Celebrating Mountain Culture

Banff festival the ultimate hub for outdoor enthusiasts

Matjaz Wiegele, Planjava, Slovenia © Marko Prezelj

Sunrise is close. We’re gathered in a centuries-old stone cottage where flames dance in a small wood-burning stove – our only source of warmth. And we’re cradling tiny cups of espresso in our hands and carefully taking the first burning sips.

Harbouring only survival essentials, our packs are filled and ready. Outside, the mountain stands by while our hearts race with anticipation. Today, we climb the Matterhorn…

Now hold on a minute!!! Ok, ok. So maybe it’s not us all geared up. And, sadly, we’re not anywhere remotely close to the Italian Alps.

But we ARE in the cradle of the Canadian Rockies at this year’s Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. And Italian alpinist Herve Barmasse – with the help of his film “Non Cosi Lontano (“Not so Far”) – is taking us with him on a heartstopping journey as he forges a new route up one of Europe’s highest and most dangerous peaks.

As we watch him climb, we experience Barmasse’s every muscle spasm. We feel every icy gust that slaps his face. And we, too, get to taste euphoric exhaustion as he finally reaches the summit.

We’re sitting in the Eric Harvey theatre at festival home The Banff Centre – surrounded by adventurers, filmmakers, photographers, writers and mountain film junkies from around the planet. The atmosphere is awesome and every Mountain Equipment Co-op and Patagonia-clad person around us looks as thrilled as we are to be here.

For 37 years the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival has celebrated mountain culture and adventure through the films, books and images of those who live it. (The festival’s touring films will head to seven continents with 750 screenings worldwide over the next year.)

Lucky for us, we also had the privilege of seeing British mountaineer Andy Kirkpatrick read from his latest book “Cold Wars.” The author of the award-winning “Psychovertical” had his entire audience in stitches when, with a heavy northern accent, he delivered a comical take on the sheer insanity of big wall climbing. A funny man speaking on a sometimes grave subject.

Then there was Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner – “Queen of the 8000-ers” – who was touted as a must-see presenter. Kaltenbrunner, petite, soft-spoken and incredibly humble, is one of an elite few to have climbed all 14 of the world’s 8,000 metre peaks without supplemental oxygen.

Named National Geographic’s 2012 Explorer of the Year, Kaltenbrunner is considered to be one of “the greatest alpinists of all time.” To say this strong and likeable woman is an inspiration would be like saying K2 is, uh, big.

Hearing her talk – and wrapping our minds about what this woman has accomplished – blew our socks off. Not only did we get to meet Kaltenbrunner in person, but we also chased her down (via e-mail) while she was en route back to Europe this week.

We asked her what she thought of the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. She replied: “It was such a good atmosphere. We saw some excellent films like ‘Birds of Paradise’ and ‘Crossing the Ice.’ We could feel the visitors had great spirit for nature, environment and mountains. For me, it was the most beautiful and inspiring mountain film festival I have ever joined.”

To be sure, this festival is not only about film and book competitions. It’s just as much about the people it draws.

We exchanged a warm hello with Canmore-based filmmaker Leanne Allison – who we interviewed earlier this year, just before the release of her interactive and now award-winning film Bear 71, a collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada.

We ate breakfast with Canadian travel writer Bruce Kirkby, where we were schooled on what is considered to be one of the enduring classics of mountain literature: Joe Simpson’s gripping tome “Touching the Void.”

The book tells the tale of a treacherous climb that takes place in the Peruvian Andes almost three decades ago. Two young climbers, Simpson and mountaineer Simon Yates, face a near fatal situation. An excruciating decision leads to a story of unlikely survival, not to mention a world of people who fail to understand what happened.

We sat there, mesmerized, as Kirkby motioned towards Yates, who happened to be quietly eating his breakfast just two tables over from us.

What more can we say? If you’re interested in seeing the roster of festival winners, check them out here. As for next year? We can’t wait to see what mountains this must-experience event will have us climbing.

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