Roger Cox: Portrait of beautiful-but-unforgiving Cairngorms

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You’d think summer would be a dead time for Scotland’s winter people – no ice for ice climbing, no snow for skiing – but not a bit of it.

For many, the warmest months of the year are when the real work gets done. This is when last season’s adventures get written up for next season’s mags; when last season’s photos get turned into next season’s ad campaigns; and when last season’s video footage is lovingly transformed into next season’s films.

The UK mountain film festival season doesn’t kick off for another three months, but entry deadlines are looming now, so even though the snow has (mostly) gone from the hills, the winter people are still hard at work, noses pressed to their computer monitors, staring at nothing but ice and snow from dawn till dusk.

And the great thing about this time of year is that, every now and then, you get a sneak preview of what the winter people have been working on.

These may be folk you met briefly in the car park one dark, icy January day, laden down with kit, heading off to attempt something ambitious while you did something much more pedestrian. Or they may simply be people whose latest project you heard about through a friend of a friend. Rumours about who’s been doing what bounce around the hills all winter long, but often it’s not until a few months down the line that you get to find out what all the buzz was about.

The Cairngorms in Winter is yet to trouble the pages of Variety or The Hollywood Reporter, but among Scottish outdoors enthusiasts it was one of the most talked about film projects of last season.

Shot by innovative landscape cinematographer Terry Abraham, and starring long-distance walking guru and longtime Cairngorms resident Chris Townsend, it set out to paint a portrait of the nation’s most beautiful-but-unforgiving mountain range at its most beautiful-but-unforgiving time of year.

The film will, no doubt, be a staple on this winter’s mountain film festival circuit, which starts in Edinburgh in October, then ducks down to Kendal before taking in Dundee and Fort William, but it’s already out on DVD and has its Scottish premiere next month, so it doesn’t seem too premature to write about it now.

On first viewing, the most striking thing about the film is that it’s slow. Radically, game-changingly slow. Films about men and mountains, whether they involve climbing, skiing, snowboarding or paragliding, tend to rattle along at a breathless pace. Every trick in the book, from frantic jump-cutting to an amped-up soundtrack, will typically be deployed to hold the attention of the imagined audience: namely the twitchy, limited-attention-span members of Generation Google.

But The Cairngorms in Winter isn’t like that. At all. There are lingering, moody shots of dark trees silhouetted against bright blue skies; extended timelapse sequences of clouds streaming over hillsides; leisurely panning shots taking in miles and miles of snowy summits. At one point Townsend sits down on a rock to eat a chocolate bar, and the camera remains on his face for a grand total of 14 seconds as he chews, thoughtfully. Later, after skiing to the top of Cairn Gorm, he takes in the view for over six minutes before continuing on towards Ben MacDui, his eventual destination. And in contrast to your typical mountain film, in which serious-minded sportsperson A must achieve goal B by nightfall or die trying, Townsend doesn’t seem remotely bothered whether he gets where he’s going or not. When high winds force him to abandon an attempt to walk through the Lairig Ghru, he simply shrugs and says “I decided the sensible thing to do was to go back.” In a sense, I suppose, his deep love of the Cairngorms means he can never be in a rush, because wherever he is he has already arrived. Climbing hills isn’t the point; just being in the hills is enough. The jittery film-makers of Generation Google should be forced to watch this, even if they have to be physically restrained. They’d learn a lot.

The Cairngorms in Winter has its Scottish premiere at Eden Court, Inverness on 28 August and is available to buy on DVD at 
www.steepedge.com