Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike


And what a mountain

BBC4’s Wednesday night documentary about Scafell Pike, Britain’s highest mountain, came with favourable previews, although I’d have raced home from work to catch it if it had been promised to be a load of old boots, because there just aren’t enough television programmes about the Lake District. The last documentary I recall seeing was about the late owner of the Honister Mine and his attempts to get Planning Permission to instal a zip-wire across the Pass, which was a much less comfortable experience on several levels.

But this hour long documentary, produced and directed by Terry Abraham (who if he isn’t related to the Abraham Brothers of Keswick, who were pioneers of rock-climbing, still had a perfectly apt surname), deserve all the credits it got.

It took a beautifully simple approach to its subject, which was a year in the life of the Pike. Delightfully, there was no voiceover narration or ubiquitous presenter forcing a fixed viewpoint on the film. Instead, Abraham simply created the space for people who live and work and walk and climb to talk about what the mountain and its solid presence meant to them. Some of these people were working professionals, shepherds and farmers. Others were men who were drawn to the Lakes as photographers, guides, artists and guidebook writers, professional hillfolk.

All of them were natural talkers, unfazed at being in front of a camera, ready to open up on what the mountain meant to them, each in their own way. The camera didn’t worry them, the director let them talk, and the genuine love they all, in their differing ways, felt for just being there did not need any smartarse to sum up for them.

Two people in particular caught my eye and ear. One was the legendary, and phenomenal Jos Naylor, Wasdale farmer, fell-runner and simply unbelievable performer of feats that you and I could not imagine achieving in a year, let alone a month of Sundays. The film didn’t wallow in what Naylor had done, it just allowed one casual fact to stand, as Naylor recalled the time he set off on an impromptu run from Wasdale Head to the top of Scafell Pike and back. He asked a friend to time him, almost as an afterthought: it took 47 minutes. 47 minutes from Wasdale Head, up and down Scafell Pike. It’s hard to think of Jos Naylor as being merely human after things like that.

The other was David Powell-Thompson, a cheerfully laconic northerner who has spent the last twenty five years as a researcher for walkers, walks and television programmes about the Lakes, doing what he loves every day and being paid for it (lucky dog!). Powell-Thompson’s finest moment came at the annual Wasdale Show, winning the Best Beard rosette. To be taken home and put with the one he won last year!

The film didn’t just content itself with the ‘professionals’, but made room for the visitors to talk, a dozen or so walkers climbing the Pike and being invited to chat on camera. The closest to a dissenting voice was a teenage girl, dragged up the Pike for the first time by her Dad, who confessed to not liking the wind, but voice of the night was the voluable Scot, filmed with the glorious northern vista behind him, who couldn’t get over being where he was and the brilliant views.

Along with the talk, the film produces an array of brilliant pictures showing Scafell Pike and the Wasdale scenery in different shades and colours. We began with stars and a sunrise over valleys streaming with thick, roiling clouds, like a massive white-topped sea, and towards the end, a backpacker camping out rapturised about the night sky, unaffected by light spillage whatsoever, whilst the sky above teemed with more stars (and meteorites) than I have ever seen in cities with the naked eye.

And if that wasn’t delicious in itself, there was the time-lapse shot of the Pike throughout a night, astonishingly lit by night-climbers with head-torches, scaling the summt and rushing down, their torches unbelievably bright, like distant cars on a night-time hill, only more so.

One climber, familiar with Everest and K2, confessed to preferring rock climbing on the Pike, though we watched him start to tackle Broad Stand – not a walker’s route – on Scafell, getting quite some way up before showing his command of extreme good sense by stopping because the rock and the handholds were just too wet and slippery, and heading back.

If I’ve any critcism of the film, it would be less about the near-ubiquitous background music (quiet, suitably pastoral, but still over-indulged) than the fact that it was so Wasdale-oriented. Scafell Pike is more than a Wasdale fell, which was acknowledged quite some ways into the film, but the Eskdale flank – which I find to be more spectacular in both appearance and approaches – got very much short shrift. Some superb vistas, some conversations with guide book writers and backpackers exploring this side, but the preponderence of talkers were part of the Wasale scene.

No, this was quite the nicest thing that’s been on television so far this year, and I suspect that distinction will last quie some time yet. I’d urge you to catch it on the iPlayer whilst it’s available, and an early repeat would be welcome, especially if the BBC decide to re-show the film at its original two-hour length. I could have stood a lot more of that.

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3 thoughts on “Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike

  1. Hi Martin. I watched this and found it fresh and different. Like you I enjoyed it immensely and was impressed by its original approach. There was a simplicity to its presentation that worked well with the magnificent photography. The biggest impression it made on me was that although I’ve been to the summit of Scafell Pike five or six times over the years, and by a variety of routes, I now realise there are many crevices and hanging valleys where my feet have yet to tread.
    The same thought about Terry Abraham’s name flashed through my mind, for not only were the Abraham brothers pioneering climbers, they were pioneers of mountain photography and many of their classic views were captured in the Wasdale fells.
    Thanks for that review. You must have been tapping away like billy-o to get it posted in such a short time.
    Cheers, Alen

  2. Hi Alen

    Even faster than you think, because I was watching the film through the iPlayer about three quarters of an hour after it started! I like doing instant responses whilst the prpogramme ios completely fresh in my mind.

    Superb documentary. Whilst googling Terry Abraham to see if tyhere was a family link, I discovered that the film was made last year and was available to download in its two hour form: I’m going to see if it’s still available. Apparently, a lot of in-pub footage has been cut out.

    I’m the same about the photography. I’ve climbed the Pike four times but there were a lot of shots where I simply couldn’t recognise where we were on the mountain. So much to see and so little time…

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