
  • The Alpinist

About the author


Henry Meier is a writer, teacher and, most importantly of all, an avid climber and lover of the great outdoors. Having lived in York and Sheffield, where he developed a healthy obsession with the gritstone, he’s now based in the south east, but still travels as much as possible to the best climbing venues around the UK.

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