Yes, there's a linear storyline documenting Steve Wakeford's journey from an almost fatal fall on the Petites Jorasses through recovery and back full circle to the climb that spat him out, but that's not what Magnetic Mountains is really about. At its core this film addresses the age old question George Mallory famously faced..."Why?". Why do people feel compelled to take extreme risk and return to it even when the sacrifice has almost been the ultimate one? How can we justify it to ourselves and to those we risk leaving behind?
In 2012 Steve Wakeford found himself in hospital with a collapsed lung from his high-pressure day job in sports broadcasting. Needing an escape he rented out his expensive city apartment and headed for Chamonix and van life in a camper. It's a familiar trail that's almost always accompanied by a tendancy to throw yourself mind, body, and soul into the outdoor life and Steve was no different. Chamonix was his playground and the learning curve was steep. Constantly pushing the boundaries and driven by enthusiasm some may say it was inevitable that one day the mountain would bite back, and it did so ferociously. One missed step on sketchy ground, a piece of protection ripped from the rock and Steve was hurtling down the gulley out of control. He came to a rest 70 metres down with multiple and serious injuries; ripped bicep, and a leg broken in three places. "The list of injuries was so long and it was from one bone to another bone and blood from his ears and things like that" his mother remembers in the film.
Magnetic mountains follows Steve through the next 18 moths. 18 months that would be more life changing than he could imagine. While the bones and muscles slowly re-knitted under expert surgery and rehabilitation the mental questions the accident threw up became equally, if not more, important than the physical recovery. In an analytical, almost scientific, style Steve questioned his motivation, perception, and justication in returning not just to climbing but specifically to "that climb". Not content with his own self-doubts he consulted everyone he could find from his nurse to sports ethics expert Mike McNamee and from elite athletes and climbers to psychologist Dr Viviane Seigneur. Prompted by Chamonix nurse Martine Roussel he wanted to find his "place" and needed to ask himself some serious questions; "Why do I want to go out there?, why do I go out there in the first place, why do I want to go out there again and is it worth it".
Saying "You've got to have something else to do, ok you can't climb at the moment - put the energy into something else" Andy Parkin planted the idea of picking up a camera and taking the question to people like Andy, Steve House, Nick Bullock and Sir Chris Bonington. Each offer their own insights into risk while Paul Pritchard talks about life after a serious head injury suffered climbing. Each looks at what motivates them to return time and time again despite the risk - something Sir Chris Bonington considers intrinsic to being human.
Moving on from the role of risk to justifying it to family and friends the film goes to some dark places, talking to Davide De Masi about the loss of his fiancé, skier Liz Daley and Tom Ballard, son of Alison Hargreaves killed on K2 in 1995. Further complicating the thought processes Steve had, by this time, picked up not only a Producer in Menna Pritchard but a life partner and a family. The new relationships give him new insights into not just his goals but life itself. He learns a "new dimension" to his journey that adds balance to his life with Menna and Ffion; the questions change because when the time comes to take on the Petites Jorasses the mountain may be the same but the person has changed.
One of the founding principles behind the making of Magnetic Mountains was that while the majority of films rely on the goodwill and generosity of everyone from the producers to the sound editors this film would see every professional paid the going rate. In doing so it sets an example to an industry plagued with the "exposure" argument - those 500 thumbs up Nick Bullock refers to don't put food on the table. To be awarded the Grand Prize at it's first mountain festival, Graz, for a first time Producer in Menna Pritchard and first time Director in Steve Wakeford is impressive. To see the reaction from individuals and audiences as they connect with both the message and Steve himself is the real verification though. The film could probably have lost 15 minutes without losing any impact of scope but that's excusable in a first time production and unusually the storyline is strong enough to stand alone, without pictures, as an audio story.
Magnetic Mountains is one of those rare films that really makes you think. It addresses difficult subjects that we all too often steer away from. It's not really Steve's journey it's the journey everyone pushing their limits takes. It's not the adrenaline filled, hi-gloss, film that will have you oohing and aahing from one spectacular scene to another but it's a film that will leave a lasting impression. In Steve's self-questioning the film reminds us to question ourselves, to value a wider experience and above all "from the beginning, think what may be the end"
Magnetic Mountains can be rented (£7.65) or bought (£14.53) at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/magneticmountains
For further insights into the making of the film our Mountaineering and Climbing Editor Davy Wright talked to Steve Wakeford and Menna Pritchard in an exclusive Q & A.
All Images screenshots © Everyfield Productions