The Arts


Those who love getting high flock to Banff’s celebration of all things alpine

BRIAN BERGMAN November 19 2001
The Arts


Those who love getting high flock to Banff’s celebration of all things alpine

BRIAN BERGMAN November 19 2001


The Arts

Those who love getting high flock to Banff’s celebration of all things alpine


Its every mountain climbers nightmare, and one that has haunted Rick Ridgeway for more than two decades. On Oct. 13,1980, Ridgeway and his climbing companions were caught in a massive avalanche that hurled them more than 450 m down a remote mountain in the Tibetan Himalayas. Trapped under the snow, Ridgeway was initially convinced he would perish. Miraculously, he struggled free and crawled sideways to a rock face. There, he thought to himself, I made it. Tm safe. OK, breathe, breathe again, again. Alive. God, Tm alive. . . alive. . . alive.

Sadly, Ridgeway’s close friend and climbing partner Jonathan Wright was not so lucky. Only a few feet away, at the edge of the ice, Jonathan gasped for breath. Despite several attempts at mouth-tomouth resuscitation, Ridgeway could not save him. He rested his buddy’s head on his knee, ran his fingers through Jonathan’s hair. In an instant, Jonathan’s face turned pale. Ridgeway continued to stroke Jonathan’s hair, then bent down and gently kissed his forehead. At age 28, Jonathan Wright was dead.

As Ridgeway recounted this tragic episode at a lunchtime reading during the recently concluded Banff Mountain Book Festival—part of an annual week-long celebration of all things alpine staged by Mountain Culture at the Banff Centre— audience members were spellbound. But there was more to come. Ridgeway, 51, a world-renowned mountaineer based in California, read from his new book, Below Another Sky: A Mountain Adventure in Search of a Lost Father. It tells of how, two years ago, Ridgeway agreed to take Wright’s daughter, Asia, then 19, to Jonathan’s frozen gravesite on a lonely promontory at 4,900 m, overlooking the plateau of Tibet. When they got there, they found the grave had been disturbed and the body ravaged, probably by wild animals. All that remained were Jonathan’s backbone, ribs, V' . ■ T. . TP1

collarbone—and strands of his hair, still in good condition.

Ridgeway once again held Jonathan’s hair, rubbing it slowly between his fingers. Asia, who was only one year old when her father died, approached the gravesite. “He was so young,” she said, crying deeply and leaning hard against Ridgeway. “He was my father.”

By this point of the story, many audience members were also fighting back tears. “Wasn’t that something?” said Nancy Hayes, a retired Calgary nurse who has attended the mountain festivals almost since their inception in 1976. “Wasn’t that a moment? That’s the sort of thing that keeps me coming back, year after year.”

November is a slow season in the mountains. Too cold for rock climbing. Not cold enough for ice climbing. Ski season is still a few good snowfalls away. In 1976, the First Banff Mountain Film Festival was staged during this period as entertainment for local residents.

Even then it proved surprisingly popular, forcing organizers to rent a larger theatre when 500 people showed up, more than twice the expected number. The event has since spawned a concurrent book festival and trade fair as well as related exhibitions, all of it overseen by Bernadette McDonald, vice-president of Mountain Culture at the Banff Centre. A musician, rock climber and all-round mountain buff, McDonald says the common thread among those who attend is “an abiding fascination with this grand landscape and the stories it inspires.”

This year’s book festival, held from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, featured 34 finalists selected from 122 entries representing 10 nations. These included adven ture-travel books, climbers’ memoirs and novels set in the mountains—like the festival grand prize

winner, Hazard’s Way, by British writer Roger Hubank. The film festival featured a competition involving 250 films from 27 countries; 39 finalists were selected for public screening over the weekend of Nov. 2 to 4. The films ranged from Yellowstone—America’s Sacred Wilderness, a beautifully shot, if rather sedate, American documentary, which won the festival jury’s grand prize, to Berserk in the Antarctic, an edgier, humorous Danish production about three young sailors hellbent for Antarctica, which won the People’s Choice award.

Together, organizers sell about 10,000 tickets a year to the two festivals. But Mountain Culture at the Banff Centre is much more than a one-week operation. In addition to staging year-round seminars and exhibitions in the Banff area, the centre runs a marathon, 11-month world tour of mountain films. This year’s tour, which began last week in Minneapolis, includes 250 screenings in 170 North American communities, ranging in size from the village of Masset on the Queen Charlotte Islands to New York City. There will be showings in another 30 European cities and as far afield as Australia, Africa and the South Pole. In all, the films will be seen by more than 100,000 people.

Indicative of their success, the Banff festivals and the world tour are almost entirely financed through ticket sales and corporate sponsors. They have tapped into a passion for mountaineering that appears to transcend all borders. McDonald says surveys of audience members both here and abroad show many are enthusiastic hikers, skiers and climbers. Others have never been to a mountain range in their lives, yet are avid consumers of mountain culture, including books, periodicals and television documentaries.

The Banff festivals, in particular, often have the flavour of a tribal reunion. This year, Scott Lamont, 34, was among those who could be seen greeting and hugging old acquaintances as he made his way between venues on the compact campus of the Banff Centre for Continuing Education, overlooking the town of Banff. A pediatric nurse and Calgary native who has lived in New Mexico for the past five years, Lamont has attended every mountain festival but one since 1988. “This is my chance to see my friends, my family, my mountains,” enthuses Lamont. “Its my way to stay connected to home.”

Perhaps the most popular feature of the Banff festivals are the keynote addresses by world-class mountaineers and adventurers. It’s no surprise that these often turn into meditations on mortality as climbers recall their own brushes with death and lament the loss of fallen friends. During one such presentation this year, Mexican alpinist Carlos Carsolio showed dozens of slides of his many conquests, which include reaching the summit of all 14 of the world’s 8,000-m peaks—without the aid

of supplemental oxygen. Charming and frequently hilarious, the hard-drinking Carsolio, 38, obviously likes to party as much as he loves to climb. But he grew subdued, even sombre, as he told of the time he failed to convince a female climbing partner, Wanda Rutkiewitcz, to abandon a particularly dangerous Himalayan summit attempt. He waited for three days farther down the mountain, but knew from the outset she had perished. “It was so hard,” he said of his subsequent descent off the mountain, “because I felt I did not help her up there. I was such a mess. It was sad, sad.”

Carsolio returned to Mexico and fell into a depression. He vowed to stop climbing. But his resolve didn’t last; the lure of mountains was simply too strong. “How to explain our great love of the mountains?”

he said at another point, his voice choking with emotion. “It is our life.”

That all has a familiar ring to Ridgeway, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker who abandoned climbing for three years after Wright’s death. Ridgeway told Macleans that “little by little, I came to realize that if your passion is in the mountains and the wild corners of the earth, then life is best lived indulging that passion, even with all the risks.” In fact, the father of three says the tragedy helped him realize the importance of living every moment to the fullest. “There’s scarcely a day passes that I don’t see in my mind’s eye the scene of that avalanche,” says Ridgeway. “It reminds me that I am living on probation—as we all are, but as so few of us ever consider or acknowledge.”

Not all of the visiting adventurers were mountaineers. Last December, American conservationist Mike Fay completed a 15-month, 1,900-km trek by foot through the uncharted forest of Central Africa. Fay wanted to document an area untouched by humans for more than 1,000 years, and to alert the world that industrial forces are about to destroy “the last little gem in the African continent.” Fay turned up in Banff this year to give a slide show about the trek, which is the subject of a National Geographic documentary, Africa Extreme. In the film, one of the finalists at the festival, Fay looks very much like the lead character played by Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, forging ahead into his own personal heart of darkness. Dressed only in shorts and sandals, he appears increasingly skinny and wide-eyed as the months drag on. Near the end of the trek, Fay is seen berating the Africans he has hired, for $19 a day, because disease and fatigue have made them want to give up. How, he rants, can they treat him this way?


Canada’s first lady of the mountains was born and raised on the flattest of flatland near Biggar, Sask. Bernadette McDonald, founder and vicepresident of Mountain Culture at the Banff Centre, is a former farm girl who vividly remembers her first taste of the Rockies at age 11. McDonald spent a single winter’s night in Banff during a family road trip to British Columbia. “It was just one of those magical nights when it was snowing like crazy, and the mountains were covered in white,” she recalls. “There was just something about the mountains that absolutely spoke to me. I felt more connected to that landscape than I ever had to the Prairies.” McDonald’s next experience of the mountains came when she attended university in Tacoma, Wash., on the edge of the Cascade range. While pursuing an undergraduate degree in her first love, music, she acquired a new obsession. She began to ski and take long backcountry hikes, and got a summer job at Yoho National Park, bordering Banff. “I remember thinking that I had finally found something I could feel as passionate about as music,” she says.

Bernadette did graduate studies in music theory at the University of Michigan and the University of Western Ontario, and later performed as a pianist with a contemporary music group, Fusion 5. In 1976, she married Alan McDonald, a national park warden. The couple lived for six years in a small house on a remote mountain road, halfway between Jasper, Alta., and the Columbia Icefields. In winter, she taught music two days a week and skied the rest of the time. In summer, she and Alan (they have no children) disappeared on horseback into the high country for weeks on end. “It was a wonderful life,” she says a little wistfully.

That idyllic existence ended in 1988 when she accepted the job of director of the Banff Mountain Film Festival, which had been launched by the Banff Centre for Continuing Education 13 years earlier. Under her watch, the festival has evolved from a weekend of screenings into a week-long event, including a separate book festival and trade fair. In

1996, McDonald founded Mountain Culture at the Banff Centre, introducing year-round exhibitions, lectures and symposiums on issues related to the mountains, such as sustainable development. She oversees an ambitious 11month world tour of mountain films that now travels to 27 countries. And in 2002, which the United Nations has declared the International Year of the Mountains, McDonald will play host to a special mountain summit that will bring artists and scientists together for three days of public talks prior to the regular film and book festivals.

Given her myriad responsibilities, McDonald, who turns 50 this week, doesn’t get to spend as much time relaxing in the mountains as she once did. But she remains an avid rock climber and hiker, and she and Alan spend most of their vacations visiting ranges around the world. Nor has she lost that young girl’s sense of awe. “People go to the mountains to find their soul,” she says. “I certainly did." Brian Bergman in Banff

Fay, 44, told the festival audience that he felt mainly melancholy when he finally completed his journey. “You get used to living in the forest,” he explained. “You’ve become a wild man.”

Here in the tranquil Canadian Rockies, it’s hard to imagine that on other mountain ranges, far way, bombs are dropping, blood is spilling. This year’s Banff festival took account of that grim reality. One of the most gripping, and timely, films in competition was another National Geographic production, Into the Forbidden Zone. It tells how Sebastian Junger, author of the best-selling book The Perfect Storm, and Reza, a renowned Paris-based photographer, were smuggled into battle-ravaged Afghanistan last year. They were there to meet with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary leader of the Northern Alliance. Massoud had helped mastermind the 10-year guerrilla campaign that finally drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan in 1989. He was then plunged into an armed struggle against the country’s repressive Taliban regime. Massoud was assassinated by suicide bombers posing as photojournalists on Sept. 9.

Into the Forbidden Zone is chilling stuff, full of images of young rebel soldiers having their bloodied, mangled limbs stitched

together and squalid refugee camps where babies die of malnutrition. It is a searing reminder that the evil that struck North America on Sept. 11 had been festering in the mountains of Afghanistan for years, while the West turned a blind eye.

The Banff festival also featured a seminar on war and the mountains, one that had been in the works for months, but which took on new relevance after Sept. 11. Among the speakers was Harish Kapadia, India’s best-known mountain climber. Kapadia briefed the audience on another remote mountain conflict that has gone largely unnoticed in the West. This centres on the Siachen Glacier, near the northeastern border between India and Pakistan, part of a larger struggle over Kashmir. Thousands of soldiers have died in the Kashmiri conflict, including Kapadia’s 24-year-old son, Nawang, who was shot last November as he tried to aid a fallen comrade. Kapadia is now lobbying for the creation of a trans-boundary “peace park” to try to defuse tensions. “I can only hope,” he says, “that one day soldiers will be replaced by mountaineers.”

Kapadia, on his first trip to North America, also served as a member of the festival’s film jury. He told Macleans he was impressed by the way organizers had brought together mountaineers from around the world, adding that language differences at such events pose no barrier. “If it’s about mountains, we can chat for hours, even if it’s just by sign language,” he laughs. When it comes to their shared passion, mountain people speak as one. El