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Martina Halik and her 60 year-old mother Tania embark on a six-month ski trek through the treacherous Coast Mountains of British Columbia, Canada. This journey has only been completed once before, and never by a female duo. Their adventure is interspersed with beautifully crafted portraits of high-altitude human endurance and passion-an avalanche survivor, a snowshoe artist, a snowbound convent-that are by turns captivating and inspiring. Woven between their arduous and uplifting story are vignettes of others who have chosen a mountain life: a group of nuns inhabiting a mountain retreat to be closer to God; a photographer is buried in an avalanche; an impassioned alpinist; a focused snow artist; a couple who has been living off grid in the mountains for nearly 50 years. What is it that leads these adventurous people to sacrifice everything - comfort, family, personal safety - for a life in the mountains?
Stunning scenery, of course, but also a look into the lives of some very unusual people.
I had the good luck to see this a couple of weeks ahead of its general release at one of our local art cinema theaters. I went in naturally expecting to be treated to stunning mountain scenery from one of the finest such areas in the whole world (western British Columbia). It delivers. The photography is superb and you can spend the whole 1:20 run time just letting those breathtaking vistas soak in one after the other. What I didn't quite anticipate though was the time spent on some storylines about a few unusual people who have gone beyond just looking at scenery and moved all the way out to inhabit it and embrace the isolation. (Although it's hard to decide which is the better way to say it: are they moving "out" away from so-called civilization, or "in" to the deep, vast world of pure nature?)
The central spine of the narrative is a mother and (adult) daughter who spend an astonishing 6 months hiking, skiing, and snowshoeing along the coastal mountains from north Vancouver to Skagway, a journey of 1400 km (almost a thousand miles, and that's just the straight-line distance. If you add up along the winding path they had to follow to avoid rivers, peaks, and other geographical barriers, it was a lot more.). Except for an occasional food drop, they were completely on their own and out of contact with the rest of the world. We also get to drop in on (among others) an eccentric old sculptor who with his very tolerant wife lives a hermit-like existence to concentrate on his art. And the very first section of the film shows us a "snow artist" at work on an immense snow-covered mountain slope. What he does is so amazing that I'm not going to take away any of the surprise -- just go and see it.
By the way, for a fictional version of this type of person -- individuals who are far more at home in the most extreme isolation than in the crowding and relentless clamor of urban life -- see "Leave No Trace", which is also a lovely and deeply personal exploration of what drives such rare people.
When This Mountain Life was showing the mother and daughter, I did however keep wondering "who's filming them??" They obviously did some of their own photography, but there are several long shots where we see them travelling along across glaciers, rivers, snowfields and so on. I guess they got some filming done here and there by a pilot/photographer/whoever. Whoever that was should have been highlighted better in the credits. Anyway, go and enjoy!
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