Long, slow climb to screening movie about 46er matriarch

LAKE PLACID – “The Mountains Will Wait for You,” and the film will wait, too.

It took Fred Schwoebel 20 years to finish his movie about Grace Hudowalski, matriarch of the Adirondack 46ers. He compared the experience of finally showing the film for the first time on Memorial Day weekend to a 46er reaching the top of his or her final Adirondack High Peak.

He’s bringing the movie back to Lake Placid tonight to kick off the annual Lake Placid Film Forum, and the plan is to screen it outside in Mid’s Park.

Schwoebel told the Enterprise Tuesday by phone, as he was en route to Lake Placid, that he’s been telling his friends at home about the screening site, with Mirror Lake and the High Peaks in the background.

“Their jaws kind of drop, and they go, ‘I can’t imagine a better venue for it,'” Schwoebel said. “And I can’t, either.”

Forum Project Specialist T.J. Brearton said the location will probably change if rain continues into this evening, but he hopes that won’t be the case.

Schwoebel is traveling all the way from Portland, Ore., to show the film. He said the often gets asked how someone from across the country decided to make a movie about the Adirondacks.

It all started when he got a letter from his mother-in-law with a newspaper clipping in it. On the opposite side of the article about gardening she wanted to share with him, there was an Associated Press article about Hudowalski and her group of climbers called the Adirondack 46ers, who have climbed the 46 Adirondack mountains originally measured as being over 4,000 feet in elevation.

Hudowalski was the first woman and the ninth person to climb all 46 High Peaks, and she was the first president of the Adirondack 46ers, which started as a social club but grew into an organization that maintains trails and works to preserve the mountains its members traverse.

As he read about her, Schwoebel said he was intrigued by the fact that club members, under the encouragement of Hudowalski, wrote letters about each of their High Peak climbs. Plenty of people climb mountains, he said, but not many keep written accounts of it.

Schwoebel was making documentaries at the time, and he thought Hudowalski might make a good subject for one. So he called information in the Albany area, got her number and called her at home. She was open to the idea, and he visited her at her Schroon Lake camp to get acquainted with her.

That was in 1993. Later that year, he returned with a friend who was interested in shooting the footage. The two men stayed at Hudowalski’s camp for five days and recorded 15 hours of footage.

Schwoebel said that when they first arrived, Hudowalski said she wasn’t going to wait on them, but when they got up the next morning, she had a full breakfast waiting for them, and did so every day they were there. He called her gracious and generous. She loved to hear about what they had done when they returned from a day of shooting, he said.

“She was always so excited to talk about the mountains and share stories,” Schwoebel said. “She just lived, ate and breathed mountains.”

Once they finished filming, Schwoebel returned to Oregon. He wanted to go into post-production on the film, but editing in the early ’90s was an expensive task that required booking time in a studio with specialized equipment. He estimated it would take $40,000 to complete, “and that’s really what shelved the film, is just not finding the funding to do post-production.”

His first son was born in 1994, so he had to get back to paying work, directing TV commercials and similar jobs.

“Years started going by,” Schwoebel said. “It became unclear to me whether I was ever going to finish it or not.”

After about six years of uncertainty, he decided it was time to officially give up on the project. So he shipped all his information off to his friend Fred Johnson, a 46er who had been helping him. But it turned out that Johnson had moved, unbeknownst to Schwoebel, and the package was returned a week later.

That made a little voice in his head tell Schwoebel that he wasn’t done with this film after all.

Then his second son was born. And he didn’t have the money. So the project was put on the back burner again. But it was always there in his mind. He would tell friends about it, and they’d say he should finish it.

“I really never wanted to let go of it, because I really felt like I captured some history and some footage of Grace that I didn’t think anybody else had captured,” Schwoebel said.

Hudowalski died in 2004, and that gave Schwoebel a new sense of responsibility to not give up on the project. He said part of that came from the way she had encouraged other hikers not to give up.

“They’d ask her, ‘Do you think I could climb the High Peaks?’ and she said, ‘I don’t know. Go try it,'” Schwoebel said. “The way she touched my life kept me going through that long, 20-year stretch.”

Finally a few years ago, Schwoebel’s wife saw a Facebook post by a friend, Lori Regan, who lives in Boise, Idaho. Regan wrote that she wanted to edit more documentaries, and Schwoebel’s wife told him it was the opportunity he had been waiting for. Technology had changed, and post-production work could easily be done on a home computer using a video editing program called FinalCut Pro.

So Regan came to Oregon in spurts over about two years, and the movie was made.

It was shown for the first time in a series of screenings over Memorial Day weekend at the Lake Placid Conference Center, which Schwoebel attended.

“There were many climbers, Adirondack Mountain Club members and 46ers who were really touched,” he said.

When you see pictures of a person who has been gone for some time, that’s one thing, but when you hear their voice and see them in the setting you’re familiar with them in, that can be much more powerful, he said.

Schwoebel said that while he’s not a 46er himself, he’s an avid backpacker; therefore, he knows that the sense of accomplishment he felt when he finally showed the movie was on the level of other people’s life goals, like climbing all 46 peaks.

“I just can’t really describe how wonderful it was,” Schwoebel said. “I got standing ovations. People came up to me with tears in their eyes.”

He said he’s glad he can help to pass on Hudowalski’s legacy.

“I could see that she had something that was really worth passing on to other people, and just not about mountains but also how she lived her life,” Schwoebel said. “She’s a special woman.”

He hopes his movie will help in a current effort to rename East Dix Mountain, one of the High Peaks, as Grace Peak, after Hudowalski.

When Brearton heard about Schwoebel’s film, he said he thought it made perfect sense to show it at the Film Forum.

“I sought it out because I thought it would appeal to a lot of people from the region,” he said. “Most people have climbed at least one of the High Peaks, or if not, one of the smaller ones.”

Brearton noted that the fact that Schwoebel’s film was so long in the making fits right into the theme of this year’s Film Forum, which is the impact of technology on movies and “the shared experience.”

“This story of having a long, protracted process of making a film, it’s sort of a testament to the value of mountain climbing itself,” Brearton said. “It’s worth it to endure such an arduous journey because the result is kind of more special.”

Hudowalski’s penchant for writing letters about mountain climbing also fits into the “shared experience” theme. Watching movies in theaters is different from watching them at home alone, and climbing a mountain alone is different from climbing alone and then telling people about it in a letter, Brearton said.

“Sharing the experience somehow makes things more real,” he said.

Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or jcollier@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.