Life of a mountain man - Interview with Terry Abraham

Posted by Carey Davies on 14/01/2015
Terry camping in the Cairngorms
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Terry Abraham's film, 'Life of a Mountain: A Year on Scafell Pike', is being shown on the BBC tonight. But does Terry really have the best job in the world? Carey Davies meets him to find out.

Terry Abraham is finally having a rest. It’s a scorching May day in Keswick’s Crow Park, and he has a pint of Cumberland in hand. The sun shines on a breeze-ruffled Derwentwater, a view of clear green fells stretches all the way down Borrowdale to Great End, and occasionally someone shoots past overhead on a giant zip line, releasing a piercing scream.

We’re at Keswick Mountain Festival, where Terry’s new film, ‘Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike’, is headline entertainment, his name sitting alongside the likes of Doug Scott, Ranulph Fiennes and Alan Hinkes. It’s the second hit in quick succession for Terry, whose 2013 film, ‘The Cairngorms in Winter with Chris Townsend’, beat a roster of daredevil climbing films to become the most popular download of all time on outdoor film website Steep Edge.

Terry’s rapid rise in the world of ‘adventure filmmaking’ is nothing short of remarkable, not least of all because, by his own admission, he doesn’t make ‘adventure’ films. “This white-knuckle adventure porn, it doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest,” he says, as an accordion-playing pastiche of a Tyrolean folk band starts playing in the adjacent beer tent. “They are impressive. But for me it’s not what the outdoors is about.

“This white-knuckle adventure porn, it doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest.”

“A lot of those films are all about egos and the ‘do it in a day or die’ mentality. The outdoors is just a playground, a backdrop. Well, these landscapes we have here” – he gestures at the breathtaking ring of fells around Derwentwater – “are not just a playground, they’re places to learn about and admire.”

Like ‘The Cairngorms in Winter’, ‘Scafell Pike’ is almost determinedly anti-adrenaline. Alan Hinkes, summiteer of the world’s fourteen 8,000 metre-plus mountains, makes an appearance, comparing the Lakes to the Alps and explaining the mountaineering pedigree of Wasdale. At one point, as a sort of public warning, he attempts a climb of the lethal, slippery Broad Stand, thinks better of it, makes a few jokes, and comes back down. Also featured is the legendary (for once not a light use of the term) fell-runner Joss Naylor, a man whose titanic feats of endurance – he once ran over 72 Lakeland mountains in under 24 hours, and continues to regularly run in the mountains at the age of 78 – are hardly mentioned by the softly-spoken, unassuming farmer who appears in the film, herding sheep through Wasdale fields, reclining in an armchair and talking affectionately of Scafell Pike as a “big pile o’ stones”. These are the real men behind the deeds, presented without any PR gloss, and not attempting some Herculean deed but simply being themselves. It is quietly compelling stuff.

But while the characters in the film might not be attempting arduous physical tasks, the man filming them certainly was. As with his previous projects, Terry worked entirely alone on ‘Scafell Pike’, camping wild in the fells through all seasons and rising at the crack of dawn daily to capture the sunrises, sunsets, cloud inversions, sudden shafts of light, night skies, rolling clouds, brooding crags, tumbling waterfalls and movielike timelapse sequences that make up the film’s scenic dazzle. He doesn’t drive, and mostly reached the fells by carrying 30 kilogram loads from stops on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway. Once there, he remained for weeks at a time, resupplying through the help of his wife, Sue, who arranged for food deliveries to local pubs.

“I spent countless hours on this, I can’t even begin to fathom”, he says. “It was the longest time I’ve ever worked on one project. It was hard wild camping, being away from home, capturing the sights, getting up and down to the locations, meeting people, doing interviews, getting to know them, developing relationships with them. There’s a lot of time involved, too much time probably, but I don’t really care about that because I enjoy what I do.”

Since made redundant from an IT job three years ago and deciding to go full-time with his ambition of becoming an outdoor filmmaker, Terry has built up a devoted online following through his prolific use of blogging and social media. The establishment of this following has given him a base of support to provide him with the financial and moral backing to pursue his own vision with as few strings attached as possible. Like its immediate predecessor, ‘The Cairngorms in Winter with Chris Townsend’, ‘Scafell Pike’ was made on a shoestring budget, funded through a mix of commercial sponsorship, crowd-funding via websites like IndieGoGo, and his own savings. The BMC was one of the sponsors, showing exclusive behind-the-scenes clips on BMC TV as it was being made.

“I spent countless hours on this, I can’t even begin to fathom”

Terry scoffs a little when I say he has built up his own ‘brand’, but concedes he has managed to create a reputation that allows him to stand alone to a large extent. “I’m mindful to have to accommodate sponsors and so on, I’m not daft, but by and large I have no strings attached, I can be creative and let loose. But it’s still a tightrope act. I don’t have that security of a guaranteed paycheck at the end of the month. I get a bit of money from crowdfunding and sponsorship and money from the BMC has helped, that all contributed to making sure my bills are paid. But I have to be very, very careful with the pennies all the time.

“But I’ve enjoyed sharing the journey I’m on from the beginning to where I am now. I get a thrill out of inspiring people on a Monday morning and they’re sat at their desk or in the factory and they see a picture from me on the top of Scafell Pike and there’s a temperature inversion and the sun’s coming up. That’s where this niche or brand comes in to it, as you say.”

Terry’s describes his vision for ‘Scafell Pike’ as “an all-encompassing document of this mountain and the surrounding area over the course of a year.” Through appearances from shepherdess Alison O’ Neill, history lessons from local personality David Powell-Thompson and footage of tweed-clad farmers at the annual Wasdale Show, it stresses that the Lake District is a cultural and working landscape, not simply a natural one. Yours truly appears on behalf of the BMC to talk about funding provided through the BMC’s Access and Conservation Trust to repair eroded paths on the Scafell massif, warn of the negative impact of challenge events, and gawp at a cloud inversion. 

‘Scafell Pike’ is a more polished film than the ‘The Cairngorms in Winter’, which despite being an impressive film in itself, Terry now views as almost a dry-run. “The end goal always was the Scafell film, to be frank,” he says. “It’s been the brainchild of mine for the last four years, and I was just waiting for that moment in life where was financially secure enough to take the risk and go for it.”

The film takes a broad definition of Scafell Pike, encompassing the Scafell massif in general and focusing in particular on the life of its adjacent valley, Wasdale. Terry believes Scafell Pike and Wasdale go together “like sausage and mash,” but he also attempts to show the mountain as a multi-faceted beast, approachable via different angles and perspectives. The wild expanse of Upper Eskdale, for example, explored in the film by Chris Townsend, is revealed as a foreboding and largely unspoiled mountain arena, the near mirror-image of tourist-thronged Wasdale. “In my view the best side of Scafell Pike, where it really does look like a mountain, is from Upper Eskdale, there’s no doubt about it. That whole area – Upper Eskdale, Gait Crags, Hardknott, Great Moss – without a doubt affords you one of the best mountain views in Britain. People think about Snowdon and the arêtes, but you’ve got that bloody reservoir pipe going down the middle of it and a train station on top. I love Snowdon, don’t get me wrong, but the area below the Scafells in Upper Eskdale, that’s pretty much untouched.”

A common thread in Terry’s work is the banging of the drum for British hills and mountains, a desire to show they can be up there in the natural beauty stakes with bigger ranges around the world. Terry refutes any crude jingoistic motivation for this – “I’m very objective and liberal about such things” – but his film does, in its way, capture something of the essence of this part of England.

The sped-up sequences of clouds tumbling around Great End and Mickledore are enough to convince any sceptic that the Scafells, these great wreckages of ancient volcanos, can be as every bit as stirringly telegenic as the pointy peaks of France or Switzerland. But down in Wasdale Head, we come back down to earth, to a place where the field pattern hasn’t changed since medieval times, the dry stone walls are as thick as castle ramparts, and lifetime residents like Joss Naylor speak in a clipped, minimalistic dialect incomprehensible to outsiders. In the shelter of a place surrounded by mountains on all sides, the texture of an older way of life can still be felt. And this contrast between the rootedness of rural life and the sublimity of the fells above is what defines the Lake District; few places in the world have their feet on the ground and their head in the clouds in quite the same way.

"These great wreckages of ancient volcanos can be as every bit as stirringly telegenic as the pointy peaks of France or Switzerland”

“You can go to Wasdale and feel in tune with an age of humanity that we came from and we don’t really relate to anymore,” Terry says. “It’s here on our doorstep, here in Britain.”

The plaudits for Terry’s work from outdoor websites and blogs have been gushing, with one describing him as “the Wainwright of the 21st century.” The comparison might be apt on more than one level. Terry’s dogged pursuit of an individual vision has echoes of Wainwright, as does his status as something of an ‘outsider’. Like Wainwright, Terry prefers to appeal over the heads of what might be called the ‘outdoor establishment’ to reach the hearts of the public.

“I do feel a bit of an outsider because I’m doing something completely different”, he says. “I remember a comment being made to me at Kendal Film Festival, someone said ‘you’ve been noticed by the elite’. I thought ‘I don’t give a flying monkey what the elite thinks.’ It’s the public that matters to me. It’s them who support me, it’s them I’m aiming to please and inspire with what I do.

“There’s probably an element of the working class chip on my shoulder, admittedly. I’m always seeking pride from somebody. Wainwright said, that at the end of his life he felt he could look anyone in the eye. That resonates with me, and when I see the response from the audience, I think, ‘I did it’.”

Through this conversation Sue, Terry’s wife, has been sat quietly next to us. “I know people may think I’ve got a dream job, but they seem to forget I do have a wife and family,” Terry says. “If something happens, I’m rarely there to help sort it out…” At this point Sue chimes in with a deadpan observation: “He’s never there.”

“Ok,” Terry admits. “I’m never there. But Sue’s been immense in her support. Sometimes I’ll go away and when I open my rucksack lid, I find there’s a little bottle of malt in there that Sue left for me. I’m always trying to make her proud.”

If Terry feels a sense of satisfaction at the reaction to ‘Scafell Pike,’ it doesn’t seem to have mellowed his creative urges. Having promised he would spend some time at home first, he claims to be in “no rush” to get started on his next project; a repeat the ‘Life of a Mountain’ formula with the Helvellyn range. But the restless glint in his eye as he looks over Catbells and the Derwentwater fells tell a different story. “My head says I should go on to do Snowdon and Ben Nevis next,” he says. “But my heart wants to stay here in Cumbria. It will be a similar format to the Scafell film, but on a grander, on a bigger scale. I’m looking at bringing in aerial photography. I want a tighter edit, but much more depth at the same time. My long-term goal is to do every single Lake District mountain.”

Describing these future ambitions, he lets the mask slip. “Even though I said I’m in no rush… I want to get on with it now.”

'Life of a Mountain: A Year on Scafell Pike' is being shown on BBC Four tonight (Wednesday January 14) at 9pm.

WATCH: What does the BMC do for hill walkers? A short film made by Terry Abraham

Hill walking development officer Carey Davies talks about the BMC's role on Scafell Pike



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