The Angry Corrie 63: Dec 2004-Feb 2005

Mountaineering Movies: Fara Height 911

image from The Angry Corrie

THE INSTANT Fara Height 911 was given a general cinema release under the absurd, tricksy title Fahrenheit 9/11, mainstream reviewers were distracted - some might say conned - into discussing a ludicrous conspiracy concerning international terrorism and oil-related geopolitics. But the uncensored director's cut of Michael Moore's masterpiece (currently screening in art-house cinemas such as the Onich Odeon) highlights the infinitely more disturbing deception that the Fara, soaring above the Alpine village of Dalwhinnie and without doubt one of Europe's most stunning mountains, has for decades been systematically mapped and listed as lower than it actually is.

The Fara's stated height, known to generations of schoolchildren and shinty players, is 911 metres. If true - and the merest glance at its giddy flutings and majestic sentinel buttresses reveals that it cannot possibly be true - this would condemn the Fara to a life of topographic obscurity, since only summits above 914m, or 3000ft, are allowed to feature in state-sponsored guidebooks or to receive lottery funding. In reality, the Fara is not just the highest peak in Scotland, but the champion summit of the continent, rendering redundant the arcane debate over whether Mont Blanc or Elbrus merits that title. As Moore points out, there is irony in the Fara having been denied the oxygen of publicity, as its Shivling-like spire reaches so high that genuine oxygen is decidedly - and dangerously - thin up there. Few climbers reach its summit and return to tell the tale, and the first successful ascent was only achieved as late as 2001 by the notorious Glenboig-based hard man Erchie Boomer.

Moore focuses on how the height conspiracy has affected the local economy, for instance the downturn in B&B bookings (what he calls "bed-blocking") in Strathspey. And for all his occasionally tiresome in-your-face rhetoric, and for all his ugly beard, Moore does a fine job of confronting the mandarins of the Ordnance Survey, Scottish Natural Heritage, and - most menacing of all - the Scottish Mountaineering Club, whose members exist in a shadowy world of smoke, mirrors and antique snuff boxes. Moore argues that the true height of the Fara has long been kept secret by institutional corruption of the sea-level datum (or "ground zero"), and that Dalwhinnie itself stands at well over 5000m, something that should be obvious to anyone whose vehicle has ever ground its way up the endless first-gear hairpins of the notorious and warlord-infested Drumochter Pass.

The already murky plot thickens further in a sequence where Moore delves into why the nearby A899 was recently awarded the title of the UK's most dangerous road. The official line - as outlined by a motoring-organisation spokesman going by the clearly bogus name of "A A Milne" - is that the carnage is due to boy racers taking bends the wrong way while roaring along the short cut from Laggan. The ease with which Moore demolishes this argument is impressive: he parks in a lay-by and films a 47-vehicle pile-up (involving mainly caravans and sheep-trucks, and far more gory than the flagellation scene in Mel Gibson's The Passion) caused by incessant rockfall and avalanches pouring down off the awesome slopes above.

Moore trumps even this by going undercover (a false beard is glued on top of his real one) to investigate suggestions that the John Muir Trust - allegedly MI5-funded - is to take control of the area in the near future. Were this to happen, all land-based approaches to the hill would be barred by razor-wire "conservation fences" and prohibitively expensive pay-and-display car parks, while Loch Ericht would see 24-hour patrols by motor torpedo boats. Such a plan is - of course - officially denied, but the truth can be seen in a great moment near the end of the film where Moore includes footage of the director-general of the JMT hurtling past the Fara in an open-topped Porsche 911 while shouting Yee-ha! and waving two fingers at a group of bobble-hatted hikers. The numerical "coincidence" is obvious, and leaves the cinema-goer in little doubt that our hills, as with so many other aspects of life, are not the beacons of freedom and democracy we would like them to be.

TAC 63 Index