What: A Life Ascending, Whistler Film Festival
When: Saturday, Dec. 4, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Millennium Place
Growing up in his native state of Colorado, Stephen Grynberg knew that if he and his ski buddies wanted to experience exciting steep and deep big mountain terrain, Ruedi Beglinger was their man, and his Durrand Glacier Chalet nested high in the Selkirk Mountains and accessed only by a 15-minute helicopter flight from Revelstoke, B.C., was the place.
Swiss born Beglinger, who earned his professional IFMGA mountain guide's certification at the impressively young age of 22, came to western Canada to work as a heli-skiing guide in 1980.
Since opening his lodge and launching his Selkirk Mountain Experience ski touring business in 1985, Beglinger's reputation as a bold, aggressive and talented mountain guide who pushed his guests to experience demanding mountaineering adventures made him one of the most highly respected and polarizing figures among Canada's professional guiding community.
A tragic avalanche in 2003, which killed seven guests, including world-renowned snowboarder Craig Kelly and Canmore resident Jean-Luc Schwendener, generated much critical media attention.
Several years afterward, the event spurred Grynberg, a Santa Monica, California-based filmmaker, to make his first feature length documentary, A Life Ascending , which profiles the romantic life of Beglinger and his wife Nicoline living at their impeccable lodge at 1,946 metres and catering to a loyal clientele of backcountry skiers while raising two young daughters amidst a dramatic wilderness landscape of cloud-piercing peaks and cascading glaciers.
The result, for a filmmaker whose first feature film, Love From Ground Zero , explored the theme of loss as friends drive across the US with their buddy's ashes, is quite simply, stunning, on both visual and emotional levels.
Masterfully shot by veteran Rockies filmmakers Pat Morrow and Roger Vernon, with Grynberg, the 57-minute film captures all that is sublime and spiritual about applying synthetic climbing skins to one's ski bases and climbing for three hours to a snow-wrapped summit to experience the utter joy of making turns in untracked powder worlds away from the nearest chair lift.
And so much more.
"I didn't want to make a ski film, and I wasn't interested in making a movie about the avalanche," Grynberg said by phone from Santa Monica. "I was much more interested in the human side of it, of people living in a certain place, the romantic nature of life in the mountain wilderness and all the majesty and hardship that comes with that."
And he adds, he felt compelled, again, to probe the theme of loss.
"This notion of loss is interesting to me," Grynberg said. "How does someone like Ruedi, a real perfectionist, deal with loss? And I wanted to understand my own relationship to the mountains. The thing I find most profound about backcountry skiing is the meditative quality of it. But fear was always a part of it, wanting to be in an extreme place was always a component for me."
To Grynberg's delight, Ruedi and Nicoline agreed to accept him into their lives for the five visits to the lodge required to make the film.
Interspersed with hauntingly appropriate quotes from Ben Gadd's enchanting novel, Raven's End , and a mysterious unrehearsed cameo appearance by a very real raven, the film mesmerizingly captures all that is alluring about backcountry skiing.
"When they agreed to do it, I was pleasantly surprised," Grynberg said. "I knew Ruedi had had a pretty rough time with the newspapers following the avalanche. I didn't really know how I was going to do it, I just had an idea. The weather was challenging, every shoot was different. We had to be the invisible crew. Ruedi was doing his thing, guiding paying clients, and we couldn't slow the group down."
And while Beglinger doesn't reveal much in words, the answers to how he deals with profound loss appears on the screen in his face, and in intimate on-screen moments shared between him and wife and daughters.
"He holds it very close," Grynberg said. "I think it affected him very deeply. But he keeps that place very much to himself. In some ways, you see it across the four of them. I wasn't looking for any intellectual answers. I was just looking to get close to it in an emotional way. I'm very grateful they were able to open themselves to me in that way."
Intimate, honest, intensely personal, reflective, and at once sobering and uplifting, A Life Ascending fully and deeply captures the delicate balance of the risk versus reward equation that lures many a mountaineer to return to the high peaks again and again to inhale the very exquisite nectar of physical, emotional and spiritual life.
Having already won four awards at film festivals, including Best Documentary and Audience Choice at Docuwest hosted simultaneously in Denver and Golden, Colorado, the Silver Sierra environmental film award in Yosemite, California, and Best Cinematography in Bend, Oregon, the film is sure to capture the audience's attention and emotions in Whistler.
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