The documentary film A Life Ascending is a gorgeous piece of film work. Filmmaker Stephen Grynberg has created a visually arresting, honest portrayal of acclaimed ski mountaineer, Ruedi Beglinger and his family. High up in the Western Rockies of British Columbia, Ruedi takes guests on daily ski trips while his wife Nicoline runs the lodge they own. Guests come in by helicopter. Ruedi and Nicoline have two daughters who are homeschooled during the winter months when the family resides at the lodge. The area is the very definition of remote.
Stephen has been a guest at the lodge and his love for the mountains shows through in the film. The trust between him and the Beglinger family is also readily apparent in the interviews for the movie. I spoke with Stephen and Ruedi about the process of making the film. Stephen and I talked about the clarity that comes from being up in the mountains.
“A lot of the clarity comes for me in a combination of things. That long repetitive motion of climbing over 2 – 2.5 hours, climbing up one of these peaks. I find for me, I get incredibly clear from using my body that way. And there’s something about just being so far removed from any semblance of civilization. For me a lot of it is visual because up where Ruedi is, we’re above tree line. So in the winter when you’re ski mountaineering up there, it’s very sculpturally beautiful. You get these incredible snow formations that are constantly shifting from the combination of elements of wind, snow and sun. Wherever you are, you get some of that serene quality that you get when you walk through a sculpture garden. For me that’s a lot of it. I’m not a chatty climber. Some people want to be with other people and climb. I tend to want to climb alone and just fall into that place.”
The film captures the quiet serenity of the mountains and snow, but also the shifts that occur constantly in the landscape. Ruedi is known as a guide’s guide and in A Life Ascending we see clearly his connection with the mountains. I asked him about his relationship with his guests.
“The ski guests come for a week. In the summer we have hiking guests who come for a week or weekend. A lot of our ski guests and hiking guests, they are repeat customers. They come every year or every few years and this is a nice part of the business. They actually become your friends. You develop a very close friendship with lots of the guests. When you know in like two weeks or whatever that this or that person comes up, it’s almost like Christmas. You can’t wait for the visit. They come and they bring interesting stories. They come from all over, North America, Europe. It’s amazing the great stories people bring you. So you don’t need to worry about entertaining them. They actually entertain me.”
This connection is clearly a source of joy for Ruedi and for his family. It makes it all the more poignant and intense to think about these connections in light of the avalanche of 2003 that claimed the lives of seven people Ruedi had up on the mountain. The deaths of his guests, his friends caused him to intensely question if he was doing the right thing with his life. Should he keep guiding? Was there something he could have done differently? Something he missed?
“Before this avalanche, if you would have asked me what happens when an avalanche goes, I would have said, “Well, sometimes you don’t hear anything or you hear a small bang and then the whole slope moves. It starts moving slow and then quickly gaining speed as the snow slides down the slope.” This is how avalanches work. But this one was a whole different ball game. There was a lot of energy going on and energy release and then it actually took off in an opposite direction, hit a cliff and bounced back. Then it came past me and behind me eventually. I was thinking for a long time and it was like rewinding a film, if you don’t understand a certain clip, you review it to understand the next clip. And I took me a long time to understand that part. Why was it like this and is this what really triggered the avalanche and why did it go and is there something I didn’t see? You do a lot of thinking after this until you, hopefully, can understand what really happened.”
As Stephen shot the film, it became apparent that the family was going to have a key role in the final cut. Stephen describes them as the heart of the film.
“I certainly didn’t know how much the family grounded Ruedi and was his…well, salvation is probably a little bit too grand a word, but how important the family was in his healing process and his coping process after the avalanche. That I didn’t know at all. I got a sense of just how grounded those kids were. When I’d been up there before, I wasn’t a parent. So now I went up there to shoot it and I have a family and am a parent in LA questioning all the time—What am I doing to my kids? I think that was a lot of it too. The idea of family was way more on my mind. At the end of the day, as interesting as it is, I worried that the film would become just a sort of biography of this guy. And I didn’t want that. I thought that that would be fine, but it wouldn’t be that satisfying to me or that interesting to a wider swath of people.”
A Life Ascending comes out on DVD on February 28th. Check out the website to order the film, find local screenings and more. My interview with Nicoline will post on MomsLA.com on February 29. For more with Stephen and Ruedi, go to the Huffington Post.