ROGER COX Gallery images


Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 6 February 2010

PAUL Diffley came late to film-making – he didn’t even pick up a video camera until 2003 – but since then the Edinburgh-based climber and director has more than made up for lost time, building a serious reputation for himself on the international mountain film festival circuit. His first major success came in 2004 with E11, which showed top Scottish climber Dave MacLeod conquering an impossible-looking route on the sheer face of Dumbarton Rock through a combination of freakish natural ability, white-hot determination and a home workout programme that would reduce a marine to tears.

The film made Diffley’s name, picking up no fewer than 13 awards at festivals from Poland and Switzerland to Canada and the US; and now the latest release from his Hot Aches production company – and one of the guaranteed highlights of this year’s Fort William Film Festival, which starts this week – seems destined to achieve similar levels of critical success.

Single Handed shows another Scottish climber, Kevin Shields, scaling a terrifying-looking E6-graded slab in Glen Nevis without any ropes for protection. That would already be too much for most people to handle, but Shields has a couple of extra challenges to contend with: he suffers from epilepsy and he was born with only one digit on his left hand. Single Handed premiered at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival last October, where it won Best Climbing Film and the People’s Choice Award. As it continues to tour, more gongs seem inevitable.

Like MacLeod, Shields is a larger-than-life character, and, almost more than his climbing ability, it’s this that makes Single Handed so compelling. Coincidence? Or does Diffley go out of his way to make films about climbers with movie-star personas?

“I don’t go looking for people with big personalities,” he says, “but I do try to bring out the personalities of the climbers. I don’t want to make films that are just about climbing because climbing itself is very boring. If you make a film about the climber, then suddenly it becomes interesting. You want to see them succeed.”

Both MacLeod and Shields put themselves in some seriously dangerous places in Diffley’s films. He is well aware of the risks they’re taking, but he says he is able to record their climbs without becoming too emotionally involved.

“The camera does provide a level of detachment,” he says, “because you’re looking through the lens, you’re not looking directly at the action.” There’s a long pause. “I do sometimes worry, yes. I would hate to film someone fall and badly hurt themselves or worse – that would be absolutely awful. Generally, though, the climbers I work with are taking calculated risks, and I do tend to believe that they can do it.”

Diffley will be giving a lecture entitled Climbers I’ve Shot and Some I’d like to Shoot on 13 February. Single Handed will be screened alongside The Asgard Project, a film about Leo Holding’s conquest of the dramatic North Tower of Mt Asgard on Baffin Island. Other cinematic highlights at the Fort William festival include progressive ski film Contrast and bonkers-sounding adventure flick Africa Revolutions Tour, in which a hardy band of kayakers negotiate the crocodile-infested waters of the White Nile in Uganda.

Meanwhile, anyone with even a passing interest in the history of Scottish mountaineering should book tickets for Jimmy Marshall Night on 14 February. In one magical week in the winter of 1960, Marshall and climbing partner Robin Smith made an incredible six first winter ascents on Ben Nevis on consecutive days, using equipment and techniques that, to modern eyes, seem incredibly primitive.

To mark the 50th anniversary of their achievement, Dave MacLeod and Andy Turner will attempt to repeat the climbs during the period 6-13 February using contemporary gear; then, on 14 February, they will compare notes with Marshall, and Diffley will screen footage of the recreated climbs. Should be an inspiring evening.

The Fort William Mountain Film Festival runs from 11-15 February. For details, or to book tickets, visit

Leave a Reply