Over the years, adventure documentaries have taken us on journeys few of us have been lucky enough to experience in our real lives. To the peaks of the highest mountains and depths of the deepest and darkest caves, and everywhere in between, these spellbinding documentary films put us in the passenger’s seat of some of the world’s grandest adventures.
This is true with gems like the many mesmerizing Werner Herzog movies like Encounters at the End of the World, and more recently, 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible. With so many of these great adventures available on streaming services, there has never been a better time to take part in these dangerous expeditions in the world’s most beautiful locations and into the heart of the adventurer.
14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible (Netflix)
Most people who are brave, experienced, and crazy enough to attempt to reach the summits of all 14 of Earth’s 8,000-meter mountains do so over the course of years and decades, but the subject of the 2021 Netflix documentary, 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible, isn’t one to hold back. In this daring and inspiring adventure documentary film, Nepali mountaineer Nirmal “Nims” Purja sets out to reach all 14 summits in seven months instead of spreading the climbs out over the course of numerous years.
With a goal like that, it’s easy to imagine that 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible is a thrilling ride of a documentary, but like all good adventure stories, Nims Purja’s heart and devotion will leave you in awe.
180° South: Conquerors Of The Useless (Pluto TV)
The 2010 documentary, 180° South: Conquerors of the Useless, follows adventurer Jeff Johnston as he sets out to recreate the epic 1968 trip made by Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins to Patagonia, in hopes of climbing Cerro Corcovado, a 7,500-foot volcano in the Andes Mountains. The real beauty of this breathtaking and transfixing documentary is the journey itself, which Johnston completes not by flying to his destination but by sea, which presents additional obstacles and dangers.
What sets 180° South: Conquerors of the Useless apart from a lot of other documentaries like it is the heartfelt tone and relaxed pacing of the film, especially when the expedition gets delayed and the crew spend several weeks exploring Easter Island before resuming their journey.
Encounters At The End Of The World (Amazon Rental)
You can’t make a list of the best documentaries without including Werner Herzog, and so we have to talk about Encounters at the End of the World. In this 2007 documentary, Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger travel to Antarctica to spend time with the researchers, construction workers, and various support staff who live and work at the South Pole.
Even though Encounters at the End of the World is far from the most adventurous documentary on this list, it is hard to not be inspired and carried away by Werner Herzog’s excitement and quest for adventure, as shown in multiple scenes where he grows tired and upset of being stuck in what is essentially a small town.
Free Solo (Disney+)
Free Solo, which took home an Academy Award for Best Documentary and a staggering seven Primetime Emmy Awards in 2019, follows the death-defying Alex Honnold as he attempts to climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without ropes, harnesses, or other safety equipment. This multi-faceted documentary doesn’t just include Honnold’s various attempts at the impossible, as it also focuses on what brought him to that point and everything he has sacrificed for that dream.
Another great aspect of Free Solo is how it focuses on co-director Jimmy Chin’s preparation to shoot the monumental feat, and how he and his crew developed techniques that made the whole thing possible.
Valley Uprising (Prime Video)
After you check out Free Solo, you should really give Valley Uprising a watch, a 2014 documentary that sheds light on the rebellious climbers who honed their skills and gave birth to a counterculture in Yosemite National Park throughout the mid to late 20th Century. With interviews with some of the biggest figures of the movement and those they inspired, the film explores the impact of the group of young, talented, and wild climbers who were willing to risk it all and go up against just about anyone (including the National Park Service) to make their dreams come true.
Touching The Void (Plex)
The 2004 documentary Touching the Void recounts the terrifying and near-fatal descent carried out by mountaineers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, after they successfully reached the summit of the West Face of Siula Grande in Peru. But, unlike most documentaries on this list, this film combines interviews with the two men, and dramatizations of the incident with actors filling in for them. Regardless, this white-knuckle thrill ride is something that needs to be experienced by anyone who’s a fan of the genre.
Sunshine Superman (Tubi)
There are few activities on the face of the Earth that are more exhilarating and deadly as BASE jumping, which was brought to the forefront by Carl Boenish. The 2015 documentary, Sunshine Superman, explores the life and legacy of the man many consider the father of BASE jumping, someone who devoted everything to the sport and wanted nothing more in life than to share his love with those around him.
With stomach-dropping footage of some of Boenish’s biggest and most dangerous jumps and interviews with those closest to him, the documentary paints a loving portrait of the legendary thrill-seeker.
The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young (Hoopla)
In 1977, James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. nearly 10 years earlier, escaped from the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee, but only covered eight miles in the span of 55 hours. Years later, Gary Cantrell claimed he could run at least 100 miles during that same stretch of time and created the Barkley Marathon, a 60-hour ultramarathon where only 40 runners are allowed to participate, after submitting an essay, random articles of clothing, and having paid the $1.60 entry fee.
Over the course of the 2015 documentary, The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young, a group of dedicated (and crazy) runners attempt to complete a race that has only seen 10 finishers since it was first held decades ago.
Desert Runners (Pluto TV)
The 2013 documentary, Desert Runners, follows a group of non-professional athletes who set out to achieve one seemingly impossible and dangerous goal: complete 4 Deserts, a series of ultramarathons in Chile, Mongolia, Namibia, and Antarctica. Over the course of the 90-minute documentary, the participants test themselves physically, mentally, and spiritually, as they stay true to their goals and themselves, unwilling to throw in the towel.
Expedition Happiness (Netflix)
Driving from one end of America to another makes for quite an adventure, but traversing the length of the entire continent of North America is something entirely else. In the 2017 documentary, Expedition Happiness, Felix Starck and Selima Taibi (and their dog), convert an old school bus into a home on wheels and drive from Alaska to Mexico in hopes of finding peace, meaning, and happiness on the open road. This proves to be no easy task as the travel companions battle the elements, open road, and dangers that await around every turn.
Losing Sight Of Shore (Tubi)
The 2017 documentary, Losing Sight of Shore, follows a group of four women known as the Coxless Crew as they set out to achieve the impossible: row 8,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco, California, to Australia, with nothing but a modest-sized boat, their strength, and each other. This empowering and challenging documentary shows just how far a group of people can push themselves to make their dreams come true. With only a few stops for supplies along the way, the fearless and tireless group spends nine months crossing the ocean, doing something no one has done before.
These are just some of the great adventure documentaries that are worth checking out, as there are hundreds of amazing and inspiring true stories of thrill-seekers, adventurers, and those unwilling to back down from anything even when their lives are on the line. If you were a fan of any of these titles, specifically 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible, and you want to find out when you can see more like it, take a look at the rest of the 2021 Netflix movies.
Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop yelling at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.
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