by Margaret Chrystall
NEXT week at Eden Court the Banff Mountain Film Festival celebrates outdoor stories – including short film Operation Moffat inspired by the life of Gwen Moffat who became Britain’s first female mountain guide.
Gwen ’s first book Space Below My Feet shares the 91-year-old’s first experience of climbing back in the Second World War – and has now been reprinted on the back of the film’s release.
And in their film, writer Claire Carter and film-maker Jen Randall follow in Gwen’s footsteps literally – and that means climbing in bare feet.
Claire explains: "Gwen climbed barefoot to begin with because she couldn’t afford boots.
"She grew up around Dorset and was always quite a wild child, going off on her bicycle – this would have been in the 1920s – but she had never climbed.
"In the army, she was stationed in the Midlands.
"And when Gwen met a soldier who was a climber – hanging out with a bunch of conscientious objectors in Cornwall – he took her climbing and she absolutely fell in love with it.
"Gwen was the sort of person who fell in love hard and fast, so I think she may have fallen in love with the soldier – she described him as a ‘god of a man’ – but I think she fell in love with the climbing more!"
Space Below My Feet inspired Claire to try climbing – and even the odd barefoot experience too.
"I’d read her book when I was about 18 and I began climbing on the Crich limestone in the Peak District. It’s very ergonomic and works well with friction with bare skin!
"The book is also about Gwen’s ensuing love affair with the mountains and learning to survive – eventually also with her daughter, which is why Gwen became a mountain guide.
"But she does many things, she doesn’t just climb. She walks, she swims in cold water, she really is about being outside in the landscape."
Gwen went AWOL from the army once she discovered how much she loved the mountains and has written 35 books – 29 of which were crime fiction novels featuring Miss Pink, a magistrate and climber.
Claire Carter climbs barefoot – as Gwen Moffat, the country’s first female mountain guide, did. Picture: Jen Randall
Claire now also marries climbing and the outdoor life with writing and is also planning to make a second film with Jen.
"I started working for Kendal Mountain Film Festival and so did Jen – and I knew of her films before and felt she had the ability to allow her subjects to speak for themselves, not always that common especially in films about women."
Like Gwen, Claire came relatively late to climbing.
"I didn’t start until I went to university – I used to be a dancer and then I went to study English literature at the University of East Anglia – probably one of the flattest areas in the UK, there is very little rock!
"But they have a really good university climbing club and we went to the Peak District most weekends and I really fell in love with it.
"When I finished my master’s degree in creative writing, I moved to Sheffield and started working in the outdoor industry, climbing as much as I could."
Claire’s studies included researching gender and landscape: "I’m very interested in the way we talk about our experience in the landscape – it’s hard to describe these things without lapsing into cliche."
In Operation Moffat – which on Sunday won both best film and people’s choice at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival – Claire and Jen visit some of the places Gwen revelled in and wrote about, trying to take her spirit in their own explorations of the mountains and landscapes of Skye, the Peak District, North Wales and Ben Nevis.
Claire has a clear idea of what it is about the film that appeals to audiences.
"I think they respond to Gwen’s perspective on life and mountains.
"Nowadays we really worry about achievements and bucket lists – and all those things are very motivating.
"But I think we panic a little bit and I certainly worry about whether I am getting quite sucked in to achieving by numbers rather than going out and having adventures and going to really wild places.
"In the film I ask Gwen if she misses climbing and she says ‘No! it’s like saying do you miss your life? I’ve had it, I’ve had my moments and they are part of me’."
Claire adds: "Gwen has inspired me to make sure I get more of those moments."
Claire’s next film project brings her to the Highlands.
"Me and Jen are going to make a film together in Torridon called The Bothy Project which is about the creativity we can find in wild places. It’s going to be a light-hearted film following Jen, myself and artist Tessa Lyons going on a big walk and hanging out in this bothy to see what we can come up with – so it’s sort of an advertisement for the wild places in Scotland."
Operation Moffat screens next Friday, February 19 as part of the two-day Banff Mountain Film Festival at Eden Court starting next Thursday, February 18. The full programme of the filmfest is also in our films section.