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A Life Ascending

DirectorStephen Grynberg
Producer Stephen Grynberg
Format60 mins
Reviewed byEd Douglas
DateSunday, 27 February 2011
Rating 4 out of 5


This low-key but quietly devastating film from Stephen Grynberg tells the story of Ruedi Beglinger, a Swiss-born mountain guide living in the Selkirks in British Columbia. In winter Beglinger leads skiing trips from the chalet he built and now shares with his wife Nicoline, their two daughters Florina and Charlotte, and various support staff.

From the opening clip we know that Berglinger has experienced a devastating avalanche, but the film then becomes a gentle and mildly interesting account of his life. While he was clearly a strong climber, Berglinger is a different sort of character to Ueli Steck, coming across as serious minded, even dour. Clients, family and co-workers describe him and the life he has made, and some of them clearly find him brusque to the point of rudeness. There’s a lot of footage of people skinning up snow slopes in bad weather, with Ruedi reflecting on the moral complexities of guiding for a living.

At one point, he says that most guides are waiting for the moment – not if, but when – there’s an accident. His wife speaks frankly about her fears, and how real the possibility is that her husband won’t come back one day. Taking such risks on your own behalf is one thing, judging the risks for a group of paying clients is quite another. Forget the legal ramifications, the moral ones are even more complicated. Beglinger at times comes across as too worried about all this, but as the film unwinds you begin to understand why.

He might come across as a little too serious, but one thing you can’t fault Berglinger on is his methodical approach to avalanche risk. The man knows his way around testing methods and protocols and keeps meticulous records about conditions and potential risks. So when he says that the slope he was climbing in 2003 with a group of clients was safe, you believe him. Only it wasn’t safe, and the whole thing took off. To hear experienced guides talking about what it feels like to be in a slide that big is hair-raising.

Seven of his clients died in the avalanche, while six were rescued, and there clearly hasn’t been a day since that Ruedi Beglinger hasn’t thought about whether he did something wrong, or whether he was unlucky, or even if he should be doing what he does for a living. There’s the rather moving story of the sudden appearance of a raven soon afterwards, who the family identify as somehow embodying the spirit of one David Finnerty, one of his fellow guides lost in the accident, but we don’t get any real sense of the other victims. If this excellent, thought-provoking film has one flaw it’s that we never get any real sense of the impact this event had on the families of those who didn’t come back – or how they feel about the accident and Ruedi Beglinger.

So much of mountain film making is about adrenaline and excitement, and there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it’s a change, even a relief, to see a film like this, that explores the complexities and doubts taking risks can provoke. It’s beautifully scored by Adam Gorgoni, and some of the cinematography is breathtaking but what remains in your mind after all this has faded is the idea of Ruedi Beglinger turning over in his mind the events of that terrible day – for the rest of his life.

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