Mountain: Life at the Extreme is a strange but thrilling mix of Planet Earth and Ski Sunday - review

Extreme mountaineer Hilaree O'Neill - 1
Extreme mountaineer Hilaree O'Neill - 1

The jagged spine of the Rocky Mountains bisects North America, a wind- blasted wilderness that’s a refuge for mountain lions, bison, elk – and Lycra-clad lunatics in base-jumping suits. The opening episode of Mountain: Life at the Extreme, BBC Two’s new three-part documentary series, paid testimony to a broad sweep of animal life and human high jinks.

If you think of the Rockies, you probably think of swish ski resorts like Aspen or Banff. The reality is much wilder, as the illuminating narration by the actor Douglas Henshall made clear. The Rockies are 3,000 miles long, with so many peaks that many remain unnamed. It is a place of extreme weather: burnt by wildfires in summer, buried in snowdrifts in winter, and clocking up the world’s biggest recorded temperature swing of 56 degrees C (132 degrees Fahrenheit) in a single day.

A grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park - Credit: BBC
A grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park Credit: BBC

All of this made for a visual smorgasbord, with the camera lingering on lush footage of an icebound lake cracking in spring or the Gothic beauty of an iron-hard deer carcass in the snow. Every sight and sound was infused with the drama of life in a hostile environment. We heard the wince-inducing thump of mighty rams locking horns, and the rasp of an elk’s tongue on her newborn, who you prayed wouldn’t end up as a midnight snack for a wandering grizzly bear.

Jeff Shapiro - Credit: BBC
Jeff Shapiro Credit: BBC

The programme itself was something of an unusual beast, it felt like the love-child of Planet Earth and Ski Sunday. It mixed superb wildlife footage with the stories of people who live and play in the Rockies. Notable among these was Jeff Shapiro, who climbed a 3,000-metre-high cliff then jumped off it in a wingsuit, a scrap of fabric that billowed between his limbs and turned him into a giant man-bat. The sickening crumble of stones as his feet pushed away from the edge made me cling to the sofa with a sense of vertigo. There were more high-octane thrills as we followed an extreme skier down an avalanche-prone couloir, feeling the slip of snow beneath her feet.

The Rockies - Credit: BBC
The Rockies Credit: BBC

It felt a little jarring to go from adrenalin sports to gazing at deer, but at least the wildlife was generally of the lively variety. Particularly impressive was rare footage of a mountain lion. With eyes shining like coins and a tale as thick as a draft excluder, you could see why some native tribes saw this ancient predator as a spirit from the underworld.

After this picturesque homage to North America’s great mountain range, the next two episodes will tackle the Andes and the Himalayas. They promise to be an exhilarating trip for all armchair Alpine enthusiasts.

Stunning photos from David Attenborough's Planet Earth II