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The Best of Banff - A Tour de Force

Author : Rob Howard

PhotoCredit : Banff Mountain Film Festival Tour

Only the lucky few outdoor aficionados can make it to Banff for the world renowned annual Film Festival, but fear not – the best of the films go on tour each year in the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour.  It’s a night out that is a firm fixture on my calendar, and a great many other peoples too as the tour now visits 45 countries, with 1100 screenings and a total audience of 500,000!

In the UK and Ireland alone there are 105 screenings and I was lucky enough to get to see the Red Programme at De Montfort Hall in Leicester recently. There are so many good films each year the tour runs two programmes (Red and Blue) so you have to go to whatever is at your local venue, or travel and see both! (I know many who do that.)

The programmes are a mix of shorts and features, typically with 7 or 8 films to a show. They span continents and are a mix of film styles and subjects. The red programme began this year with a profile piece on 90 year old ice skater Yvonne Dowlen and a 4 minute film entitled ‘Imagination’ where some exceptional freestyle skiing footage brought to life a child’s daydreams of adventure while on a car journey.

For the mountain bikers there was a showing of ‘Intersection’ about downhiller and artist Micayla Gatto, a visual mix of art and adventure, as she rode through her own paintings and explained how to her the flow of brush strokes creating a landscape on paper and riding into berms were a similar experience.  (It’s a film we’ve featured on SleepMonsters before.)

There was more freestyle skiing to come too in ‘Ice Call – Backyard Project’ where Sam Favret turned the Mer de Glace into ski-park of half-pipes, jumps and tunnels. It was 3 minutes of balletic glacier exploration.

There was a strong winter theme to this particular programme and this was reflected in two of feature films. The first to show was ‘Into Twin Galaxies’ and it was real show-stopper! Twin Galaxies is the name given to two rivers flowing from the Greenland Ice Cap, previously unvisited ... and not surprisingly never kayaked before!

There is no such thing as a blank on the map any more, this location was more of a call to the wild on Google Earth for adventurers Ben Stookesbury, Sarah McNair-Landry and Erik Boomer. And it was a very wild prospect as the rivers flowed through a glacier and were accessed by a 1000km traverse of the ice cap by kite-ski.  What more could a free-spirited adventurer want?

Epic is an overused word, but this trip was, and it was made harder by difficult ice conditions and then an accident when Sarah was lifted 10m off the ice and crashed down on her back and neck. (The three waited for 5 days until she could move on.) The kite-ski footage almost lifted the audience out of their seats and when the trio found the river it was frozen so they had to slide their kayaks down a thin blue ribbon inside the belly of the glacier, passing under unstable ice bridges through glittering tunnels.

By this time the audience was well and truly agog, aghast and astonished. One of the great features of these festival shows is the audience reaction and you could almost rate the films on the sighs, nervous laughs and gasps. Twin Glaciers was well on the way to a noisy five-star review but there was plenty more to come.

When the team reached a semi-frozen lake which was (on google anyway) the source of the river descent they wanted to make, there was no river! When they found it, after their month long ice cap crossing and glacier descent, it was a mere trickle ... which was described by Boomer as ‘slightly disappointing’. That got a big laugh.

There was to be no damp squib ending though as the second river offered up a fast flowing descent through the ice cap and several jaw dropping waterfall runs taken on first sight, and in true wilderness with no help or support for thousands of miles around. It was committed kayaking and I think the audience were 50/50 cringing/cheering by now. No one was heading for the rest room ahead of the interval but everyone probably needed a drink.

The team made it to the ocean on a day when the water was slush and their spray skirts froze in seconds and could not be fitted. (Sarah McNair-Landry later found out she had done almost the whole trip with a broken back and ribs.)

It was a stunning film and the talk of the interval, but there was plenty more to come and we were soon back in the frozen wastes with lone adventurer Ben Page of Yorkshire. He is riding around the world and his film ‘The Frozen Road’ covered his time in arctic Canada.

This was a very different film as it was self-shot and produced, and focused on the harsh truths of travelling alone and the emotional as well as the physical challenges. Following a frozen river, where a dangerous wolf pack roamed, he was rescued a one point by locals who came out on Skidoos, with a ‘body sled’ tied on behind. His fears in the night, camped out alone in storms at -30C with the wolves howling around him had been justified.

Lastly there was ‘Stumped’ – the story of American climber Maureen Beck who was born missing her lower left arm.  Much of the film follows her repeated attempts to climb a 5.12 route until she finally succeeds, but it is also about her wish to be recognised as a good climber, not a good one-armed climber. Both the real and spoof TV news footage about one-armed and one-legged climbers were laugh a minute and the film was full of humour and candour.

 I’d say it was ‘inspirational’ but the climbers in the film are not shy of saying they are not out there climbing to be anyone’s inspiration, but because they want to be.

All in all it was another enlightening and enthralling night of films from the Banff World Tour and the audience came out into the cold night air of Leicester with visions of wider horizons ... and they probably were inspired too!

The tour in the UK and Ireland is ongoing through May and you can find dates for all locations around the world at https://www.banffcentre.ca/banffmountainfestival/tour

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