A Life Ascending: Whitewashing an Avalanche


Stephen Grynberg might be the Rick Santorum of filmmakers, and like Santorum, Grynberg might actually believe that how he addresses an issue is a completely fair one.

The focus of this exquisitely shot, rather entertaining hour-long documentary is Swiss-born Ruedi Beglinger, a "world-renowned" mountain guide, and his family who live in the Canadian Alps. There, in 1985, Beglinger founded the Selkirk Mountain Experience (SME), a service which allows clientele a chance to explore the Durrand Glacier. In 2003, tragedy struck.

Let's borrow the words of Charles Duhigg of the Los Angeles Times to recount what occurred:

"The day seven people died began on a crisp morning in the backcountry of Canada's British Columbia. Evan Weselake, a corporate trainer from Calgary, had set out with 20 others, including his close friend, Naomi Heffler, to ski untouched powder far from the lift-ticket circuit. Their destination was a peak named La Traviata that promised breathtaking views of the surrounding valleys. As Weselake, 29, skied toward the mountain, Heffler and the others followed in a single-file line, dark pearls strung along the vast whiteness of a steep couloir. Suddenly, Weselake saw a crack slice through the snow in front of his skis. As the opening grew, he noticed he was moving downward, as if the mountain he stood on had lost its mooring. He had time to yell out only one word: 'Avalanche!'"

So who was Naomi Heffler, or the other members of the brigade who lost their lives under Beglinger's leadership? You won't know. The dead, with the exception of Dave Finnerty (1972-2003), are almost nonexistent within this doc, with the exception of a momentary photo spotlighted near Ascending's finale. Their names are also listed in the end credits. Ta-da!

That Heffler was a much loved Chemical and Petroleum Engineering graduate who "always had a smile" and "was one of those people who you hoped to bump into 30 years down the road with the same smile on her face" is not included. You'd have to google it up in Ben Li's article for the University of Calgary's Gauntlet.

Also not in the film is the L.A. Times' accusation that Beglinger's troop "didn't have the technology that could have given them a chance against the avalanche that roared down upon them."

According to "The BC Coroner's Judgement of Inquiry Report" prepared for Vern Lunsford, one of the other victims):

"British Columbia experienced unseasonably warm weather in November 2002 with precipitation in the form of rain falling on snow in mountainous areas. When temperatures cooled, a significant melt-freeze crust was left on the snow pack. This crust was present across the mountains of Western Canada from the Coast Range to the Rockies and was particularly pronounced in the northern Selkirk Mountains. Widespread avalanche activity was reported in the northern Selkirk Mountains between January 2, 2003 and January 19, 2003. Infoex subscribers (a daily exchange of information provided by the Canadian Avalanche Association between subscribing operations managing avalanche hazards in Western Canada) were aware that a significant number of skier remote triggered avalanches were occurring. This was a strong indication that the weight of a skier could be sufficient trigger to cause avalanches. More significantly, it shows that the weight of a skier could trigger the failure of a snow layer and this failure can propagate across the terrain. This information was only available to Infoex subscribers. Selkirk Mountain Experience did not subscribe to Infoex; the only information they had was their own observations and the known avalanche rating of ‘Considerable’."

Vern Dunford's death was deemed accidental, as were all of the others, which, of course, they were. Yet could the data available on Infoex have made a difference? And why not interview family members of the lost, especially those who complained openly about the findings?

Instead, director Grynberg is more interested in making Beglinger into the Clint Eastwood/Nathaniel Hawthorne of frigid nature.

"It's my church . . . mountains. This is where my religion is. This is what I believe in. This is what gives me energy. This is what makes me think very clear," our hero intones.

He adds, "Is it worth taking people to the mountains? Is it worth it from a human viewpoint to accept a risk of taking somebody into a dangerous element?"

"This can go wrong," Beglinger acknowledges, "because you work in an absolute uncontrolled environment. Regardless of how much you know, you can't make the mountain safe. You can only make it safer."

But did he make it as safe as possible in 2003? Were all of the facts known? This is Beglinger complaining about the news coverage of the avalanche: "Once everything is over, then the critique comes. There're all these super-smart guys, they haven't done a single ski tour, but they sure know what happened there."

So what were these "super-smart guys" saying? You'll have to google to find out.

Clearly, Beglinger is not a villain. He and his attractive wife and winning daughters come off as exceedingly bright and articulate and inspiring. But...

 ...why doesn't Ascending address all of the facts...or all of the conjectures, if you will?

Instead, time that could be better spent revolves around a raven. In a children's book the Beglinger daughters had read, people who die on a mountain come back as ravens. After the avalanche, a raven appeared and has returned annually to Beglinger's home. He has been named Dave. Well, at least Dave is getting his due.

(P.S. This review was written by a semi-super-smart non-skier.)