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"Why would you ever need to go abroad when you've got views like this? " We also meet Richard Scrivener
on 4 July 2014
Terry Abraham's stunningly photographed film about a year in the life of England's highest mountain (3,209 feet), situated in the Wasdale Valley of Cumbria, focuses equally on the breathtaking landscapes of Scafell Pike (pronounced "Scaw-fell") and its nearby fells, and on the people--and sheep--that populate it. Abraham explores the mountain through the seasons, capturing numerous views of its majestic peaks and valleys, as well as farmers, rangers for the National Trust, fellrunners, a volunteer mountain rescue team, mountain guides, writers, photographers, broadcasters, together with lots of ordinary folk determined to make it to the top. The film is framed at the beginning and end by shepherdess Alison O'Neill, who introduces us to this "huge stairway to heaven made of rock," and explains how the valley created its own dialect, with locals still saying "aye," "nowt," and "that'll do" in their everyday dealings.
We meet Carey Davis, the British Mountaineering Council's "hill walking officer"--a job title ripe for mention in the New Yorker's "There'll Always be an England" feature. Davies tells us of the "Three Peak Challenge," which involves climbing Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike, and Snowden in 24 hours (he doesn't approve of covering this much ground so quickly). He shows us National Trust rangers maintaining the pathways by disassembling unauthorized cairns and moving boulders to re-define the pass surfaces. "Look at the views--they're to die for!" he marvels. "Why would you ever need to go abroad when you've got views like this?" We also meet Richard Scrivener, a Wasdale farmer who points out to walkers and climbers the crucial role of the native sheep in the appearance of the Lake District: "Take a moment of your time and look around you and see why it looks the way it does . . . that's because of the Herdwick sheep and the generations of farmers that have farmed these valleys and these fells . . ."
One of the more fascinating segments of the film is a look at the volunteer Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team, equipped with ambulances, a helicopter, and various kinds of rescue equipment, to come to the aid of climbers who run into serious trouble on the mountain. The MRT has handled everything from fatalities to twisted ankles to a missing cow. But they're starting to draw the line at people who through their own lack of planning and proper equipment (a compass and a good map may be worth considering when planning a mountain hike), find themselves hopelessly lost when it's getting dark. Increasingly, such clueless types will have to spend the night on the mountain and wait until morning before the rescue team shows up. A former MRT team leader considers the advantages and disadvantages of mobile phones in rescue situations: on the one hand, mobile phones enable the summoning of almost immediate assistance to injured climbers, saving precious time; on the other hand, people "often rely on their phone to call for help and don't try to think their way out of a problem."
One of the pleasures of "Life of a Mountain" is that to help show us Scafell Pike in its various guises, Abraham has assembled some familiar faces and old friends to viewers of other videos of this region. Broadcasters and authors Eric Robson and Mark Richards show up, as does "iron man" fellrunner (and sheep farmer) Joss Naylor; and longtime Striding Edge researcher David Powell-Thompson also makes one of his infrequent appearances in front of the camera (he has also appeared once or twice in Julia Bradbury's videos). With his Jeremiah Johnson-like appearance, Powell-Thompson is an impressive-looking figure--he won the prize for "best beard" two years running at the annual Wasdale show--but he's also a born raconteur. At one point, we see him musing on the some of the features of Wasdale: "smallest church, deepest lake, highest mountain, biggest liar [that last would be Will Ritson, 19th century farmer, innkeeper, amateur wrestler, and famous tall-story teller]: four things that give Wasdale its character."
We're used to seeing Joss Naylor on his epic runs around Lakeland, amazing for a man in his 60s and then his 70s (and we do see shots--and a painting--of Naylor in his younger days). But Abraham's film also shows him as a sheep farmer and as an expert in the construction of stone walls: There's nothing better in the Lake District," he declares, "than a good limestone wall." Naylor also enjoys telling us the story of one of his first major runs--up and down Scafell Pike in 47 minutes. A helicopter pilot who observed him on that occasion said that from the air he "looked like a bloody mountain goat."
The film also features fascinating segments by photographer Mark Gilligan, backpacker Chris Townsend, and mountaineering guide Alan Hinkes. The latter has climbed both Everest and K-2 (we see brief clips of him on these peaks), but he retains a healthy respect for Scafell (during this winter segment he was forced to retreat from one particularly rocky route that not even Wainwright could manage). As one Himalayan mountaineer interviewed (in "The Wainwright Memorial Walk") by Eric Robson pointed out, 100 feet down is 100 feet down, whether in the Lake District or in the Himalayas, and one could die as well in one fall as in the other. The dangers of Scafell should never be underestimated.
During and in-between segments, Abraham's jaw-dropping photography (sometimes in time-lapse mode) offers new ways of appreciating the ever-changing faces of Scafell Pike. At one point, a National Trust ranger observes that pictures can't do justice to the views from the upper reaches of the mountain. But a film like this shows that the opposite is also true: reality sometimes can't do justice to the skilled eye of a master photographer (and film editor). Just as watching the game on TV often beats watching the game from the stands because of the multiple viewpoints offered by the cameras and by skilled commentators who provide the benefit of their long experience and their expert interpretation, a documentary like this one offers a perspective, both close and comprehensive, that often goes beyond the limited viewpoint of the on-scene observer.