With films covering ‘the burning man of climbing festivals’ in America, skiers chasing solar eclipses in Svalbard and kayakers navigating sherbet-like flumes of Mexican rivers, this year’s Banff Mountain Film Festival UK Tour takes viewers to some of the highest, coldest, wettest and wildest places on Earth.
Among the line-up showcasing far-flung locations, the British Mountaineering Council’s Operation Moffat is a story of quiet discovery, closer to home. It explores Britain’s first female mountain guide, Gwen Moffat, and the extraordinary life she led in Wales, Cornwall and the Isle of Skye.
Following in her shoeless footsteps (Moffat preferred to climb barefoot), climbers Jen Randall and Claire Carter scramble all over the British countryside. As traditional climbers, the pair are at the mercy of their own holds and there is a very real sense of danger as they push themselves to climb the same runs as Moffat. They camp, trail run and swim in icy pools. ‘What would Gwen do?’ Carter yells as Randall hesitates at the waters’ edge – Randall dives.
‘You didn’t do it for fun of course, you did it to get clean,’ says Moffat in the film’s interview. Now 91, she speaks with the gravitas of a woman with a lifetime of experience. Her climbing career began at age 21, after six years’ service in the Women’s Land Army. From there, she led a bohemian existence in the mountains, living rough and sleeping outdoors. She worked odd jobs such as foresting, winkle-picking and modelling for artists when money wore thin and hitch-hiked her way to bigger climbs in the Alps, Rockies and Sierras. By the 1940s she was Britain’s leading female climber and the first female to qualify as a mountain guide in the country.
‘I don’t miss my life,’ says Moffat, who now lives in a Cumbrian cottage. ‘It is enough to know the mountains are still there.’ As a leading part of the Banff tour’s exhilarating line-up, Operation Moffat is a triumph.