Monumental – The Journey

May 23rd, 2017

We recently shot a Whisky video atop a snowy peak in the Scottish highlands, braving the harsh winter clime in our pursuit.

Alexander Murray & Co has released a new bottling of a 30 year old blended whisky called “Monumental”, and we wanted its release to be accompanied by a film that lived up to the title. The idea was to capture a young explorer’s journey as he scales mountain tops and braves winter storms to find the perfect spot off which to enjoy a special dram. “Monumental” needs to be earned.

We wanted the mountain and the corresponding cliff face to look domineering, forbidding. And as such we chose a hill overlooking the most dramatic landscape in Scotland — Buachaille Etive Mor. We were fortunate that there was a hotel at the base of the mountain which served as a basecamp from which to set off, and also a retreat point should things go south. We were a small crew of three — Rich (myself, the director/DOP), Sam Brill (the photographer and second shooter), and Greg (the adventurer/ kit mule). We wanted our explorer to take a sip of his dram over the glowing embers of a fire. As such, the shot would have to be captured after sunset, when it would be dark, and so it made sense for us to set up camp. Camping atop a mountain in the harsh winter clime is a challenge in itself, even without the added burden of carrying a film gear.

Our Kit (Not including clothing and personal items):

Sony A7SII 620g Soup + SourdoughLoafs 1.7kg
Canon 5DMKIII 945g Sweets, Nuts & Chocolate 750g
Manfrotto Monopod 820g Tent 5.15kg
Redrock handheld rig 1.4kg Sleeping Bags/ Mats 3.8kg
Canon 70-200 USMII 1.5kg Fire wood 5kg
Canon 16-35 789g Folding Chair 3.8kg
Canon 35 1.4 1.1kg Monumental Whisky 1.8kg
Canon 100m Macro 1.2kg Water 3kg
Batteries, filters, chargers, etc. 1.8kg Cooking Gas 700g
3x Head Torches/ LED 870g Cooking Pots and Bowls 950g
Total Burden to be carried 42.7kg

We were originally supposed to be a crew of four, and as such the weight of the kit was supposed to be divided amongst an additional member. However, on the very morning of the shoot, he fell ill. As such, the burden fell on three shoulders, rather than four as originally planned. We knew that the climb would take its pound of flesh, there would be tears, sweat, and an immeasurable struggle. We just had to steel ourselves.

The route was steep and icy, as expected, however the winds seemed to have spared us, at least momentarily. It goes without saying that the climb itself was a struggle, and that’s really quite an understatement. The strain of the kit on our shoulders slowed us down greatly. We would stop every twenty minutes to take a couple of more shots, but then we realised we had to push on through if we were going to reach the top before it got dark. Time was ticking by, faster than we could have imagined. The final hour was upon us. We had to strap up all our kit and make a desperate yet sustainable march to the top. In doing so, we found ourselves separated, our corresponding degrees of fitness turned into a literal hierarchy dividing us. Gregor, being a marathon and fell runner, led the way. As an experienced hiker I fell behind him by about 20 minutes. Sam had never scaled a mountain before, let alone with the burden of a kit on his back, treading knee deep in snow. As such, he brought up the rear by about 30 minutes. He did very well for a beginner, but I don’t believe he has any intention of ever setting foot on a mountain again after that gruesome slog. I’ve climbed quite a few mountains, however none of them can measure up to this particular experience. At one point during the climb I literally found myself ditching my bag and taking a 30 second break after climbing every 10 steps. As painful as that might have been, the truly torturous bit was seeing the sun go down, because that meant we wouldn’t reach the top in time to shoot the sunset, which was a pity because it was glorious! But we pushed on, and with every step that brought us closer to the top, we were also brought a step closer to complete exhaustion. We’d all retreated to our own little worlds wherein we could register nothing but our primordial sense of pain and exhaustion coupled with a single-minded determination to go higher.

By the time I reached the top the sun had just set. Gregor, having reached the top 20 minutes before me, had taken the initiative to set up camp while the cameramen continued on their ascension. We were exhausted but we wasted no time before getting to work. And yes, a part of that work involved us taking turns swigging on the bottle of 30 year old whisky till it was bone dry at the end of the shoot. The windchill at the top was strong enough to induce frost bite, especially if you stood any further than burning distance from the flames. The DJI Ronin was frozen and caked with snow, so much so that I feared it would immediately short circuit if I so much as pressed the “On” button. So we carried out the shots with the rig and monopod. As the beautiful full moon night crept upon us the temperature continued to drop further still. I had a long list of shots that I wanted for the film, but being in those conditions forces you to prioritise. As such, we decided only to stick to the essential shots. It was a lot colder than either of us had anticipated, and even though we would have loved to shoot all night long, we just couldn’t. Once the shooting was done, we promptly boiled a big bowl of spicy lentil soup and tore two massive sourdoughs apart to dip in the hot soup. Words fail me when I try and describe the sweet sense of relief that came with the warmth of the soup. All three of us were huddled together like penguins so close to the fire that we might as well have been roasting over it. At one point in the night Greg’s trousers even caught on fire. Once the last embers died away, we shared the final swig of whisky and retired into the warmth of our tent. I’d intended to film some time lapses, but it was far too cold to do that. We could feel our limbs starting to freeze over and we had to constantly keep them in motion, rubbing them to develop some heat and friction. We got into our sleeping bags fully clothed and squeezed together while enjoying a few jelly sweeties (Colin the caterpillars). By 10pm, we finally found the relief of a deep sleep.

But fast forward a couple of hours to midnight, and we found ourselves wide awake in a tent that felt and sounded like it was caught in a tornado. During our brief snooze, the winds had picked up force and for the next 7 hours they would continue to hammer against the walls of our tent like an insatiable battering ram. The thunderous noise of the storm kept us wide awake through the night. We were drifting in and out of that limbo of consciousness, only registering faint snapshots of the night. At one point, the wind blew open the exterior door, and I instinctively leapt up to zip it shut again. All our kit and our clothes were caked in powdered snow.

The winds died down by around 7am, and we could finally get some precious moments of sleep before embarking on our long descent. As soon as it was light enough we packed up and made our way down the mountain. In the film, you might notice a scene wherein Greg is struggling against strong winds. That shot was from the second day, and it pales in comparison to our experience from the night before. We reached our basecamp hotel by 9am and ordered what would usually constitute an insane amount of food, before we continued down south, stopping only briefly to take a shot of Greg dripping in freezing water. Due to the severe conditions on top of the mountain we weren’t able to get sufficient shots of the bottle standing alone against the mountain, kindred spirits. As such, I returned a few weeks later to complete what I’d started. I climbed the mountain to camp once more. Thankfully, the second time around the conditions were a lot more forgiving. It was warmer, and the snow wasn’t quite as dense. As such, in the time lapse at the end of the video you’ll notice that the mountain seems considerably less frozen. It seems shortly after our climb a lot of the snow had melted.

This is perhaps the grandest and most terrifying adventure I’ve embarked upon either as a filmmaker, or a hiking enthusiast. I look forward to more opportunities wherein I can risk damaging all of my kit and all of my person in my pursuit of filmmaking. This experience wasn’t just a grand adventure story to be remembered, it was an invaluable lesson. If anyone, reading this, is planning a similar expedition, I would highly recommend that you pack as light as possible. The added weight on our backs delayed our ascent by two hours. Take only the essentials, ditch the rest.

Everything seems important from the luxury of your room, but when you’re up against harsh circumstances you’re forced to reevaluate your priorities. For example, I barely used the Ronin, and on hindsight we didn’t need two cameras either. Sometimes, a simple camera and tripod set up is all you really need. Especially when you don’t have the budget for a mountain goat camera assistant to lug all of your gear up.

Click here to watch the finished film or Scroll to the top and watch the SFX only version. All sound effects for this video were artificially created in post production.