There was a period where climbing documentaries were everywhere.
There was Free Solo of course. That’s the most famous example. Free Solo did more than just win an Oscar back in 2018, it inspired a swathe of word-of-mouth recommendations from its terrified (but compelled) audience. It was huge!
But Free Solo wasn’t alone. In that same year Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer released The Dawn Wall, a fantastically produced documentary focused on Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s first free ascent of Yosemite’s last major unclimbed face. There were others too: The Alpinist, currently available to stream on Prime Video, followed Marc-André Leclerc, a Canadian climber who tragically died whilst climbing on the North Face of the Mendenhall Towers in Alaska.
Torn, on Disney Plus, is a documentary that focuses on the aftermath of tragedy. In 1999 Alex Lowe, an American climber on the cutting edge of mountaineering, was caught in an avalanche on Mount Shishapangma, in Tibet. His climbing partner, the legendary Conrad Anker, who accompanied him on that trip, narrowly survived the same avalanche.
Post Lowe’s death, Anker committed to looking after Lowe’s wife and children in the event of Lowe’s passing. And, incredibly, in the wake of Lowe’s passing, Anker and Lowe’s widow fell in love. Ultimately the pair raised Lowe’s young children together. Today, all of Lowe’s children now call Conrad Anker “dad.”
Torn is an intricate, delicately made documentary about that journey and its impacts.
Directed by Alex Lowe’s oldest son Max Lowe, Torn is a personal story, primarily about the effect of high stakes adventure sports and the gaps left behind when a cherished family member passes away suddenly. It also asks difficult questions of its subjects: Why risk death when a family of small children are dependent on you?
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 first hand. That’s another thread that weaves throughout this documentary: How does Anker walk the tightrope? How does he justify it? His death would undoubtedly crush an already fragile family unit, yet he continues to climb on the sharp end. Much of the film explores the need to navigate risk, yet still allow people space to pursue their passions in the face of all that’s reasonable.
Regardless, Torn is a sympathetic portrait of Anker. It’s also a heartbreaking portrait of a family who, more than 20 years after Lowe’s death, still seems to be in recovery mode. The documentary concludes brilliantly. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice to say, Torn is a must-watch study on unimaginable tragedy and what comes next.
Despite winning a few awards, Torn never quite received the audience that Free Solo or even The Alpinist did, despite being — for me — a perfect companion piece to both those films. Both Free Solo and The Alpinist grapple with the concept of risk and mortality to varying degrees and both do it well, but Torn digs deep into those themes in a way those movies never could. For that reason alone, it is essential viewing. A quick warning in advance: It will break your heart.