The Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival 2017 – Part One

The Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival is the largest and one of the most prestigious mountain festivals in the world. Hundreds of film and book entries are submitted from around the world and most events at the Banff Centre sell out during the weeklong extravaganza. Following the festival, many of the best films are selected to be shown around the globe as part of the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour.

For decades we have attended the World Tour when it arrived in Southern California and have thrilled at the amazing films. Each year we say to ourselves how much fun it would be to go to Banff for the actual festival. This year we decided not to put it off any longer and made reservations. But we didn’t just want to be tourists at the festival, as much fun as that would be, we wanted to give of ourselves and volunteer also.

This would not be our first trip to Banff. We honeymooned in Banff, Jasper, and Lake Louise and made a return trip several years later to hike among some of the most picturesque mountains and valleys you can imagine. The Canadian Rockies have been promoted as “50 Switzerlands in One” and while that is obviously a gross overstatement, having been to both the Swiss Alps and the Canadian Rockies I can state unequivocally the Canadian Rockies are as beautiful, and far more wild, as anything in the Alps. (Though at their peak, there are probably fifty times more mosquitoes in the Canadian Rockies.)

Last month we flew to Calgary and from there made the beautiful drive west to Banff; the scenery gets grander and grander the closer you get. As luck would have it, our trip coincided with the sesquicentennial anniversary of Canada. To help celebrate, Parks Canada offered free admission to all Canadian national parks in 2017, of which Banff is one. We procured our free pass earlier this year and were happy to save on the price of admission.

The festival’s opening evening featured the world premiere of ‘Bonington – Mountaineer’, a retrospective of the life of one of the England’s most famous climbers. I’ve read many of Bonington’s books since I first began climbing and have long marveled at his adventures. The film was a wonderful overview of his climbs and accomplishments while also detailing the devastating loss of his many friends who died on his expeditions.

Following the film and intermission, Sir Chris Bonington was interviewed by writer and climber Geoff Powter. This wasn’t your typical light-hearted interview you might see on late-night TV, rather it was a deep, personal, and probing discussion and a few times Bonington became quite emotional and needed a moment to gather himself. The following morning, Bonington stopped by the Banff Centre to sign copies of his books, including a new autobiography: Ascent. I was one of many standing in a queue, eager to meet this legend and to let him know how much I’ve enjoyed reading about his decades of adventures.

Later the same day we attended two film screenings: this is, after all, a film festival. Perhaps the best part of watching the films in Banff is the opportunity to hear the producers and filmmakers introduce their projects and learn about some of the challenges and backstories. There is also the chance to talk with them during the festival.

This is the key difference in experience between the World Tour and the actual festival: the World Tour is an afternoon or evening of movies, maybe two shows, depending on the location. Fun to be sure, but one dimensional. In Banff, the festival is nine days of films, books, interviews, discussions, arts & crafts, storytelling, and meeting people whose names many of us have only read about. Plus there is the opportunity to hike and explore Banff and the surrounding area. There is so much to do and it’s quite impossible to do it all.

The main reason the festival is held when it is — the “off-season” that is the end of October/beginning of November — is summer is long over, temperatures are in the 30s during the day and much colder at night; the days are getting shorter, more noticeable in Canada’s northern latitude; ski season hasn’t started yet; it’s too cold to rock climb, but the ice climbs have yet to form. If you’re the chamber of commerce, you need something to bring in visitors, preferably something indoors, like a film festival. Forty-two years since its inception, the Banff Festival is going strong, but because of the size of the Banff Centre, the festival can’t grow too large.

After the opening weekend there is a slight lull in the festival, making Monday a perfect day to check out the local trails. Opportunity abounds for the hiker prepared for the cold conditions. We headed north of town to Stoney Squaw, a 6,170-foot knoll between Mount Norquay and Cascade Mountain. There was a thin coating of crusty snow at the trailhead, a sign Old Man Winter was just around the corner.

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The hike is slightly under three miles round trip, but what it lacks distance, it makes up for in views. Thankfully the snow along the trail wasn’t deep and we enjoyed our time, not surprisingly alone, on top.

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A storm was due the following evening with snow and clouds forecasted through the end of the week, along with a considerable drop in the ambient temperature, which made us especially appreciative for blue skies and an afternoon above freezing. We hoped to visit another trail the next day, provided the weather cooperated. (To be continued…)