More people need to watch this heartbreaking documentary
There was a time when climbing documentaries were all over.
There was of course Free Solo. This is the most famous example. Free Solo did more than win an Oscar in 2018, it inspired a string of word-of-mouth recommendations from its terrified (but obligated) audience. It was huge!
But Free Solo was not alone. That same year, Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer released The Dawn Wall, a fantastically produced documentary focusing on Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s first free ascent on Yosemite’s last great unclimbed face. There were others too: The Alpinist, currently available to stream on Prime Video, followed Marc-André Leclerc, a Canadian mountaineer who tragically died while climbing the north face of the Mendenhall Towers in Alaska.
Torn, on Disney Plus, is a documentary that focuses on the consequences of the tragedy. In 1999, Alex Lowe, an American mountaineer at the forefront of mountaineering, was caught in an avalanche on Mount Shishapangma, in Tibet. His climbing partner, the legendary Conrad Anker, who accompanied him on this trip, narrowly survived the same avalanche.
After Lowe’s death, Anker pledged to care for Lowe’s wife and children in the event of Lowe’s death. And, incredibly, in the wake of Lowe’s passing, Anker and Lowe’s widow fell in love. Eventually, the couple raised Lowe’s young children together. Today, all of Lowe’s kids now call Conrad Anker “Dad.”
Torn is a complex and delicately made documentary about this journey and its impacts.
Directed by Alex Lowe’s eldest son, Max Lowe, Torn is a personal story, mostly about the effect of high-stakes adventure sports and the gaps left by the sudden passing of a cherished family member. He also asks tough questions of his subjects: Why risk death when you have a family of young children in your care?
It’s clear that director Max Lowe idolizes his now deceased father, but he also idolizes Anker, the man who adopted him after his father’s death. Anker continues to climb after witnessing Lowe’s death. It’s another thread that weaves itself throughout this documentary: how does Anker walk a tightrope? How does he justify it? His death would no doubt crush an already fragile family unit, yet he continues to rise to center stage. Much of the film explores the need to manage risk, while giving people space to pursue their passions in the face of whatever is reasonable.
Either way, Torn is a likeable portrayal of Anker. It’s also a heartbreaking portrait of a family that, more than 20 years after Lowe’s death, still seems to be in recovery mode. The documentary ends brilliantly. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that Torn is an unmissable study in an unimaginable tragedy and what’s to come.
Although he won a few awards, Torn never really got the audience of Free Solo or even The Alpinist, despite being – for me – a perfect companion for both of those films. Both Free Solo and The Alpinist wrestle with the concept of risk and mortality to varying degrees and both do it well, but Torn delves into these themes in a way that these films never could. For that reason alone, it’s essential viewing. A little warning in advance: this will break your heart.