Tales From The Mountains with Caroline Fink

Local news, 24.03.2017

During the 2017 D.C. Environmental Film Festival (DCEFF) in Washington, D.C., we were honored to screen Swiss film director Caroline Fink’s latest documentary, "Aletsch — Of Ice and Men". With her background in sociology, German literature and photography, nothing seems to stop this Swiss mountaineer driven by nature and adventures.

Movie director, Caroline Fink © Marco Volken
Movie director, Caroline Fink © Caroline Fink

Tell us more about your movie "Aletsch — Of Ice and Men". How did the project start?

CF: In a way, it was accidentally. I wanted to make a film about the highest hut in the Alps, the Capanna Margherita, but I didn’t get the rights to film there. I then chose another hut, the Konkordia hut at 9,350 ft (2,850 m) sitting above the great Aletsch glacier. My producer wondered why — well, because of the stairs that lead from the glacier up to the hut. It’s really interesting; they started adding stairs when the glacier started melting and they keep adding them. My producer then asked me what was actually interesting about the stairs — well, the disappearing glacier! At this point, it became really clear to me why I wanted to make this film. I was already writing a book on glaciers and hikes that lead to them. That’s how the movie started.

In the movie, we imagine you walking on the glacier and on steep stairs. How did the shooting go?

CF: I have had the privilege of working as a mountain photographer for many years, so I know what equipment to work with. The equipment has to offer the maximum quality for a minimal weight. I was filming with my digital reflex camera, a pretty small camera. But I still had to carry some weight around, like the tripod. The weight was the toughest thing and I had decided to work without the assistance of a helicopter. I could take the train up to Jungfraujoch and walk down for 3 or 4 hours. Sometimes, I also walked in from Fiescheralp, and then it would take me 6 hours to reach the hut. I’m used to it; I like walking.

Did you shoot the whole movie alone and how long did it take?

CF: Yes, I did the filming and the sound myself, which was really challenging because usually one person does the shooting and another the sound. Combining it was a challenge. But it worked! From the beginning, finding the idea, developing it, writing the screenplay to the end, it took about 1.5 years. But I didn’t work full time on it. There were other tasks to get done . . .

What was your best moment directing the movie?

CF: The best moments came after having finished the movie. Being at the Solothurn Filmtage with the whole team, the mountain guide in the movie, the technical expert on the Jungfraujoch, the producer and the editor, and realizing that people enjoy what you’ve done, I think that’s the biggest reward. I felt the same thing yesterday during the screening here in D.C. It’s nice because filming is crazy; it’s always too big for us humans. With the post-production and all the new formats, there are a thousand reasons to go crazy. But then the reward is an evening like the one yesterday.

What would you like people to take away from your movie?

CF: This movie should not be moralistic at all. If there’s a message, it might be that nature does us good and that sometimes it’s good to look at nature, listen to it. We’re a part of it in a way but tend to forget it.

Nature does us good and that sometimes it’s good to look at nature, listen to it. We’re part of it in a way but tend to forget it.

Well, it’s impossible to talk about glaciers without talking about climate change and melting glaciers. You’ve seen and discussed it in your movie. What changes have you witnessed?

CF: As mountaineers, we have been witnessing enormous changes occurring very quickly. Last year, on a certain glacier there was still an iced part on which you could walk and this year it’s just chaotic: gravel, stones and sand have replaced the ice. Walking on and near glaciers becomes more and more tiring and dangerous because the ground is unstable. Another change we’ve witnessed is that some mountains used to have white snowy north faces which you could perfectly climb in June. If you look at them now, there are rocks and no snow. These are the changes we see and experience.

Where do you see the Alps in 10 to 15 years, either for professionals or people skiing on weekends?

CF: For mountaineers, it will gradually become more difficult. They have to be aware of it and that what was written in guidebooks five years ago possibly doesn’t apply anymore. As the ground is changing so quickly, we have to be up-to-date all the time.

For skiers, in high ski resorts like Saas-Fee, Zermatt or Davos, the changes won’t occur that quickly, but in smaller, lower regions change will be visible sooner.

I think the biggest changes will occur in 20 or 30 years, when the first small to medium-sized glaciers will have disappeared. The difficulty will mainly be for the people that live in these regions; people will have to adapt starting by changing their water supply.

What can we do to reduce the speed of climate change?

CF: There are the obvious things to reduce CO2 emissions, changes which we all can make. We can heat less in winter, not use the car, not take a plane. But I think these are very difficult; I’m the best example. I’ve never owned a car; I use my equipment as long as I can; I change my skis when they are really broken, change my jacket when it’s ripping apart, but still, I’ve stepped on a plane to come here and I went ski touring in Iran. Therefore my CO2 footprint isn’t that great, either. So we cannot point fingers; we are all children of our time. I think we can raise awareness nationally and internationally and create new technologies to reduce CO2 emissions. But when I look at the glaciers, I’m not that optimistic. I’m not sure we can really reverse what has happened. One thing we should be aware of is that in the future we will need people and societies with creative, constructive and humanistic approaches to solve all the problems that will come for sure.

On a personal note, when did your passion for the Alps and mountaineering start?

CF: It was a two-step process. As a child, I went skiing with my parents on the weekends. But then I forgot about mountains for quite a long time until I went to Nepal when I was 22. I went there trekking, looking for adventures. Katmandu sounded adventurous. I saw these majestic Himalayan mountains and realized that I was tremendously fascinated by these landscapes. Afterwards, I realized that there were mountains back home as well in Switzerland. That’s when I decided to start mountaineering.

How is mountaineering abroad different than in Switzerland?

CF: I recently went ski touring in Iceland and Iran twice. Compared to Switzerland, other mountains are empty; there are less people. In Switzerland, we also have fantastic maps — which I really do love. If you go mountaineering in other countries where they don’t have this mountaineering tradition, you’ll find maps if you’re lucky, but you don’t have any indicated routes. It’s like a freedom of mind. You stand there and you see the mountains; it’s just you and the mountains. You have no idea whether there is a route or not. So you have to decide on your own. It’s a bit like the pioneers when they went mountaineering in the Alps 150 years ago. That’s what I like about mountaineering in countries where less people do it.

You talked about Iceland and Iran. Is the freedom of not having tracks and routes something that is disappearing?

CF: Not necessarily. Even in Switzerland there are still untracked places, but you have to know them and actively look for them. In other countries like Iceland or Iran, it’s very easy. In Iran, there are 1,500–2,000 km (932–1,242 mi) of mountains and it’s basically just you, maybe someone else somewhere (laughs). There are still some great possibilities for adventures in this world.

Finally, can we ask you what your next big project is?

CF: I’ve just started filming a new project about women in mountaineering. And in spring, a book will be published about how easy it is to climb the 4,000m high mountains of the Alps.