Eight tips for making a good winter climbing film!

Paul Diffley filming during the Distilled shoot, Ben Nevis during a storm.

Paul Diffley filming during the Distilled shoot, Ben Nevis during a storm.

Eight tips for making a good winter climbing film!


When Award winning filmmaker Paul Diffley and I discussed where to make a mountaineering film, Scotland in winter leapt out. It is where I began my mountaineering 30 years ago and remains one of the most challenging environments I have faced. It is also one of the most magnificent.

We wanted to convey the sense of a journey from the ocean to the summit, taking in all the contrasting landscapes en route. We hoped to make a film that captured the companionship of mountaineering and the sense of movement over snow and ice, and to showcase the technical ice and mixed climbing for which the place is so famous. We aimed to portray the pristine nature of many of Scotland’s mountains, along with the seriousness of mountaineering here. We share a love of wild places.

Climbing in Scotland in winter is tough enough without trying to make a film. Paul’s film company, HotAches, is based in Scotland, and he and his team already had a vast experience of operating in this arena. There are a number of crucial elements to help make a project like this successful: here are my top tips.


Finding good winter conditions in Scotland can be a challenge for anyone, but with a small budget, such as ours, it’s important not to spend days with the whole crew sitting around not capturing any footage. You don’t have the luxury of flexibility and have to commit to a series of dates for the shoot. We decided on late January as it had been ok the previous few years. We also had another window in March as a back up.

The team

Paul Diffley already had most of his team in place – people he had worked with before, people he could trust, people who knew how fierce Scottish winter weather can be. The key is that everyone is fully behind the project with no big egos. Post shoot, the team ethic continues, right through to editing and then marketing the film.

Base camp

A place to keep warm and dry is important, obviously, but with a film you need to recharge camera batteries and download film footage. We used the CIC hut below Ben Nevis, which worked well and allowed the whole team to chat through plans for the following day’s shoot. 


It is critical to have communication lines open between all the parties. Setting up static ropes for the cameramen; cameramen wanting the action to commence; safety announcements in light of changing weather – all this relies on communication. Powerful walkie-talkies with good batteries are better than mobiles.


The cameras and sound equipment need to be tough to survive here. Individuals’ boots and clothing need to be of a high order too as, on a film, people stand around a lot more than if you were out with a friend. Think extra layers, hand warmers and a flask!


With three different camera locations for each shoot, there is a lot of work. Winter climbing is hazardous and making a film adds another dimension altogether. You have to rig fixed ropes in the correct place, avoiding sharp edges and the possibility of pendulums. Even benign snow slopes can become serious during heavy snowfall, and a good understanding of how to extract people safely via prior scenario planning is helpful.

Location, location, location

Visualising what will produce a good camera angle is not easy. Donald King’s knowledge of Scottish mountain climbs coupled with his knowledge of working on film projects puts him in a unique position. He was integral to the film’s success.

Editing and sound

You have great footage and sound, but now the work begins. Find a strong narrative to engage viewers and a good sound engineer. Many outdoor films fail because they don’t invest enough time and skill at this stage.

Is Distilled a good film?

Well it won People’s Choice Award at the Kendal Mountain Festival recently and the competition here is fierce. Why not watch the trailer and then get hold of the DVD or even better come to the Royal Geographical Society, London, on March 7th. As well as screening the film, I will be giving a lecture. See you there?

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