As a little girl, Brette Harrington's favourite thing was to scurry high up into the trees that bunched around the sparkling freshwater of California's Lake Tahoe. Perched on the highest branches, she'd spend hours hidden in the leaves, peering down on the folks below.
"I loved climbing trees so much," she smiles, thinking back. "I loved the idea that no one knew where I was and being in a really unique place that not many people would go, using skills to get there that other people wouldn't necessarily have. That was special for me."
She pauses, then says, "my favourite type of climbing is still when I'm high up. On a mountain or on a cliff. I tend to climb better at exposure like that."
From the treetops to the mountain tops, there are few people in the world that can climb better than Harrington. The 29-year-old is one of the world's leading free solo climbers, which means she conquers the world's steepest and most dangerous mountains without the safety net of, well, a safety net.
No ropes, no harnesses, no precautionary gear. All she uses to scale these awe-inducing, stomach-churning, head-spinning heights is her skill, strength and unshakeable nerve.
"I definitely feel fear," she admits, before a wide grin covers her face and she says, "but not enough to not do it."
Harrington features prominently in the new documentary The Alpinist, which opens in cinemas outside Auckland on Thursday. And while her own accomplishments are more than doco-worthy this movie focuses on her late partner, Marc-André Leclerc, a legend in the sport.
"It's about his legacy and what he did. It's not about me. I'm just trying to help him fulfill his achievements because he's not here to be able to speak for himself. I'm doing this for him."
The documentary crew followed Leclerc for almost two years before his sudden death in 2018. The 25-year-old prodigy had just successfully completed a new route up Alaska's imposing Mendenhall Towers when he was taken by a sudden avalanche during his descent. His body was never recovered.
"Marc and I were together for six years," Harrington continues. "We formulated each other's philosophies on climbing and on life. His vision of what climbing is became my vision and we built on that together."
Leclerc viewed free soloing in a completely pure, almost hippie, way. While he wanted peer acknowledgement and recognition for his many, many climbing achievements he held little interest in chasing fame.
"I remember when Marc and I went to Patagonia in 2015. I had this idea to solo this mountain and he was asking me what my motivations were. I was like, 'I don't know, I just want to do it.' But he wanted to be sure that I wasn't doing it to gain attention or that my motivations were impure," Harrington says. "It's such a risky thing to do that you should always be sure that you're doing it for yourself and not doing it to prove anything or to show anybody else. You're putting your life in your own hands. Alpine climbing is risky and you have to be aware of that."
You only need to look at these photos to see that "risky" dramatically undersells free solo alpine climbing. It's not just that there's no rope to catch you if you slip, or that the walls are vertiginous, or that a climb takes days; it's that the most demanding climbs challenge you to scale rock, granite, snow and ice during your ascent.
"It's like an art. The creative aspect is what's most inspiring," she explains. "You build up skills over your life and combine all the little techniques then, when you see something that hasn't been done before or that you can improve on, you do it. That's where the motivation comes from."
It was this, she says, that made Leclerc such an astounding climber. He was creative, had unrivalled focus and clarity and had mastered every aspect and style of climbing, no matter how obscure.
"Being such an expert on all those different disciplines made him really special," she says, before getting a little teary.
"Watching the film the first time after his accident was super, super sad and really hard for me to watch. It still is. As time goes by my emotions are settling and I'm more stable. Back then everything was so fresh. I would almost dive into grief, now I avoid it. The last two showings, I just didn't watch to the end."
After the accident she kept climbing, using it as a coping mechanism.
"Most people felt I should have stopped but I needed to climb. It was the only thing in my life that felt stable at the time," she says.
The concentration and emotion-free, critical thinking that climbing demands forced her focus away from her grief. At least for the few days of each climb.
"I'd come out of the mountains," she says quietly, "and fall apart."
Back in 2016, during one of Leclerc's record-setting, free solo ascents of Torre Egger, he spotted a new route to the summit. Charting the line with photos on his phone, he then sent them to her. This new route wasn't for him. His vision was that she be the first to free climb it.
So, in 2020, she spent four days slowly and methodically free climbing the unforgiving, ferociously steep wall, sleeping on four-inch wide ledges and making history inches at a time amongst its freezing conditions. As the granite gave way to slippery, unpredictable ice, she hit a spot where she could climb no further. Taking her ice axe, she began digging a vertical tunnel up through the ice. Eventually, she broke through, pulling herself up through the small hole and onto the summit.
"It was the craziest feeling," she beams. "And the happiest I've ever been."
She named the challenging, 950m route MA's Vision, abbreviating Marc-André, in his memory. Then, she shared it with the world.
"You amaze me more and more as I retrace your steps through the mountains," she wrote on Instagram.
"I will love you forever."
The Alpinist opens in cinemas around New Zealand from Thursday. Auckland release date TBC.