by Steven Threndyle
Most backcountry skiers and mountain enthusiasts go to the hills to escape the trappings of everyday life – commuter traffic, too tiny inner-city apartments, jobs that demand 24/7 attention – the list goes on. A week-long break in the Selkirks or Purcells or Rocky mountain ranges or even in Alaska put us all back in touch with our most elemental selves.
Paradoxically though, mountain folk actually do like to socialize with each other, and are remarkably integrated into our everyday society. Lawyers, doctors, accountants, even real estate developers and backhoe operators – indeed, you never quite know what the person you might be sharing an Alpine Club of Canada hut does for a living.
What's striking about the encounters, however, is that backcountry skiers and mountain-culture lovers share similar tribal interests, and those interests are now manifesting themselves in a variety of festivals that occur throughout the year.
First and foremost are the mountain-film festivals. In the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, the Banff Mountain Film Festival takes place in early November and serves as the perfect “in-between season” event. Days are short and the snowpack and ice routes are usually meager, so outdoor enthusiasts can hunker down for a week and feast their eyes on visual presentations from all over the world. Virtually every top climber in the world, from Tommy Caldwell (known for his ascent of Yosemite's Dawn Wall) to Walter Bonatti, has presented at Banff. Decades before there was such a thing as a TED Talk, there were the Banff mountain lectures held in late autumn. In fact, the Festival's popularity goes well beyond its Rocky Mountain roots.
Banff was not the first mountain-film festival, but it is the best-known due to the strength of its world tour. The extremely popular “Best of Banff” tour takes award-winning and other notable selections from each year's competition (keep in mind that film festivals are actually juried competitions, with prizes being awarded in a variety of different categories). This tour, sponsored by such heavyweights as National Geographic and The North Face, ventures to many countries and spreads the message of mountain culture far and wide.
Many other notable festivals gather the backcountry tribes in various “peak-y” locales around North America. Eastern European climber Alan Formanek moved to Vancouver, B.C. in 1996 and started showing less commercial, more artistic fare than the Banff and other festivals were presenting. The Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival has just wrapped up its 19th year, and brought mountaineering luminaries such as Kevin Jorgeson and Lynn Hill to the Festival, while screening creative films such as Mike Douglas' Snowman, based on a real-life helicopter crash in the Coast Mountains.
The IF3 Festival in Montreal, Que. celebrates freestyle and powder skiing, while Colorado's Telluride Mountainfest is North America's longest-running extravaganza dedicated to mountain adventure. Internationally, there is the Kendal Mountain Festival (United Kingdom), the Trento (Italy) and others in Poland, Slovenia, Argentina, Austria and Switzerland.
For backcountry enthusiasts looking for something a little more hands-on, there are festivals and seminars where you can learn new skills and share information for a relatively cheap price. In B.C.'S Kootenays, the Coldsmoke Festival is now in its 10th year. Originally sponsored by Arc'teryx Equipment Inc., Coldsmoke truly defines “tribal gathering,” as people gather from throughout B.C. and Washington State to learn about the latest trends in avalanche safety and backcountry travel.
Perhaps the most exciting festivals are two new ones that have just appeared in the past two B.C. winters. In Revelstoke/rogers Pass, the Canuck Splitfest is dedicated to using split snowboards (ones that detach and become “skis” for climbing uphill, and then re-attach for the ride back down) to explore the backcountry. It's been a very well-received local event, which is no surprise given the rabid core of ski mountaineers who live in the Revelstoke area.
Last winter, Ross Berg of Whistler's Altus Mountain Guides organized the very first Winterstoke Backcountry Ski Festival, which emphasized safe, effective mountain travel throughout the Coast Range and the Sea to Sky Corridor. With B.C. courses happening in Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton, participants are able to cover a wide range of locales and examine new routes and ways of seeing a region that has become world-famous for split-boarding in the past dozen years.
At their best, mountain festivals celebrate everything we love about nature and the people with whom we share those adventures. If you feel the need to experience what mountain culture is all about, don't miss any of these tremendously life-affirming events.