“A Life Ascending” chronicles the life of Ruedi Beglinger, an acclaimed ski guide who, in 2003, was guiding 14 skiers when the group was caught in an avalanche that killed seven of his clients. Years after the accident, filmmaker Stephen Grynberg, a Colorado native who had skied with Beglinger three times before the avalanche, returned to the Swiss guide’s home in the Selkirk Mountains to film a documentary about how Beglinger, his wife, and two young daughters have come to terms with the tragedy. The film, which has won ten international awards, including “People’s Choice” at Banff Mountain Film Festival, is being released on DVD today. Considering that roughly 20 skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers have already died in North American avalanches this season, “A Life Ascending” is a timely cautionary tale. Below, Grynberg tells us his motives behind making the movie:
Discovery: It’s been almost ten years since the avalanche, why did it take you this long to make the film?
Stephen Grynberg: I had the idea three years after the avalanche. The truth was I never really wanted to make a movie about the avalanche. That’s not what drew me to the story. I wasn’t interested in getting into what happened or whose fault it was. I was drawn to the human side of the story: What does somebody do with loss in a profession where controlling your environment as much as you can is the paramount idea? What does that person do when things go wrong? Knowing the family, I just started thinking more on a human level. How did they move on?
D: Beglinger guided you three times on ski mountaineering trips before the avalanche. What did you think of him as a guide?
SG: I first went up there in mid-90s. I had very little interaction with him. He’s a pretty reserved guy. My relationship was more on the family level with his wife Nicoline and their two daughters. My relationship with Ruedi really didn’t develop fully until I made the film.
D: The avalanche isn’t mentioned in depth until 17 minutes into the film. Why is that?
SG: It’s interesting because the very opening of the film starts with a little clip with Ruedi saying: “It wasn’t just an avalanche, the entire mountain came down.” People don’t consciously remember it. It’s one of those psychological things where the information comes to you and you’re not consciously aware of it.
D: You mention in your director’s letter on the film’s website that this was a cathartic experience for you? How?
SG: I don’t know if cathartic is the right word. There was a point in making the film where I realized I was chasing some of my old stuff, my relationship to nature—more existential stuff. There’s a quality in Ruedi that is a little like my dad, who is a Holocaust survivor. These issues and questions of loss have been of interest in films I’ve created.
D: Do you think it was cathartic for Beglinger?
SG: It was such an incredible experience at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, five hours from where Ruedi lives. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen because there are people out there who revere Ruedi and people who have a hard time with him. I didn’t know what was going to happen. The film screened in front of 800 people, and I brought Ruedi, his wife Nicoline on stage with me and the audience gave them a standing ovation. They were applauding their courage to come out and partake in this screening. In a way, living up on that mountain in that kind of seclusion means there’s not a real sense of what the world thinks of you given the accident and what went with it. To come down there and have the story embraced in this way was very cathartic. Ruedi’s a very changed person since the avalanche. He’s softened a lot.
D: Do you find it odd that this film is making the international circuit in a year that’s above average in avalanche deaths?
SG: I find it really bizarre this is happening.