Greg Gransden has completed “The Mystery Mountain Project” documentary about an ill-fated expedition to Mount Waddington, the highest mountain in British Columbia’s Coast Range. This is his take on the challenges of filming such an adventure.
In 1926 Don and Phyllis Munday set off into the British Columbia wilderness to climb “Mystery Mountain.” A century later a group of would-be adventurers tried to retrace the couple’s steps to what is now known as Mount Waddington and soon found themselves trying to ward off disaster. We wrote about their misadventure in our article “Why the Mystery Mountain Expedition was Renamed Misery” in 2018 and it details everything that went wrong for the participants.
Now, filmmaker Greg Gransden has finished his self-produced documentary about the trip and we caught up with him to discover the challenges of shooting in one of the most remote areas of the province and how he dealt with the huge argument that eventually killed the expedition.
Hey Greg, great work on the film. How did you get involved with the making of it?
I was hanging out at the Alpine Club of Canada hut in Bon Echo Provincial Park in Ontario, climbing and doing some filming. There was this guy there who had thrown out his back and was in great pain, and he was sprawled out next to the fire pit, barely able to move. He noticed I had a camera and told me he was looking for a filmmaker for a mountaineering project he was putting together. I was intrigued, because I had seen the film Meru and was naively thinking I wanted to do something like that. That guy was Bryan Thompson, who would later organize the Mystery Mountain expedition.
What’s your background in the industry?
I’ve worked as a screenwriter and producer on shows about popular science, airline disasters, the paranormal, and true crime for the National Geographic Channel, Discovery, History Television, and others.
Have you done any other expeditions before?
I had been on an earlier expedition to Bugaboo Spire in the Purcell Mountains with Bryan in 2016 when he organized his first mountaineering re-enactment. That was really challenging for me. I had done some rock climbing and a two-day mountaineering course, but I wasn’t remotely prepared for what I experienced. We actually had to climb Bugaboo Spire twice, because the weather shut us down the first time. It was pretty intense.
How long did it take to create your “Mystery Mountain” film?
The whole project from start to finish was just shy of a year. The filming and editing took about five months total. Covid threw a couple curveballs at us that almost derailed the project but we made it through thanks to a team effort.
While watching the film I kept thinking, “So many bugs!” They’re in every frame. How did you cope?
Mosquitoes would bite my hands while I was shooting and I had to just let them because I couldn’t interrupt the shot. I’d get tiny thorns in my skin from the Devil’s Club plants which are everywhere in that valley. I’d have to ask one of the expedition members, Stuart, to take them out with tweezers, because they were so small I couldn’t see them. I really wished I’d thought to bring a pair of gloves. I did wear a bug net, but I’d have to pull it up to shoot and my glasses and hat would get tangled up in it. I had bug repellant, but it wasn’t very effective, especially against the deer flies. But at least I had a modern tent where I could take refuge at the end of the day and sleep bug-free.
Besides the bugs, what was the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to film in the wilderness. How do you recharge your camera batteries when there’s no power supply? I thought about solar panels, but the weather forecast was for rain the entire month. I thought about a portable water turbine, but it wasn’t powerful enough. Someone on a Facebook group helpfully suggested that I bring along a diesel generator. In the end, Stuart came to the rescue. He lent me a set of industrial batteries that I used as my power supply for the entire month. The only drawback: they weighed about twenty five pounds, which added to the fifty pounds or so of gear and camping equipment I was carrying.
Woah! So heavy. It must have also been challenging to film the big argument that ultimately ended the expedition. Did they ask you to stop filming at any point?
Not in so many words, but my camera was thrown into the bushes. I got the message. But I was pretty determined, so I found a way to shoot it anyway.
Crazy. Any hilarious takes or experiences that didn’t make it into the final cut.
We were on a really overgrown part of the trail and stopped by a stream to refill our canteens, which we handed to Stuart because he was closest to the water. The undergrowth was so thick we couldn’t actually see anything. Suddenly, Stuart turned to me and said, “Hey Greg, pass me your bear spray, we’ve got a grizzly approaching.” At that point I was trying to decide if I should get out my camera or make a run for it. I’m thinking, if I start filming, will I end up like one of those people who get mauled to death while taking a selfie? And then I heard Stuart confronting the grizzly. “Ok, Mister Bear, that’s as far as you go.” I still couldn’t see anything. Then I heard these heavy footfalls, almost like a horse, tearing through the undergrowth. They got fainter and fainter and I realized the bear had run away. I still hadn’t turned on my camera. I had missed filming the single most dramatic encounter of the entire expedition.
What’s next for you?
Bryan is planning a return trip to try and climb Mount Waddington this coming summer, so that may well become a Mystery Mountain sequel. Apart from that, I’m adapting a Canadian soldier’s memoir of the war in Afghanistan into a screenplay. It’s called The Patrol by Ryan Flavelle and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read about the nature of war and soldiering.
“The Mystery Mountain Project” documentary is currently streaming on Amazon Prime in Canada. You can watch it here.