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Author and Banff Mountain Film Festival veteran David Roberts recounts his 2012 experience in this highly enjoyable article.

Banff 2012, Part I : You Had to be There

I was eating a burger on the patio of the Cowgirl in Santa Fe. It was a breezy day in May 2008, with the sun dancing in the cottonwood leaves. All around me, New Age cowgirls and ‘boys were chatting away over their own burgers, but a single voice, more strident than the others, wafted toward me from about five tables away.

“And then Krakauer got up and just blasted Anatoli.”

“No.”

“Yeah. And Anatoli just sat there, deer in the headlights. ‘What you say? My English not so good.’ But he knew he was getting slammed.”

“Wow. Really?”

“And then Roberts got up—Roberts was Krakauer’s teacher somewhere, you know? Then Roberts let Anatoli have it, too.”

“Christ.”

“Yeah. Poor Anatoli.”

I paid the bill and sauntered over. “Excuse me, guys, but I couldn’t help hearing my name bandied about.”

The raconteur stood up, blushed, and introduced himself. It was Nick Heil, a young writer for Outside. He half-apologized, then introduced his companion: Lincoln Hall, the fine Australian climber, who had cheated death on Everest two years before. We shook hands. I said to Heil, “Don’t worry, you’re not the first guy who’s thought we were pretty hard on Anatoli.”

As I walked back to my car, I reflected, The amazing thing is that Heil was telling it like it happened last week. In point of fact, however, the confrontation between Jon Krakauer and Anatoli Boukreev had occurred eleven years earlier, in November 1997. Nick Heil must have been a teenager when he sat in the audience that day.

That’s Banff, I mused. What happens in Banff doesn’t stay in Banff.

*   *   *

Photo Credit: Flickr/JoyTrip

Last week, I participated in the 37th annual Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, generally acclaimed as the preeminent conference of its kind in the world. As I sat in the Max Bell Auditorium listening to climbers tussle with the conundrum titled “Chomolongma: Goddess or Gong Show?,” I flashed back on that explosive exchange in the same venue way back in 1997. Into Thin Air was number one on the bestseller list, but Jon had declined to serve on the panel debating the 1996 disaster on Everest. Anatoli, whose performance as a guide for the ill-fated Mountain Madness team Jon had excoriated in his book, was on the panel. His own version of the debacle was about to come out in his ghost-written book The Climb.

On the panel, Anatoli spoke very little, claiming his English was poor, so his girlfriend, Linda Wylie, spoke for him, explicating his version of the Everest events. But then Anatoli took the mic to argue that because journalists always get it wrong, a media blackout on Himalayan expeditions might be a good thing. (The “journalist” in 1996, of course, was Krakauer.) That was too much for Jon, who stood up and spoke from the audience. As he later wrote in a postscript to the 1998 edition of Into Thin Air, “The upshot was that at one point I rose to Boukreev’s bait and some ill-advised, very heated words were exchanged across the crowded auditorium.”

Some of those heated words were mine. Loyal to my former protégé, I seconded Jon’s attack. I remember using the words “dishonest” and “self-serving.” The hall buzzed with catcalls and cheers. Moderator Geoff Powter tried to douse the flames.

As his postscript indicates, Jon felt bad about his outburst almost immediately. Once the panel had dispersed, he found Anatoli outside the auditorium, where the two men had a long talk. They came to some sort of truce.

A month and a half later, Anatoli was dead, buried in an avalanche on an attempt on a new route in winter on Annapurna. Jon ruefully ended his 1998 postscript, “I realized that I’d begun my conciliatory efforts much too late.”

Nothing happened at the festival last week quite as explosive as the 1997 showdown, but for five days I reveled in the usual potpourri of mind-blowing films, provocative speakers, long-dormant friendships renewed in the hallways, and drunken debates waged long into the night at Banff Centre receptions and downtown pubs. The whole time, I reminisced about memorable episodes from my eight or 10 previous trips to the festival. You had to be there . . . .

You had to be there when Stevie Haston, the bad boy of British climbing, gave a slideshow in which he managed at the same time to convey supreme ennui as he explicated his own genius to the masses and snide dismissal of the rivals who thought they might be in his league on crag and couloir. According to Haston, Greg Child, who had given his own slideshow the night before, was “a wanker.”

The next day in the Max Bell, when a panelist dryly alluded to “egomaniacal performances like the one we watched yesterday,” a sudden noise erupted from the audience. Haston burst from his congenital slouch, shouted, “Oh, fuck off!,” fled for the exit, and slammed the door behind him.

You had to be there in 2000 for Chris Bonington’s two-and-a-half-hour slideshow about his reconnaissance of some obscure and nameless peak in western China. Bonington was the featured Saturday night speaker in the Eric Harvie Theatre, and every one of its 956 seats was occupied. I sat near the back with photographer Chris Noble. We began to suspect that something was amiss when, 20 minutes into the show, Bonington had barely begun the hike in to base camp. “This porter was a remarkable fellow,” he said as a slide of a thin man bent under a hundred-pound load lingered on the screen, “and his uncle was even more remarkable. Let me tell you a little story about the uncle.” Next slide, please, I silently begged, but Sir Christian was riding the flood of his manic enthusiasm.

At last, fifteen minutes past the scheduled hour limit, Bonington’s team got to the mountain, identified the most likely route, and packed up to head home. I said to Noble, “Okay, a little long-winded, but not bad. Nice reconnaissance trip for Chris, especially at his age.”

But then Bonington brightly intoned, “That was 1998. We decided to go back in 1999. Next tray.” The audience suppressed a groan. Noble whispered to me, “Let’s get out of here.”

At the designated festival pub downtown, we swigged our beers. “How can a guy who’s given so many slideshows,” I wondered out loud, “who’s got the whole routine down pat, go on and on like that?”

Noble smirked. “Saturday night at Banff? It’s a big deal, even for Bonington. He got carried away.”

One by one, other refugees showed up at the pub. “Has he gotten back to base camp yet?” Noble and I hooted. “No, he’s still telling every porter’s life story,” someone answered. (I later learned that festival director Bernadette MacDonald, in a backstage wing, was frantically trying to catch Bonington’s eye as she pointed at her watch. Had she had the proverbial vaudeville hook, she would have deployed it.)

Photo Credit: Flickr/JoyTrip

In the pub, as wave after wave of escapees arrived, the mirth crescendoed. But then a dark thought bloomed in my brain. “You know,” I said to Noble, “when the show’s over, Chris himself is going to come to the pub, and he’ll expect everybody to tell him what a great job he did.”

Sure enough, almost three hours after he had launched into his presentation, the last refugee arrived in the person of Bonington. He was beaming with satisfaction. (Bernadette told me later that at the end he had asked her, “Did I go on perhaps a wee bit long? Ten or fifteen minutes over?”) In the pub, all of us stared into our beers, avoiding Bonington’s eye, hoping he wouldn’t pull up a chair at our table.

To this day, I wonder if Bonington knows about the Banff legend to which he gave birth.

*   *   *

You had to be there in another Banff pub in November 1999 when Wade Davis and David Breashears strummed their dueling banjos. Some nine or 10 of us had assembled around a long, narrow table, and by chance Davis sat at one end, Breashears at the other. Though not a climber, Davis had announced that he was going to write a big book about George Leigh Mallory. He had signed a handsome contract and was well into his research.

The only trouble was, just the previous May, Conrad Anker had discovered Mallory’s body sprawled face down on the north face of Everest, and now Conrad and I were co-writing a book about it, to appear soon as The Lost Explorer.

Davis now declared to our table that he had never really intended to write a book about Mallory, except insofar as the man had played a part in the early exploration of the Himalaya. Gathering steam, he launched into the kind of brilliantly articulate monologue he seemed to have mastered. “What’s quite interesting to me,” he told us, “is that when John Noel crossed the Sepo La in 1912—“

Breashears had been watching Davis with a jaundiced eye. Now he interrupted: “1913. Yeah, I’ve been there. It’s the shortest way to the Kampa Dzong.”

This footnote only drove Davis to further expostulation. The rest of us remained mute as the two experts traded volleys. The Harvard Ph. D., National Geographic Explorer in Residence, versus the Kloberdanz Kid, who never went to college. Book learning versus the learning under one’s boots. The duel escalated. Conrad, sitting opposite me next to Jenni Lowe, stared slack-jawed at the combatants, swiveling from one to the other, as if watching a high-speed ping pong match—or perhaps a couple of boxers trading haymakers.

How is this going to end? I wondered. Abruptly, Breashears played his trump card. With Davis in mid-peroration, Breashears yawned, stood up, stuck a quarter in the nearby pool table, racked the balls, and started pocketing them right and left. Davis spluttered on, but there was nobody left to one-up.

Well, last week Wade Davis was back at Banff. It had taken him 12 years to write Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest. There was a lot of buzz about the book. It had been short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize, Britain’s most prestigious award for non-fiction. It was expected to win the grand prize at Banff. And on Saturday night, in the same slot Chris Bonington had occupied more than a decade earlier, Davis was going to tell an audience of 1,250 everything we needed to know about Mallory and Everest.

Banff 2012, Part II : Riffing on Mallory, Everest and Sex

The biggest event at Banff is the Saturday evening presentation, which opens with the festival’s semi-mythic film trailer. As the room darkens, the big screen lights up with micro-snippets of badass stunts in the outdoors, syncopated to a booming four-chord progression, overlaid by a stentorian voice proclaiming the words to live by of the two chief sponsors: “National Geographic: One hundred and twenty-five years . . . and the adventure continues” and “The North Face: dedicated to [something or other] . . . and to never stop exploring.” (Let us forgive the split infinitive.)

That opener revs up the already revved-up crowd. It reminds me of ABC’s old Wide World of Sports—“the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” with the gruesome clip of the skier cartwheeling off the jumping ramp. Or, more recently, Monday night’s “Are you ready for some football?” And after the trailer blazes on the screen of Eric Harvie Theatre, the presenter invariably steps up to the lectern and demands, “Is everybody having a good time?” Because the roar is never loud enough, s/he follows it with, “What? I can’t hear you!”

Wade Davis (Photo Credit: Kim Williams)

Bathing in this cacophony a week ago Saturday, Wade Davis was quite at home. Anthropologist, writer, and Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, Davis was invited to speak about his 2011 book, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest. Without a word of preamble, he launched into his dissertation. While I’d seen him do his thing before, it never fails to amaze me. For 50 minutes, with scarcely a glance at his notes, he speaks not only in finely crafted sentences, but in Ciceronian paragraphs. Others have told me that if you hear Davis speak at one venue one evening and at another a week or two later, the talks are identical, word-for-word. It’s as if the man had effortlessly memorized a speech the length of a Bill Clinton State of the Union address.

“So what?” someone at Banff rejoined when I mentioned this phenomenon. “It’s exactly what a stand-up comic does. It sounds spontaneous, but it’s rehearsed to a tee.” I nodded. “Except that a comic,” the fellow added, “doesn’t have to keep it going for 50 minutes.”

I confess I haven’t yet read Into the Silence, though some of my friends have told me it’s a terrific book—all 655 pages of it. Davis’s central premise is that the heroic and tragic British Everest expeditions of 1921, 1922, and 1924 had their spiritual genesis in the horrors of World War I, in which nearly all the members of the three expeditions had served in the trenches. To quote the dust jacket, “Mallory and his generation found themselves and their world utterly shattered” by the war, so that the effort to climb Everest “emerged as a symbol of national redemption and hope.”

Damn it, I berated myself when I first cottoned on to Davis’s thesis, why didn’t I think of that? At once I was reminded of the scholarly coup Peter and Leni Gillman had scored in The Wildest Dream, their 2000 biography of Mallory. For decades, mountaineering historians had wondered why Mallory chose the inexperienced 22-year-old Sandy Irvine for the fatal last attempt in 1924, rather than the well-conditioned, immensely competent Noel Odell. Was Mallory secretly in love with the handsome young Oxford blue? Was he, despite his three children and his devotion to his loving wife, Ruth, a closet homosexual?

The historians had combed through Irvine’s journal, Mallory’s letters, the memoirs of their teammates, without coming close to solving this prurient question. The Gillmans simply went to Bloomsbury, where they discovered rather easily that in 1909, four years before he met Ruth, Mallory had had a one-night stand with James Strachey (later to become the great translator of Freud into English) and had immediately freaked out, never to repeat the experiment. The reason Mallory chose Irvine for the last attempt was simple. Irvine was a mechanical genius, Mallory a mechanical dunce, and the crucial oxygen apparatus had broken down again and again. (Odell, in fact, found evidence in the highest camp that in the last minutes before setting out on June 8, 1924, Irvine had desperately tinkered with the tanks and regulators.)

So, motivated by envy of his tour de force delivery, I found myself listening to Wade Davis with only one ear on his disquisition, the other straining to pick up his quirks and tics. He seemed to have coined the term “ethnosphere.” Stirring phrases, such as “born in the mud of Flanders,” spilled like coins from the pockets of his mind. Davis’s favorite adverb, I realized, was “famously.” “Mallory famously hated Canadians,” he declared, in defense of Oliver Wheeler, the sole Canadian on the three Everest expeditions. “You must remember, it was Wheeler, not Mallory, who found the way to the North Col.” While I nudged myself to remember that datum, I also remembered that Davis had been born in Vancouver.

Brilliant Wade Davis unmistakably is, but no one ever accused him of modesty. I marveled at how smoothly he slipped in kudos to his own research—“twelve years, sixty different archives all over the world”—and a sly boast about receiving “the biggest book advance in the history of mountaineering literature.” (Could you look it up, I wondered?)

For Christ’s sake, Roberts, the censorious imp I all too often drown out now whispered in my ear, give the man his due. He’s wowing a crowd of more than a thousandYou just wish you could do that. I remembered the pithy comment of a friend of Shannon O’Donoghue, former director of the Banff festival, who suggested the shindig be renamed The Festival of Egomaniacs with Inferiority Complexes.

Near the end of the talk, Davis shamed me further, as he lavished praise onThe Lost Explorer, the book I had written with Conrad Anker after Conrad had discovered Mallory’s body in 1999. Davis summarized Conrad’s definitive analysis of why it was almost impossible that Mallory and Irvine could have reached the summit before they died. But then he climbed through the loophole: The possibility of a snow ramp bypassing the Second Step at 28,200 feet in 1924. “And so perhaps Mallory made the first ascent of Everest after all.”

This was the ending all mountaineers wish they could believe. It’s the ending I clung to as a teenager, when I first read about Mallory, and then in college, when I went on expeditions with two of Mallory’s grandsons. It was the ending the Banff audience craved.

Standing ovation. Standing myself, I thought, It’s Mallory we’re cheering for as much as Wade Davis. And then: It’s Banff, cheering itself. Is everybody having a good time? You bet we are.

Two days earlier, a panel of experts had solemnly debated an unanswerable question: What was “The Best Mountain Book Ever Written”? Expecting to nurse my scorn and disapproval from the audience, I ended up deciding that the panel was the high point of the week.

Banff 2012, Part III : The Best Mountain Book Ever Written

Well, they asked for it, proposing a panel with such an ex cathedra title as “The Best Mountain Book Ever Written.” So it wasn’t surprising when Katie Ives, editor of Alpinist and the panel’s moderator, launched the discussion by calling it “a utopian and elusive project.” Or when Bernadette MacDonald, whose recent book about the great Polish Himalayan mountaineers, Freedom Climbers, won multiple awards, chimed in: “It is irresponsible of us to do this.”

Bernadette McDonald (Photo Credit: Donald Lee)

But then all five panelists eagerly rolled up their sleeves and went to work. The brilliant stroke was that none of the five was privy to the others’ choices beforehand. I was afraid that the panel was going to feel the need to wrangle the competition down to a single winner, leaving masterpieces strewn by the wayside, but no such mayhem ensued. Instead, each contributor named five or even eight favorite candidates, and only reluctantly bestowed a gold medal for number one.

Harry Vandervlist, the Canadian literature professor, turned his presentation into show-and-tell, pulling dog-eared paperbacks out of his daypack, starting with Dante’s Purgatorio (Wow, I thought, just which route did Dante and Vergil put up, and who led the crux pitch through the Gluttonous band into the Lustful summit plateau?) and ending, yep, with Wade Davis’s Into the Silence.

By the time the dust had settled after an hour and a half, we had a stellar reading list of no fewer than 35 excellent mountain books, some of which I’d never heard of (they happened to be written by Canadian authors). Only one of the 35 was a novel: James Salter’s Solo Faces, nominated by MacDonald. “Where is the great mountaineering novel?” Ives wondered out loud, prompting Canadian journalist Jon Popowich to scold the youngsters in the audience: “Hey, all of you, stop blogging and sit down and write the great North American climbing novel.”

In the audience, prepared to disapprove of the whole silly exercise, I found myself won over by each panelist’s thoughtful rationale as to how he or she devised a list of finalists. (Immodesty compels me to admit that I was mollified by three of the dignitaries nominating my own The Mountain of My Fear.) Stephen Venables, the crack British mountaineer and a writer who has won both the grand prize at Banff and England’s top prize, the Boardman-Tasker award, declared that he had restricted his choices to firsthand accounts of climbs. His hero was H. W. Tilman—“the Jane Austen of mountaineering literature,” as Venables dubbed him—and if he had to choose a single book, he’d settle on The Ascent of Nanda Devi, with its immortal line as Tilman and Noel Odell stood on the summit: “I believe we so far forgot ourselves as to shake hands on it.”

Geoff Powter and Stephen Venables (Photo Credit: Donald Lee)

The debate sent my memory winging back to 2004, when National Geographic Adventure decided to proclaim the 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time. As a contributing editor, I tried to talk the staff out of their folly, and then grew downright indignant when I learned that the magazine was determined not only to find those hundred books but to rank them from one to 100. But when I realized that the gang was not about to relent, I plunged into the fray, sending little-known classics their way and vetoing impostors. And I felt a weird satisfaction when Adventure bestowed its highest honor on Apsley Cherry-Garrad’s The Worst Journey in the World, the single book that, if I had to choose, would be my own top pick.

I had expected that the two books that would dominate the Banff panel would be Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air—far and away the two best-selling, most influential mountain books ever written. But only Geoff Powter, editor of the Canadian Alpine Journal and longtime Banff moderator, chose Annapurna, and not one of the five panelists had Into Thin Air on his or her short list. During the Q & A, I asked why not. Venables explained that Krakauer’s account was not the narrative of a great climb but rather of a “colossal cock-up.” Powter mused, “Yes, Into Thin Air is a great book, and it’s so well-written, but it’s kind of the Dragon Tattoo of mountaineering literature.” (This aside brought the house down.)

What surprised me most was the absence of agreement among the panelists. Only three books—classics all—claimed the barest preponderance among the five sages’ lists: Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider, Gaston Rébuffat’s Starlight and Storm, and Lionel Terray’sConquistadors of the Useless. As a young beginning climber, I had read all three and been profoundly inspired by them—as well as by Herzog’sAnnapurna.

In 1974, writing for Ascent, I had declared Conquistadors of the Uselessthe finest climbing autobiography ever written. Thirty-eight years later, I see no reason to revise that judgment. And in the days leading up to Banff, as I pondered the “utopian project” the panel had foolishly undertaken, I found myself wondering which book I would have chosen, had I been on the panel. My thoughts kept circling back to Terray.

Since the age of twenty, the man had been a personal hero of mine, along with his inseparable partner, Louis Lachenal. In college, my best friend Don Jensen and I so identified with the legendary French duo that we nicknamed each other “Louis” and “Lionel.”

More than three decades later, as I poked around France researching a book I called True Summit—a debunking of Herzog’s Annapurna as a dishonest, semi-fictionalized account of the breakthrough 1950 ascent of the first 8,000-meter peak ever climbed—I declared my esteem for Les Conquérants de l’Inutile (Terray’s original title) to many of the climbing cognoscenti in Paris and Chamonix. In return, some of them shattered my hero-worship.

Terray didn’t write his own book, several experts insisted. It was ghost-written by an editor named Roger Nimier. “Terray was a bit of a country bumpkin,” Françoise Rébuffat, Gaston’s widow, told me. “His writing, even in his letters, was only semiliterate.”

Terray had also been the boyhood hero of my French editor and climbing pal, Michel Guérin. And Michel knew Terray’s widow, Marianne, well. In 1965, Terray had been killed in a long fall from a moderate climb in the Vercors. The attic of his house in Grenoble had been locked up and left to gather dust ever since. Thirty-four years after the fatal accident, Michel and I entered the attic with a key Marianne had lent us. We searched for relics from the great man as if excavating a prehistoric site.

There was clutter everywhere. Speckled mirrors, a broken stereopticon, a crumbling bust of Beethoven. Unpaid bills addressed to Terray’s father, who had only grudgingly allowed his son to climb. Faded photos of Terray’s mother riding a horse in Brazil. We were about to leave when Michel found a bulging cardboard folder, labeled “COURSES EXPLOR BRESIL ATEURS.” We opened it to find a manuscript.

“My God,” said Michel. “That’s Terray’s handwriting.” We read on and on. “It’s the manuscript of Les Conquérants,” Michel whispered. Later we compared it to the published text. Not a word was different. So much for Roger Nimier.

We retrieved the manuscript and delivered it to Marianne, who in 1999 still talked to her dead husband every day, and prayed to him when things went wrong. I am no literary sleuth, but that moment in the attic in Grenoble was the most thrilling historiographical discovery I ever hope to make.

This November, I walked out of the Banff panel oddly exhilarated. There is, of course, no definitive greatest anything all-time, not even Tiger Woods or Babe Ruth. But as I left, I promised myself I’d reread Tilman and Rébuffat and Salter. And check out Gabrielle Roy and Mary Schaffer Warren—even if they were Canadian.

The Top Picks:

From Jon Popowich
Starlight and Storm by Gaston Rébuffat
Conquistadors of the Useless by Lionel Terray
The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer
Beyond the Mountain by Steve House
The Seventh Grade by Reinhold Messner
A Hunter of Peace/Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies by Mary T.S. Schäffer-Warren
Song of the Mountain by Gustavo Brillembourg

From Stephen Venables
The Ascent of Nanda Devi by Bill Tilman
That Untravelled World by Eric Shipton
One Man’s Mountains by Tom Patey
Summits and Secrets by Kurt Diemberger
Sacred Summits by Peter Boardman
Thin Air by Greg Child

From Bernadette McDonald
Conquistadors of the Useless by Lionel Terray
Deep Play by Paul Pritchard
The Mountain of My Fear by David Roberts
Postcards from the Ledge by Greg Child
The Ascent of Nanda Devi by Bill Tilman
Kiss or Kill by Mark Twight
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow by Maria Coffey
K2: The Story of the Savage Mountain by Jim Curran
Solo Faces by James Salter
Learning to Breathe by Andy Cave

From Geoff Powter
Kiss or Kill by Mark Twight
And One for the Crow by John Redhead
Mountain of My Fear by David Roberts
The Totem Pole by Paul Pritchard
A Slender Thread by Stephen Venables
In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods by Galen Rowell
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson

From Harry Vandervlist
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis
The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek by Sid Marty
Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald
The Hidden Mountain / La Montagne Secrète by Gabrielle Roy
The Mountain of My Fear by David Roberts
Purgatorio by Dante

Banff 2012, Part IV : Night of the Legends and New Kids

The Banff festival reaches its frenzied peak on the weekend, when films stream nonstop before packed houses in both the Eric Harvie and Margaret Greenham Theatres. Many ticket holders consider this the main reason for coming, but as for me…well, I’m not the type who can sit through more than three movies in a row without getting bleary-eyed and fidgety. I need to roam the hallways or swig a beer at the Maclab Bistro in hopes of bumping into an old friend or making a new one.

The films inevitably celebrate the recent and the spectacular. This year, a French base jumper rethinking her sport, a psychedelic, illegal big-wall assault on a jungle cliff in Venezuela, Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra grunting fiercely as they duel over 5.15 in southern Spain, and the like.

Yet something Banff also does really well is to thrust venerable writers, climbers and wanderers in front of youthful audiences who, if they have ever heard of these ancients, know them only as hazy rumors. Last year the festival lured Dervla Murphy out of her native Ireland, three weeks shy of her 80th birthday. I first read her astounding book, Full Tilt, about bicycling solo from Ireland to India, armed with spunk and a pocket pistol, in 1965. When I saw her name on the Banff program, my first thought, I’m ashamed to say, was, My God, is she still alive?

Films be damned—Murphy stole the show in 2011.

This year it was Colin Thubron, one of the finest travel writers alive. I knew Thubron was indeed alive, for I had just read his wonderful memoir,To a Mountain in Tibet, about his pilgrimage in the aftermath of his mother’s death to Kailas, the peak that is sacred to one-fifth of the world’s population. Before his reading, I asked five people in the audience under 35 if they’d ever heard of Thubron, who is only 73. Nope.

Colin Thubron (Photo Credit: Kim Williams)

Slender, dignified, with a great plume of white hair swept back from his forehead, Thubron opened with a sly disclaimer: “In spite of the immense promise of this screen behind me—” he waved his hand at the centerpiece of the Max Bell Auditorium, “I must apologize for showing only one slide.” The slide was a map of his route to Kailas.

Thubron didn’t steal the show as Dervla Murphy had, but in his own self-effacing way he delivered one of the deepest 40-minute talks I’ve ever heard. I jotted down: “Formidable erudition. Grasp of history. Curiosity about the world.” The central motif of Thubron’s talk, as of his journey, undercut the cherished platitude that I was willing to bet 99 percent of the Banff crowd subscribed to: The notion that mountains are all about self-fulfillment, affirmation, triumphing over obstacles. “In Buddhist and Hindu culture,” Thubron remarked, “the ascent of mountains means death. Pilgrims go to Kailas to practice their own death.”

Beneath the chill of that assertion, I felt the jolt of a rare discovery: Here was a profound idea that had never occurred to me before. I wanted to march up to the Eric Harvie and tell the crowd, “Stop watching all these goddamn films! Go listen to Colin Thubron. You shall not look upon his like again.”

This year Banff also had Fred Beckey. No other American has ever put up half as many first ascents as Beckey has, and some of them are world-class touchstones, such as the first ascent of Devils Thumb in 1946 or the Beckey-Chouinard route on South Howser Tower in 1961. I’ve known Fred for almost 50 years, but I’ll never figure him out. At 89, almost deaf (he refuses to wear a hearing aid), he remains a piece of work: The self-styled scrounge and dirtbag climber, the guardian of secret routes he plans to knock off before the next generation steals them.

Fred Beckey (Photo Credit: Donald Lee)

In The Club, a quasi-saloon beneath the Eric Harvie, Fred limped in, bent forward at the waist, his weathered face craggier than ever, sat down, and started shouting into the microphone. His slide show was a piece of work, too. He started in with a characteristic conundrum that I’m still trying to decipher. “Fortunately,” Fred announced, “the earth has got a lot of good mountains in different places, but it hasn’t always been that way, because the earth used to be flat.”

For the next hour-plus, Fred flashed dusty old slides of one of his climbs after another on the screen, his voice never varying from its monotone boom. He lavished the same care on some grubby 5.6 crack in the Olympics as he did on his first ascent of Denali’s Northwest Buttress. A grainy 1949 film clip took my breath away, as in tennis shoes, pounding soft-iron pitons into cracks with what looked like a ball-peen hammer, he stood on his belayer’s shoulders as he fought his way up Lighthouse Tower in the Cascades. Good lord, I said to myself, what a graceful climber Fred was in his prime!

Some six or eight of his photos showed avalanches in full career. “You wouldn’t want to camp there,” he said each time. He had his formula down for transitioning from one range to the next: “Taking another big camera jump,” Fred announced as he leapt from the Tetons to Yosemite. Whenever a slide of a familiar peak came up, Fred would intone, “Mount Robson needs no introduction to this audience.” “This is El Capitan in Yosemite, which needs no introduction here.”

Fred has been accused of having no sense of humor. Yet the audience in The Club was hanging on his every word, and howling with laughter at many of his deadpan utterances. And surely there was a soupçon of irony at his own expense in the last slide he showed. There was Fred standing on a highway, holes in his shabby shirt and trousers, his thumb stuck out, as he held a hand-lettered cardboard sign that read, “Will belay for food.”

Yeah, the oldies were goodies this year at Banff. But some of the goodies were young. Last year the Voices of Adventure colloquy featured Edurne Pasaban, the first woman to climb the fourteen highest peaks in the world. This year the Friday night speaker was Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, who last summer became the first woman to climb all fourteen without bottled oxygen. (Pasaban had climbed her first, Everest, with supplemental oxygen in 2001, all the others without.) Both women had become superstars in their native countries (Spain and Austria), and each was selected by the National Geographic Society as its Adventurer of the Year.

Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner (Photo Credit: Kim Williams)

For Outside magazine in 1982, I had interviewed Reinhold Messner in Munich, as he was closing in on becoming the first man to climb the fourteen 8,000-meter peaks. In my single hour in his apartment, I realized I was in the presence (“glare” would be a better word) of one of the most titanic egos I had ever met. And though Messner dismissed his race with the brilliant Polish climber Jerzy Kukuczka to reach the finish line first as “a media invention,” there was no ignoring the bitterness of that rivalry.

It was at Banff that I first met both Pasaban and Kaltenbrunner. I subsequently profiled Edurne for Rock and Ice, and right now I’m trying to help them both get their memoirs published in the U.S. They could hardly possess more different personalities. Pasaban is vehement, emotional, driven and prone to deep depressions. Kaltenbrunner seems so polite, sunny, and even-keeled, it’s hard to picture her fighting her way up the north side of K2 in storms that defeated most of her teammates, as she did on Friday night, wowing the audience.

Face-to-face with each superwoman, I tried to get them to confess to a rivalry akin to the Messner-Kukuczka war, but it just wasn’t there. Each testified so ingenuously to her deep friendship with and encouragement of the other that I finally had to squelch my cynicism. As proof, both recounted how they had climbed to the top of Broad Peak arm-in-arm in 2007, embracing on the summit.

At the end of the Friday show, in an onstage Q&A, Bernadette MacDonald posed her last query: “What would you say to young girls?”

Kaltenbrunner beamed as she gazed over the audience. “Find your own passion,” she exhorted. “Feel enthusiasm for what you’re doing.”

It wasn’t quite as epiphanic a statement as Colin Thubron’s insight about Kailas, ascent and death, but I do believe that near me in the audience, young girls were swooning. At Banff, there’s nothing wrong with a feel-good ending.

Banff 2012, Part V : The People’s Choice

All right, it’s a film festival. And the manic week in Banff reaches its climax on Sunday evening, when the prizes in several categories of cinematic excellence are announced. A couple of years ago, I served on the film jury at Telluride Mountainfilm. It’s really hard work, staying indoors to watch every entry in its entirety, when you’d rather be outside on a sunny late-May afternoon kibitzing in the streets or going for a hike. But it was at Telluride that my fellow jurors and I discovered Sender Films’ brilliant “Alone on the Wall,” and thereby discovered Alex Honnold, the world’s foremost free-solo rock climber. We ended up unanimously choosing that film for best picture, doing our small part to help Honnold vault from complete obscurity to “60 Minutes,” where Lara Logan caressed his fingertips as she tried to divine the secret of his genius.

On Sunday night in Banff, we learned that 369 different films had been entered in competition, from which 79 finalists had been culled. My God, I thought, imagine the ordeal of the jurists who had had to weed out those perennials from the mere flash-in-the-pan annuals. During my stay in Banff this November, I managed to sit through nine of the 79 finalists. Some I attended out of a guilty sense of responsibility: if you’re going to report on a film festival, you probably should watch some films. A few I actually wanted to see, including Sender Films’ follow-up on Alex, “Reel Rock 7: Honnold 3.0,” which documents the incredible Yosemite Triple Alex had pulled off the previous June (“daisy-soloing” the three biggest faces in the Valley back-to-back in nineteen hours). And a couple of films I had never heard of caught me in stunned surprise.

Thank God the festival eschews the largess of the Academy Awards. No celebrity presenters dressed to the nines (the standard Banff uniform is jeans, T-shirt, and a North Face sweater or jacket). No envelopes, no “And the winner is…” hokum. Just one presenter after another announcing the winner, and, if the filmmaker is in the audience, a couple of minutes on stage to thank everybody in and out of sight and to comment on how the footage was compiled.

There are, to be sure, some fifteen categories to be saluted, ranging from “Best Film—Mountain Culture” to “The Banff Centre Award for Creative Excellence,” whatever that is. And there’s a grand prize for the best film of all. But the highest accolade the festival bestows is its “People’s Choice” award, as voted hours earlier by the throngs who sit in the Eric Harvie and Margaret Greenham Theatres.

A great film can make you laugh, or it can make you cry. At the end of “Nuit Blanche,” a twenty-minute Belgian recreation of a failed rescue effort in the Alps, I burst into tears. The acting, mostly via fading cell phone calls from the victims to a beleaguered search-and-rescue pro relaying increasingly desperate advice, had the spare, understated economy of early Ingmar Bergman. Without hesitation, I voted for “Nuit Blanche” for People’s Choice. I doubt that many others did.

Banff Center (Photo Credit: Flickr/Afagen)

The one film that had everybody (myself included) laughing out loud and cheering on the protagonists was “Crossing the Ice,” an Australian documentary detailing the efforts of a pair of semi-bunglers, nicknamed Cas and Jonesy, to become the first explorers to ski without outside support from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back. As they begin their trek, they discover that a far more savvy Norwegian, Aleksander Gamme, is launching his own quest along the same route—solo. It’s Amundsen versus Scott all over again, a century later.

So the festival comes down to Sunday night, and this year, among the fifteen-odd winners, there were two clear-cut champions. Early on, Sender Films’ “Wide Boyz” won the prize for Best Short Mountain Film. Peter Mortimer, founder of Sender and of the Reel Rock tour, came on stage and politely grasped the wavy glass landscape objet d’art that is Banff’s Oscar. Twenty minutes later, Mortimer was up there again, having won the Best Film—Climbing award for “Honnold 3.0.”

The buzz all weekend had been about “Crossing the Ice,” so it was no surprise when the film won not only the Best Film—Exploration and Adventure award but also the Grand Prize. Having traveled all the way from Australia, Jonesy himself (Justin Jones) came up to accept the awards. He looked as startled as a boy caught playing hooky, but a lot healthier than he had on screen, with blistered lips and blackened toes, as he neared the end of his Antarctic ordeal. He was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation.

The festival acknowledges the importance of the People’s Choice award by saving it for next-to-last. This year there were two winners. The People’s Choice for Radical Reels was claimed by yet a third Sender Film, “Reel Rock 7: La Dura Dura,” featuring Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra going head-to head to “send” what might be the hardest single pitch of rock in the world. “This is getting a little ridiculous, Pete,” said the presenter, as he handed an almost sheepish Mortimer his third glass trophy of the night.

Then the audience went—yes, wild—as “Crossing the Ice” won the overall People’s Choice prize. It was a rare double—Grand Prize on top of People’s Choice—at the most prestigious adventure film festival in the world. Jonesy stumbled back on stage, and amidst his startlement, actually broke out in a smile of relief and happiness.

“Honnold 3.0,” I guarantee you, will make your palms sweat the twentieth time you watch it. And “Crossing the Ice,” I have to admit, is a great film. But the Aussies benefited from a perfect and unforeseeable turn of events at the end of their race with the Norwegian. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you how it unfolded. You had to be there…

No, wait. You didn’t have to be there. No matter where you live, even outside North America, you can catch these films and the other winners sometime this year or next, as the Banff Mountain Film World Tour gallivants around the globe. Check it out. You won’t be sorry.

As for me, I’ll be back at Banff next year…if they let me come.

David Roberts

David Roberts is the author of seventeen books on mountaineering, adventure, and the history of the American Southwest. His essays and articles have appeared in National Geographic, National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, and The Atlantic Monthly, among other publications. He lives in Cambridge, MA.

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