Travel: Back to Banff

Canadian hamlet hosts celebration of literally all things outdoors

Posted: Thursday, December 09, 2004

BANFF, Alberta - It's a bit odd watching many of the world's most active people gather in a breathtaking mountain playground so they can turn into couch potatoes.

But this is hardly a "Survivor" crowd - many are real-life survivors watching peers drag kayaks across salt deserts, jump off cliffs to study bird acceleration and escape life-threatening mountaineering mishaps by amputating their own limbs with dull pocket knives.

At the same time, the unifying principal is a simple love of the outdoors they want to share and encourage others to participate in at whatever level their ability permits.

"As the presenters say, you don't have to go out and do a bunch of 5.12s," said Berni Koppe, a nurse from Vancouver, B.C., referring to the numerical grade for a difficult rock climbing face. "You just have to get the most out of what you do."

This indoor saturation of almost literally all things outdoors took place at the 29th annual Banff Mountain Festival from Oct. 30 to Nov. 7, featuring scores of film- and book-related events about expeditions, extreme sports, remote cultures and political issues. The best films are featured during one-night showings in more than 200 cities annually, including a stop in Juneau at the University of Alaska Southeast next Feb. 18.

This year's 58 film finalists, selected from 330 entries, ranged from a few minutes of a Ken-type doll trying haplessly to pick up mountain women to full-length features about herding camels across African deserts (violin music that makes an animal cry is a critical plot development in one). Literature topics included rare photos from early Mount Everest expeditions, writing tips, and debates about ethical issues such as covering fatal avalanches and other tragedies.

"The programming is always a bit variable because it depends on what's submitted," said Colleen Campbell, a festival presenter and member of the prescreening jury, noting a large number of films about women and Canadians were submitted this year.

"You don't want three one-hour films all dealing with expeditions just bang-bang-bang, so you have to put in padding by showing films with joy or short animations. Everybody in the audience has to come away feeling good with something they saw."

The language at this Canadian resort is English, but assumes phrases such as "5.12," "dyno" and "pitch" are common tongue. There are also probably few large theater crowds that hear a film director assert there's "no one in this room that has not been touched by an avalanche" before discussing his work.

It's not an outlandish assumption, however, considering attendees will likely find themselves eating with or standing in line next to mountaineering legends such as Carlos Buhler ("the most accomplished North American climber in the Himalaya," according to Climbing magazine) and Leo Dickinson (one of the world's most acclaimed adventure filmmakers).

A look at which films might hit Juneau

Only a handful of the 58 films screened at the Banff Mountain Film Festival are part of the one-day touring show that visits more than 200 cities, including Juneau. The full list can be seen at, but here's a look at some titles likely to appear, plus some that may not (but maybe should):


"Alone Across Australia." The People's Choice winner of this year's festival features Australian adventurer Jon Muir's solo walk across his native continent. He filmed himself during the walk, providing narration both humorous and insightful. It also features moments of drama and tragedy hard to believe he was able to capture.

"A Russian Wave." A simple, but often humorous documentary by two professional kayakers hired by the Russian government to assess whitewater rafting possibilities in Siberia. Problem is the officials have a different view of what and where the possibilities are, making it a rather difficult assignment.

"Tom Crean." A documentary about one of Antarctica's "forgotten" explorers. Crean is the only person to take part in all of the most noteworthy expeditions by Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton.

"Realization." A rock climbing movie that captures in amazing detail the mental struggle one person encounters and whether they can somehow overcome it.

"Weekend Warrior." A five-minute comedy, shot in what might be called "Ken-and-Barbie-mation," depicting a hapless clod's attempts to pick up women through various extreme sports he has no business participating in. It was the winner of a recent contest where filmmakers had 72 hours to do a start-to-finish project.

"Fools With Tools." A welcome break from watching skiers jumping off cliffs and unicyclers navigating the edge of skyscrapers, as it shows inexperienced climbers attempting rock faces beyond their ability. Fears and frustrations are dramatic at times, humorous at others, and something novices and pros alike can relate to for a change.

"Last Stunt." An unbiased look at what a grieving relative calls "death tourism" following the death of an acclaimed BASE jumper when his parachute experiences a mishap off a famous cliff in Norway.


"The Story Of The Weeping Camel." Getting a baby camel to nurse hardly seems like a strong plot to base a movie on. Of course, that's before a village elder asking "Dude, what about the musician?" emerges as a critical development. An engaging feature about camel herders, parental bonding and a violin.

"Being Caribou." A documentary shot by amateurs about a well-worn subject that breaks absolutely no new ground - and the results are great. A couple follows the path of caribou herds from Canada to their breeding grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and back, hoping to draw attention to the perils of proposed oil development in the refuge.

"Africa Trek." A strong story in a mediocre package. Another couple on a long walking trek, this time across the African continent. The biggest problem is it's often hard to follow their journey, since instead of telling it chronologically they tell the tale in "themes" such as mishaps, the role of women and so on.

"Daughters of Everest." An hour-long documentary following a team of Nepalese women hoping to be the first from their country to summit Everest and survive. Works because of the unusual makeup of the group - a strong leader is less than popular while the weak daughter of the sponsor (who made giving her a tryout part of the deal) nonetheless wins over teammates with her personality. Also, not everything plays out as one might expect.

"If you hear the name of someone you've always wanted to meet, this is your chance," said Bernadette McDonald, vice president of mountain culture for the nonprofit Banff Centre, which hosts the festival.

Not that there's a lot of celebrity attitude or star-gazing. Here Conrad Anker is known for climbing achievements beyond his 1999 discovery of George Mallory's body from the historic 1924 Mount Everest expedition (although he discussed the resulting media frenzy during a panel discussion in exchange for the promise of a beer when a panelist spotted him in the audience).

Disabled attendees are more likely to be treated with reverence than stigma since many have stories similar to Warren MacDonald, who scaled one of the world's most difficult rock faces only 10 months after losing both legs when they were crushed under a boulder in a climbing accident. And it's not a squeamish crowd - MacDonald discussed the grim details of his accident during a Mexican buffet lunch presentation.

Attendees range from extreme sports teenagers to bookish retirees, but nearly all seem to share certain attitudes beyond a love of nature, including frequent mockery of President Bush and dismay at his reelection. Even cultural splits tend to have common elements: A moviemaker opposed to the product placement of a sports drink in a film sat next to a climber a generation younger wearing a cap with the offending brand throughout one discussion, with both looking for the same end result.

"Companies like (that) allow me to make films and do things I otherwise wouldn't be able to do," said Will Gadd, the younger participant. "I don't think you're going to run out to the grocery store and buy every can."

Scheduling the festival between climbing and skiing seasons turns an off-peak period for Banff, a town with about 7,000 residents that is a two-hour drive east from Calgary, into one of the busiest and most notorious of the year. But numerous attendees said they spent at least part of their trip hiking, cross-country skiing or doing other outdoor activities - and for some featured speakers, authors and filmmakers it was their dominant pastime.

"We spent more time playing than at the films," said Siri Moss, co-owner of an Anchorage indoor rock climbing gym with Charlie Sassare, who was part of a presentation about the climbing history of K2.

Movies are the primary focus, showing during seven of the festival's nine days this year. The opening weekend was devoted to full-length feature films and documentaries, followed by environmental issue movies Monday, a "Radical Reels" collection about various extreme sports Tuesday, with a wide variety of topics - and largest crowds - during the final three days.

Among the notable opening weekend films was "Being Caribou," shot by Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison as they traced herds on a 900-mile journey from Canada to their breeding grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Allison said she saw film as a powerful tool for bringing attention to how proposed ANWR oil drilling may affect the herd, but had no experience. "I did a one-week of boot camp film school," she said. "There was a lot of doubt about whether this was even possible."

Another simply shot movie, "Alone Across Australia," won the highly promoted People's Choice award voted on by festival attendees. Australian climber and adventurer Jon Muir filmed himself during a 128-day, 1,500-mile walk across the continent accompanied by his dog. Combining healthy doses of humor, introspection, tragedy, and details about the landscape and its ancestors, it received standing ovations during its showings on the festival's final weekend.

The festival's Grand Prize winner was "Odworot (Retreat)," a 35-year-old Polish film school's feature about an anonymous climber's epic solo descent in the Tatra Mountains to find help for his injured partner. The sole copy of the movie was rescued from obscurity by Seattle architect Alex Bertulis, who spent $10,000 during the past 18 months restoring the film, according to festival officials.

Not everything drew raves. "Women on K2," for example, was criticized by some viewers for incomplete and overly dramatic portrayals of the climbers, plus awkward breaks and repetition due to its made-for-TV editing. "Radical Reels" drew the largest single-night crowd of the festival - largely youths from around the region who could relate to the death-defying stunts and loud soundtracks - but some said there was too much of an egotistical "me, me, me" element to many of the films.

The book festival, in its 11th year, draws a far smaller crowd for its three days of lectures, readings and slideshows. But many said they prefer it to the films.

"It's smaller, it's more intimate and it's not as as pushy," Koppe said.

Attendees gathered in conference-like meeting rooms to hear Sandra Noel talk about his father's role as the official photographer of the 1924 Everest expedition, see slides of Jon Bowermaster's kayaking trip in the high mountain salt lakes of South America, and learn about Arno Ilgner's "Warrior's Way" mental conditioning program he presents to climbers and corporate executives.

Techniques and advice were plentiful for those working on their own publications. Photographer Bill Hatcher, for instance, said he depicted the "dying process" climbers go through at high altitude on Mount McKinley by shooting close-ups of their hands, which never healed from various injuries sustained.

"What they ended up doing was using a combination of super glue and duct tape to great effect," he said.

Several other lesser-known events are part of the festival, including the Mountain Photo Festival, workshops such as mountaineering yoga and vendor halls where attendees can acquire everything from free pens to tickets for adventure trips around the world.

Perhaps the most criticized aspect of the festival is its cost - about $175 for all film events and $125 for the book festival - which, when combined with accommodation and transportation costs, prices out many younger and foreign people frequently featured, according to some attendees.

"For me it's nothing, but if I were younger and into skiing I could probably spend my money better," said Chris Hoskins, an Edmonton physician who has attended most of the festivals during the past 20 years.

The prices are comparable to or lower than similar festivals in other communities, said Debra Hornsby, director of communications for the Banff Centre. She noted tickets are available to most individual events, allowing greater local participation, but travelers with time to attend a weeklong festival are often a different crowd than some of the sporting types in the featured material.

The trip is worthwhile for fans of the "best of" shows, worth the trip, but participants should do more than just watch movies, said Gretchen Baumgardner, an attorney attending her fifth festival.

"I would say yes, but I would also say take a day or two to enjoy the mountains," she said.

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