“A Life Ascending” is a gorgeous, thought-provoking documentary film about ski mountaineer Ruedi Beglinger and his family. They live in the remote mountains of British Columbia and guests come in by helicopter for backcountry skiing. Ruedi runs guided ski trips while Nicoline cares for the lodge and their daughters. Ever present is the sculptural beauty of the mountains that forms the backdrop of their lives.
In 2003, a devastating avalanche claimed the lives of seven people Ruedi had taken up on the mountain. The film explores the impact of this on the family and community. Filmmaker Stephen Grynberg does an excellent job telling this family’s story and their unique way of life.
After seeing the film and speaking with Stephen and Ruedi, I really wanted to talk with Ruedi’s wife, Nicoline. In the film, Nicoline sort of laughs as she calls herself a housewife.
“I said to Ruedi, ‘I would like to be just a housewife.’ But I am a glorified housewife, which I think is a great job. If you’re able to work like I do and be with your kids and sort of expand the housewife definition, you’re lucky. I’ve spent so much time with my kids. I know them so well, but I still think I didn’t spend enough time with them. I think people who have the choice should think about it because it’s so rewarding.”
We explored things that we all share as mothers. “A Life Ascending” focuses on Ruedi, but as Stephen said, “The family is the heart of the film.” It was lovely talking with Nicoline because it reminded me how much I cherish the time I’ve spent caring for my family. I enjoyed sharing stories with Nicoline and finding that motherhood is motherhood whether you’re in LA or high up above the tree line in British Columbia.
We talked over the satellite phone (patient with the delay). The sun was shining here and Nicoline described their weather, “It started out as a bluebird day, but now it’s snowing. We are surrounded by snow banks that are about 9.5 feet high so we’re in a different world.” While we were talking, Nicoline had to go answer the radio. The family and staff are in constant contact throughout the day via radio, even when Ruedi is up on the mountain. I compared it to checking in with my kids through texting. The radio serves the same purpose for Nicoline—to check in, know where everyone is and not have to worry.
Nicoline’s daughters could easily have been the stars of the movie. Near the beginning of the film, you see Florina (11) and Charlotte (13) climbing with Ruedi on their indoor climbing walls. This is completely cool and I wish I had one of those rooms in my house. You can tell from the footage of them that they’re self-possessed girls, very connected with their parents. I talked about valuing the time I have with my oldest daughter on our drives to school every morning. Nicoline clearly thinks a lot about her role as a mother.
“It’s not all that bad really—the teenager thing—it seems so frightening when they’re little, but when you’re actually there, you realize, ‘Okay, they talk to us and they can listen.’ And we talk to them. It’s not always pleasant, but we’re communicating. They have lots of good things to tell you and teach us as well. And maybe some teenagers keep it all bottled inside and it seems like a nice, quiet relationship. But maybe it’s better to let it all out sometimes, the good and the bad. At least everybody knows exactly where they stand. They know what you think and you know what they think. For me, that works well.”
I felt as though I was talking with one of my girlfriends. It’s always nice to connect this way during an interview, but I was curious about Nicoline’s connection with her friends. It’s can be challenging to get together with my girlfriends who live less than a mile away, never mind on a snow-covered mountain reachable only by helicopter for at least four months out of the year. Nicoline has found one solution outside of email and telephone.
“I’ve actually started writing letters and they write letters too. I get my mail Saturdays from the helicopter. It’s a nice way to communicate… You’ve got lots of time during the week to think about what they’d be interested in knowing. It just seems more personal. When you get a real envelope in the mail, there’s something very special about that. I hope that people start doing it again.”
I’ve really been coming to terms with the fact that I’ve become a city girl. So I was curious about Nicoline’s daily routine and the pace of her day.
“I go down and make sure breakfast is going well and everyone has coffee and tea and then sometimes I’ll go with the group and go skiing. Or I sit down and have breakfast with the girls and whoever else is still around and then we do the cleaning. I do all the baking for the lodge so that keeps me busy for most of the day. Then in the afternoon, the guests come home and I make sure everyone’s fine. Then I’ve got a couple hours to myself before it’s dinnertime and I’m usually in the kitchen during dinner. I’m the ultimate dishwasher. By 8 o’clock we’re usually done and then have a little quiet time. That’s pretty much it.”
We finished up by talking about books and her interests, which include music and yoga. I asked her if it was hard having someone follow you around with a camera and ask questions about such a painful part of your life.
“I probably was the most reluctant interviewee. When I first talked to Stephen about it, it didn’t sound like it was going to include us and I thought that was good. But he was truly in our face. [Regarding the avalanche] It’s always with us. It’s still with us. It’s always the Before and After time in our life. There really hasn’t been closure. I don’t think there ever will be. I think it was good to talk about it, look at it from different angles because we think about it all the time anyway. You can still get choked up about it and it’s a big part of our life. Stephen was very good about that part and he made sure we were okay with the way he presented it. He did a very good job. So you know, it was okay.”