“We didn’t want adrenaline”: Interview with Cairngorms film star Chris Townsend

Posted by Carey Davies on 13/06/2013
Chris Townsend in the Cairngorms. Photo: Terry Abraham

Chris Townsend is one of the world's most prolific long-distance walkers. Now for the first time he's the star of a feature-length film - 'The Cairngorms in Winter'. We talked to him about the arduous process of filming in Britain's coldest mountains, comparisons with Ray Mears, and why, when it comes to experiencing the mountains, he prefers to take it slow.

When Chris Townsend says he's going on a ‘long walk’, he means something different to most of us.

One of the world's most prolific long-distance walkers, Chris is a veteran of several huge solo backpacking trips in North America, Scandinavia and Scotland. He was the first person to walk the 1,600-mile length of the Canadian Rockies, and has completed the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail, the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail and most recently the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail. His next jaunt will be a two-month walk along the length of the Scottish watershed, which he's hoping to set off on very shortly.

Many will be familiar with Chris’s work as an author of several books on the mountains and backpacking, as well as his work with The Great Outdoors magazine and his blog. But for the first time he’s been captured in a feature-length film, which documents his love for the mountains he has made his home – the Cairngorms.

Directed and produced by filmmaker Terry Abraham, ‘The Cairngorms in Winter’ features Chris as guide and expert in a stunningly shot epic filmed through an arduous series of wild camping expeditions in often difficult and harsh conditions. It was made solely by the two men but with the help of publicly-donated funds via Kickstarter. Despite having only received one public showing, it’s already generated a considerable buzz in the outdoor world. We interviewed Chris about the reaction to the film and the arduous but rewarding process of making it.

Watch Chris Townsend in this clip from "The Cairngorms in Winter"

Check out more clips from 'The Cairngorms in Winter' on the BMC TV Walking channel.

The film had its first public showing at the Keswick Mountain Festival last weekend, in George Fishers in Keswick. Were you nervous beforehand?

A little, yes. Probably not as nervous as Terry, though. He was the director and producer of the film and it’s very much his project. It was strange watching the film with other people. I’ve never done that before. The premier in George Fishers over the weekend was the first time I’ve seen it in its total form. I was watching the audience very closely for their reactions!

How has the reaction been?

So far it’s been amazing, excellent. Everyone seems to like it. A lot of people have commented on the different visual elements of it, the timelapse sequences and so on. I think Terry’s filming really makes the Cairngorms look magnificent. And people also seem to like the pace of it, which is actually quite slow. A few of the reviews and a number of people after the premiere said they liked it in contrast to the high adrenaline-type adventure films, of which there’s a lot at the moment.

I’ve heard something similar in conversations I’ve had with people about it. A lot of people seem to be relieved that someone has finally made a film which takes a slower, more meditative look at the wild than the gung-ho, man-against-the-wild type films that currently predominate. Do you think this has been a long time coming? Did you feel there was a clamour for this type of film before? 

I think so now, yes. If you’d asked me that before I wouldn’t have had the slightest idea! But it seems from the response there are plenty of people who want and welcomed a film like this. The other thing people have said they like is that the main star of the film is the Cairngorms – it’s not me. In a lot of the adventure films the landscape is simply a backdrop for the protagonist’s exploits, whereas in this film we didn’t want adrenaline, it’s the landscape that is the star.

Have you done any presenting before?

It’s the first time I’ve done it in a full-length film. All I’ve done before is five-minute snippets for other people’s films, nothing as long and sustained as this.

A lot of the presenting seems very naturalistic. How much was scripted and how much did you ‘improvise’?

It was a mixture of both. The speaking was mostly me trying to be myself, be natural. The voiceover was scripted. Before each we would very roughly discuss what I was going to talk about. Terry’s direction was very much on the visual side – where he wanted me to stand, “I’m going to go over here, when I raise my hand walk towards the camera” sort of thing. I didn’t want to sound too formal, or for it to sound too scripted. And I didn’t want to have any sort of pumped-up adrenaline sort of approach.

Who were your sources of inspiration when making this film? Is there anyone in particular who has influenced how you see and experience the Cairngorms?

Over the years there will have been a whole mass of influences. There are a number of writers on the Cairngorms that have undoubtedly shaped the way I see them – Nan Shepherd’s ‘The Living Mountain’, Adam Watson, Seton Gordon. I’ve read their books and really enjoyed and liked them, so there’s bound to be an influence there. In terms of presenters, there are people whose style I like – Ray Mears, Cameron McNeish, and of course David Attenborough. But I didn’t want to consciously imitate anyone, or it would have seemed contrived.

Accidents and deaths in the Cairngorms are of course nothing new, sadly, but this winter there were a number of fatal accidents that received a lot of media attention while you were filming – some of them in the Cairngorms. Were you conscious of this while you were working?

We were conscious of it, because obviously, various incidents happened while we were doing the filming and they became big news stories and some of the reaction to them was quite controversial. But having lived here for so long, I know that there are accidents every winter. I was very aware that the Cairngorms are a very serious place. I said to Terry, we’ve got to have some filming in stormy weather, so that how serious it can be comes across. Terry wanted a film that showcased the Cairngorms but I didn’t want to give a false impression to people who might see it and think “oh, we’ll go there, it looks wonderful,” and not realise how dangerous it can be.

The filming seems to have been quite arduous – three four-day trips, wild camping on the snow-covered Cairngorm plateau in February, getting battered by storms. Did you realise it would be such a commitment?

No, I didn’t quite anticipate the scale of it. It did take more time and was more arduous than expected. That’s partly why we’ve ended up with a film twice as long as planned. It was extremely hard going physically. When you’re filming you spend a lot of time relatively motionless, and you get quite cold. And with Terry coming up all the way from England, we couldn’t pick our weather windows. It was a case of “ok, the weather’s bad, but we have to go anyway.” There’s a scene where we get so battered by a storm attempting to walk through the Lairig Ghru we have to turn back. All that was totally real.

What was Terry like to work with?

Terry was great to work with. It was a relief to both of us that we got on so well. When Terry approached me about the film I’d never met him. When he came up for the filming I’d only met him once before at the TGO Awards in November, and even there I hadn’t had a lot of chance to chat with him. But we were going to be spending a lot of time together, just the two of us, so it was really important we got on, otherwise it could have been quite awkward!

If this film becomes really popular, it might make more people want to visit the Cairngorms. Are you worried it might become too popular?

No, I don’t think so. I would hope in some respects that it does make the Cairngorms more popular. Obviously as I write about the outdoors anyway, I’ve always popularised it. I’ve never felt that the hills should be kept to a small elite. And in terms of conservation you need the support of as many people as possible, especially in places that are less well known, because who’s going to speak out when they’re threatened? In some areas like the Northern Corries there are already lots of people, but I don’t think there’s going to be a rush of people going winter camping on Mullach Clach a' Bhlair as a result of the film.

You’ve been a very vocal critic of development in wild areas, particularly with regard to wind farms. You’ve spoken out very strongly against the Allt Duine wind farm in the Monadhliath, for example, which is right on the cusp of the Cairngorms National Park. And recently there’s been the news that Highland Councillors have voted for two new wind farms in Sutherland. There is a message in the film about the importance of wild places, the need to protect them. How much was the controversy around wind farms in your head when you were making this film?

It wasn’t the main aim, no. The main objective was to make an upbeat film in praise of the Cairngorms. But obviously I would hope that if somewhere is seen as beautiful it has the spin-off effect of being seen as worth protecting. And the other thing is, we didn’t want to make a film that dates quickly, and whilst wind farms are the current development threat, I’m sure there’ll be different ones in the future.

A premiere in George Fishers, showings coming up in the Rheged centre soon – have you got a taste for showbiz after all this razzmatazz?

Ha, is this showbiz? I never really thought of it like that! I’d be interested to do more filming, yes. I quite enjoyed doing it. It was interesting to have a new challenge. I’ve done a lot of writing, I still like it but it’s not the challenge it used to be because I’ve done so much of it. But with this film I really didn’t know at the beginning if it would work with me, I didn’t know if I could do it well enough. It would be interesting to do another, and look at what worked, what didn’t, what could be improved.

Was there anything in the finished film you’re not happy with?

There’s not really anything I’m not happy with. But I haven’t really looked at the finished film critically. I’d seen a lot of the visuals, but I hadn’t heard much of the audio with the visuals behind it.
Most of the time when it was being shown in George Fishers I was too busy looking at the audience and wondering what they thought about it, trying to gauge their reactions, to think about it critically. I’m sure if there’s going to be more filming, I would look at it in more detail.

The one criticism I can say is that I thought there was too much of me in it! But Terry disagreed. He’s the director and producer, he decided what should go in.

What’s your favourite sequence or shot?

Am I allowed two?

Go on then.

Okay, there are two. No, three. I loved the shot from Sgor Gaoith. It was windy, but it was clear. Sgor Gaoith is a small, rocky summit right above Loch Eanaich. It’s one of the most dramatic summits in the Cairngorms. Terry walked off down the ridge quite a long way leaving me standing on the summit. But then he filmed a shot which is looking back up at the summit, tracking along the cliffs and the cornices right up to the summit, and there’s a tiny person standing on the top which is me. I thought that worked really well.

Shortly afterwards in the same sequence he pans slowly up the whole of Braeriach, from Gleann Eanaich to the summit. And I thought that was really powerful because it just goes on, and on, and on. It really gets across how big it is, the scale of it. The other one I like, which is much more personal, is a short sequence in part of the retreat from the Lairig Ghru. The wind was so strong you see me lurch sideways, and you can see all the straps on my pack torn around and flapping around in the wind, you can see it really was that bad.

When I’ve been chatting to people I’ve started describing you as “the Ray Mears of backpacking.” How do you feel about that?

It’s obviously flattering, because he’s so well known, but I think there’s a huge gulf between us both in terms of how well known he is and how experienced he is! Ray Mears is genuine, he’s not “showbiz”, he’s doing it because he really cares and knows his stuff. So it’s a compliment.

‘The Cairngorms in Winter’ is showing at Cumbria’s Rheged centre from 22 - 27 July. It is available to buy digitally through Steep Edge.



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