The range of work Mountain Guides are qualified to do is broad, and what follows is an account of a particularly interesting project I was in involved with this June.
I received a call from the BBC to ask if I could help rig a camera for a unique, never-before-attempted film project. . The salt is forced out of the rock by the pressure of the water behind the dam.
The first issue was how to get all our kit into place using a helicopter, but without scaring the ibex off the dam. Apparently a Japanese film crew had done just this; landed a helicopter at the dam and ended up scaring all the ibex away, with the net result of nothing to film all week but a dam.
The solution was to fly up another valley, and then enter our valley via a 2.7km miserable wet tunnel. Meanwhile the helicopter would make another flight with our kit suspended underneath in a big bag. The helicopter would not land, but just drop the bag on the ground about a mile around the corner from the dam. All we needed to do (!) was lug the stuff back to what would be our home for the week, the Cingino Dam engineer’s house.
This was fairly knackering. Mind you, the plan worked because the ibex didn't seem too bothered and they were on the dam for an afternoon of salt licking.
Next on the agenda was to rig the cable camera across the dam. This was the reason I was here. The due diligence we had carried out a couple of weeks before meant that I had all the kit to quickly rig the line. The state-of-the-art specialist Dactylcam camera was fixed on the line, and everything was working.
We retired to our accommodation, provided by the ENEL Energy company which owned the dam. We were to lodge with the two dam engineers, Matia and Jean-Luca. They were pretty laid-back characters whose main job (as far as I could ascertain) was to check for leaks in the dam (which took about an hour each day), watch Sky Sports and lift heavy weights. They did, however, offer to cook for us - outstanding pasta dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
We quickly got into a routine. Simon the cameraman would rise before dawn and get himself established in his hide, which was pitched next to the dam wall in such a way as it looked across the dam.
I would check the anchors on the cable were okay, and then Alex the producer would go about running the cable cam. All was fine until there was a big puff of smoke out of the back of the camera sledge trolley. The thing seemingly gained a mind of its own and zoomed back and forth across the dam of its own volition. Several transatlantic phone calls to the geeks that built the thing only confirmed that it was "dead”.
This was not good. We discussed all options and then came up with a solution. We stripped out all the batteries from the trolley, duct-taped a couple of GoPro cameras to it and stuck it on the cableway. We then rigged a sort of cable car mechanism whereby we could winch the trolley by hand into the middle of the dam. The shots were brilliant, and the potential results breathtaking.
At the end of the week the helicopter was due to collect us. The producer had also booked some extra flight time, so they could shoot some aerial footage. I was mildly disappointed that there wasn't room in the helicopter for me for this final flyover shoot. The doors had been taken off the old Lama III helicopter; Simon the cameraman was clipped in, and Alex the Producer had had his seat belt buckle duct-taped closed.
I was anything but disappointed when the Italian pilot then produced two sharp knives and explained, "When we crash, sorry I meant to say IF we crash, it will be easier to cut the webbing than fumble with the buckles..." My personal experience of these Opinel knives is that they are often difficult to open at the best of times. It would be hard to imagine what it would be like doing this in a helicopter rotor failure crash situation.
In addition, I did ponder that it made a mockery of all the risk assessments and carefully prepared ‘Method Statements’ which I had been involved in prior to leaving for the job. They did take off and fly around for about 10 minutes before returning, re-fitting the doors, collecting me and then we flew back to the Antrona football field where the adventure had started six days before. It concluded a fascinating week.
The Power of Nature will be shown on BBC TV sometime in the next 18 months.