Roger Cox: Distilled shows climbing films at peak

Climbing films are SO boring,” said a skier friend recently, rolling his eyes. “I just can’t watch them. Nothing happens. It’s just people... climbing.”

'If you think climbing films are boring, you've been watching the wrong ones'. Picture: Paul Diffley

I’m not a climber – I’ve always been more of a downhill kinda guy – but for some reason I took that comment to heart. Perhaps because I’ve interviewed so many climbers over the years I took umbridge on their behalf, or perhaps I got all defensive because I’ve seen enough climbing films to know there are some real gems out there. Either way, I wasn’t going to let it lie.

It’s certainly true that, to those outside the sport, climbing flicks can seem a bit monotonous – man moves right hand, man pauses, man moves left hand, man pauses – but the best ones... the best ones can make you so scared for the protagonists you want to run and hide behind the sofa, and so delighted for them when they make it to the top you want to punch the air and do a little victory dance around the lounge.

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“What about films with Alex Honnold in?” I asked the skier, Honnold being America’s goofy young climber-of-the-moment – a kid who looks like he’d have a hard time crossing the road yet somehow manages to make scaling sheer, 1,000m walls of rock without ropes look easy.

“Yeah, OK,” the skier conceded, “Honnold’s films are pretty good.”

“And what about Paul Diffley’s stuff?” I asked, Diffley being the Scottish director best-known for his work with Glasgow über-climber Dave Macleod.

“Yeah, OK,” he said, after a pause, “at least Diffley’s trying to do something a bit different.”

Based in Edinburgh, the home of his Hot Aches production company, Diffley has now won more than 30 international awards for his climbing films. What sets his work apart from almost everyone else in the field is the way he seems able to get right inside the heads of his featured climbers. It’s not that other filmmakers don’t try to do this – they do; they’re just nowhere near as good at it.

In his first film, E11, for example, Diffley didn’t just show Dave MacLeod making his historic first ascent of the Rhapsody route on Dumbarton Rock – he also filmed him recovering from injuries, cooking dinner and doing countless pull-ups on a door frame in his flat. Watching an all-but anonymous climber on a route isn’t all that interesting (although a lot of people making climbing films seem to think it is), but watching a climber you feel you’ve got to know well is a totally different experience – it’s almost as if you can hear what they’re thinking as they reach for each new hold.

Diffley’s latest film, Distilled, has its Scottish premiere on Thursday at the Pleasance in Edinburgh, and it’s also playing at the Dundee Mountain Film Festival at the weekend. This time, Diffley’s subject is South Yorkshire miner-turned-mountaineer Andy Cave, and again the film is a brilliant fusion of interview and action.

To atmospheric footage of Cave and climbing partner Gary Kinsey tackling some of Scotland’s most photogenic winter routes, the Yorkshireman explains how his climbing really took off during the Miners’ Strike, when he had little to do but climb (“In a way,” he says, “Thatcher helped my climbing career”). He also talks about the great sense of freedom climbing gave him after his claustrophobic experiences underground.

And the style of Cave’s climbing soon starts to reflect the things he tells us. At one point, he explains that climbing is something he does more for the enjoyment of the act itself than for the satisfaction of getting to the top, and you can start to see that in the easeful way he moves, the way his face relaxes slightly every time he finds a good, solid hold with the tip of his ice axe. We’re not looking at somebody suffering on his way to the top in Distilled – we’re looking at someone well within his comfort zone enjoying every minute of what he’s doing. Playing. It’s almost enough to make a non-climber think about investing in a helmet, a harness and a few lengths of rope.

Distilled is at the Pleasance, Edinburgh on 28 November, 
tickets £9 (£4),, and at the Dundee Mountain Film Festival next Saturday, www.dundee