The central story in the film follows an adult woman, Martina, and her Czech immigrant 60-year-old mother, Tania, who embark on a 2,300 kilometer hike together from Squamish to Alaska. They go through some harrowing experiences but survive and feel good about the trip. A young snowboarder, Todd and his friends, describe (and re-enact) what it's like to be buried in an avalanche. (Not good). A Metis guide, Barry Blanchard, describes a sense of tribal community among mountain people.
We meet several cross-country skiing nuns, zipping across snowfields like penguins, who feel a little closer to Heaven in the mountain air. A couple of the subjects are artists: an elderly stone carver and his wife, living amongst foraging bears and towering peaks, precariously far from medical care.
While the towering, rippling, sky-spearing landscapes encourage us to admire and ponder, the human subjects don’t entirely succeed in expressing what they find meaningful about their high-altitude life beyond self-satisfaction.
Surely, there's more to be explored here about the big place mountains hold in our imaginations? These are the places of mystical breakthroughs, and not just from Tibetan lamas and Romantic poets. The founders of the three monotheistic religions had their big revelations on mountains.
On a psychological level, further research would help. "Prospect-refuge" esthetic theory suggests that the survival strategies we have evolved explain why we feel well-being when we have a high, panoramic view. On a cautionary note, we have “the Utah paradox," a statistically "happy" mountain state which also has a high rates of depression and suicide, possibly because altitude affects dopamine and serotonin levels in unpredictable ways.
In short, this softly inspirational documentary barely scratches the surface of a complex, stony phenomenon.
This Mountain Life. Directed by Grant Baldwin. Opens January 25 at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema for a week-long run.