The Writ­ten Word and the Banff Cen­tre

The Role of the Banff Cen­tre in Moun­tain Lit­er­a­ture

Gripped - - CONTENTS - by Jon Popowich

As a teenager, when my ear­li­est de­sires for moun­taineer­ing took form, I pored over ev­ery piece of writ­ing I could get my hands on. Some of my for­ays took place in li­braries and used book­shops as I quested for the sto­ries, pho­to­graphs and de­scrip­tions that would help draw the maps (men­tally and phys­i­cally) I would need for this strange new land. In those days, I had a lim­ited grasp of the mean­ing of much of what I read – some books were heav­ily laden with tech­ni­cal ter­mi­nol­ogy, and I was com­pletely ig­no­rant. I was hun­gry for all of it, but I couldn’t dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween in­struc­tion and nar­ra­tive, and I didn’t much care whether the ma­te­rial was cur­rent or I was read­ing about some­thing that had oc­curred in the 1930s.

Re­gard­less of my knowl­edge level, what did draw me in was the re­al­iza­tion that the ad­ven­tures and sit­u­a­tions de­scribed in those pages often con­tained a kind of “voice.” There were many times when I en­coun­tered words that were not just of ac­tions, but re­flec­tions and feel­ings, as the writ­ers tried to make sense of the land­scapes within them. In the best of these sto­ries, it ap­peared as though climb­ing led not just to sum­mits, but to lan­guage that gave shape to life and all of its ques­tions. It con­tin­ues to move me to this day.

Ex­pres­sion – gen­uine or oth­er­wise – is ev­ery­where now. Ev­ery sec­ond, “inf lu­encers,” vlog­gers and blog­gers share their thoughts, opin­ions and ad­ven­tures. An “ad­ven­ture” can be a dis­cus­sion of this af­ter­noon’s lead of a brit­tle WI6 pil­lar with min­i­mal pro­tec­tion, or it can be a dis­cus­sion of the drama in find­ing a suit­able ra­men spot in a for­eign city. It has never been so easy to share ev­ery­thing.

But good writ­ing – like good pho­tog­ra­phy or good film­mak­ing – is dif­fer­ent, and prob­a­bly doesn’t hap­pen by ac­ci­dent. It takes de­sire, but it also takes time, skill, prac­tice and ad­vice. For the climbers and ad­ven­tur­ers on this path, one of the most im­por­tant places where ex­pres­sion, com­mu­nity and recog­ni­tion all come to­gether is the an­nual Banff Cen­tre Moun­tain Film and Book Festival. Truly a global event,

film­mak­ers and writ­ers share the best of im­ages and words, much of it in com­pe­ti­tion for a se­ries of awards. But be­yond the festival, many peo­ple are un­aware of the other role the Banff Cen­tre has played in giv­ing shape to moun­tain writ­ing as we cur­rently know it.

For a num­ber of years, some­what of a wellspring has ex­isted at the Banff Cen­tre for Arts and Cre­ativ­ity, sup­port­ing students across many artis­tic dis­ci­plines in­clud­ing lit­er­ary arts. The Banff Moun­tain and Wilder­ness Writ­ing Pro­gram, as it is known in its lat­est in­car­na­tion, was launched by Bernadette Mcdon­ald, the founder of the moun­tain cul­ture pro­gram­ming in Banff. An award-win­ning author her­self, Mcdon­ald saw the need to not only show­case moun­tain lit­er­a­ture along­side films dur­ing the festival, but also “a train­ing/ ed­u­ca­tional pro­gram that would feed into the festival, and de­velop peo­ple into moun­tain writ­ers.” She formed a fac­ulty, which now con­sists of Marni Jack­son, a jour­nal­ist, writer and editor; Tony Whit­tome, who was editorial di­rec­tor at Ran­dom House

UK; and Har­ley Rus­tad, editor at The Wal­rus. The festival and the writ­ing pro­gram to­gether have slowly shaped the wilder­ness lit­er­a­ture world. Whit­tome says that while the fo­cus for the ear­lier par­tic­i­pants was moun­taineer­ing, the con­tent has broad­ened con­sid­er­ably since 2005. “In adding ‘wilder­ness’ to the ti­tle of the pro­gram, we can in­ter­pret this how­ever we like – wilder­ness of the soul, hik­ers, cy­clists. It’s the only moun­tain writ­ing pro­gram which is multi-genre. We’ve had books, pod­casts, a graphic novel, mag­a­zine ar­ti­cles, some po­etry and mem­oirs.”

Rus­tad de­scribes the for­mat of the writ­ing pro­gram as one of “un­in­ter­rupted space and shared ex­pe­ri­ence among the ed­i­tors, the fac­ulty and the oth­ers in the pro­gram. This re­ally helps bring forth what you’re work­ing on.” Jack­son adds, “We’re try­ing to make par­tic­i­pants write the best pos­si­ble piece and grow the craft. There’s a real fo­cus on the lit­er­ary stan­dards. And of course, we do touch on some as­pects of the pub­lish­ing busi­ness.”

The ef­fects of the festival and the pro­gram have been mean­ing­ful. Over the years, many pub­lished, nom­i­nated and award-win­ning ti­tles have been cat­alyzed there. Mcdon­ald said, “I’m pretty con­fi­dent that the festival has show­cased a num­ber of au­thors and helped their ca­reers. And the writ­ing pro­gram has done more than that, pro­vid­ing quiet time, dis­ci­pline, men­tor­ing and feed­back.”

Brian Hall is an ac­com­plished climber, guide, film­maker and writer, and along with John Porter was one of the main ar­chi­tects of the Ken­dal Moun­tain Festival in the U.K. He is also a re­cent par­tic­i­pant in the Banff Pro­gram, and sup­ports their over­all

ap­proach of the in­te­gra­tion of broader man­dates be­yond film. “At Ken­dal, we also wanted to fea­ture paint­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy,” he said. “The whole aim was to stim­u­late art. The role of fes­ti­vals is multi-branched; Ken­dal never had a writer men­tor­ing pro­gram, and I think Banff goes the next step by ac­tu­ally fa­cil­i­tat­ing writ­ers. It’s a nice en­vi­ron­ment for peo­ple to write in seclu­sion, plus you have ac­tive men­tor­ing with fac­ulty and in­ter­ac­tions be­tween writ­ers.”

The im­pacts and re­la­tion­ships of both the festival and the writ­ing pro­gram can be sub­tle and also longer term. Ge­off Powter is a climber, writer and editor, as a key speaker and fa­cil­i­ta­tor at the Banff Festival for many years, he has a broad per­spec­tive. His lat­est book, In­ner Ranges: An An­thol­ogy of Moun­tain Thoughts and Moun­tain Peo­ple, won the 2019 Climb­ing Lit­er­a­ture prize at the Banff Festival. Powter feels that Banff pro­vides a Cana­dian voice and pres­ence in the moun­tain lit­er­a­ture world that has been crit­i­cal, and that writ­ing can con­tain “more pauses and be more re­flec­tive than film. And the writ­ing com­mu­nity dur­ing the festival is very ac­ces­si­ble. Per­haps there’s a greater sense of ‘tribe’ be­tween writ­ers and read­ers than be­tween film­mak­ers and their au­di­ences, I’m not sure.” Powter also notes that the qual­ity of lit­er­a­ture con­tin­ues to grow: “The writ­ing pro­gram [in Banff] is a big in­flu­ence, and the par­tic­i­pants are top drawer. There are also the other lit­er­a­ture pro­grams at the Banff Cen­tre and we could see some cross­over be­tween par­tic­i­pants which would fur­ther raise the bar.”

In terms of these top-drawer par­tic­i­pants, few could ar­gue with the climb­ing and lit­er­ary qual­i­fi­ca­tions of Michael Kennedy. From 1974 to 1998, he was editor of Climb­ing, and from 2009 to 2012 he was editor-in-chief of Alpin­ist. Kennedy said that “af­ter only a week into the pro­gram, it by far ex­ceeded my al­ready lofty ex­pec­ta­tions. The set­ting, the sup­port – ev­ery­one here is se­ri­ous about the work, self-crit­i­cal, di­rect and hon­est, but not com­pet­i­tive, we’re all in this to­gether. The fac­ulty are skilled. I edited for a liv­ing and am fa­mil­iar with what that means.” He also de­scribed the pos­i­tive and po­ten­tially dis­tract­ing as­pects of the ad­ja­cency of the pro­gram to the festival, with all of the films, pan­els and pre­sen­ta­tions: “[They’re] very valu­able, but you have to have dis­ci­pline; fan­tas­tic con­ver­sa­tions, but you’re glad when the festival is done and you can dive back in. It’s been in­ter­est­ing to see the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the pro­gram and the festival. In terms of the in­flu­ence of this pro­gram and the tra­jec­tory of moun­tain lit­er­a­ture, I think Banff is very sig­nif­i­cant. I’ve fol­lowed the climb­ing side of it and what I’ve fol­lowed is strong. Many re­ally good books have come out of here.”

So what trends are we see­ing? Mcdon­ald feels that climb­ing lit­er­a­ture is per­haps more ret­ro­spec­tive than it’s been in years past. “The in­tro­spec­tion car­ries it to an­other level.” As does a his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive, some­thing she is well fa­mil­iar with in her work. “You need to look at the ac­tual ad­ven­ture you’re writ­ing about, in that time and his­tory that pre­ceded it. This has al­ways changed the way peo­ple do things. For ex­am­ple, no one is do­ing the mul­ti­month ex­pe­di­tions now, we have bet­ter fore­cast­ing, and the writ­ing re­flects this.”

Powter noted there is a gen­eral feel­ing that peo­ple are not read­ing as much now, at least books. “The pro­por­tion of peo­ple who climb and read is way less. At the gym, I asked peo­ple, ‘What’s the last moun­tain book you read?’ Hear­ing noth­ing, I then asked ‘OK, what’s the last book you read?’ Not many. Peo­ple spend a lot of time search­ing on­line or read­ing mag­a­zines. So that’s the crit­i­cal com­po­nent of the lit­er­ary side of Banff.” Both Powter and Kennedy sup­port the emer­gence of a guide­book cat­e­gory in the festival. In­deed, the past few years have seen guides which pos­sess not only util­i­tar­ian qual­i­ties, but lit­er­ary as­pects as well. Ben Tib­bets’s re­cent book Alpen­glow is a spec­tac­u­lar ex­am­ple of this in­ter­sec­tion.

There is dis­cus­sion about the in­crease in scope from what were once very moun­tain and/or climb­ing-spe­cific top­ics to now, as Whit­tome said, wilder­ness as a broad con­cept. Some call it a

“Climb­ing writ­ing can raise all kinds of deeper moral and ex­is­ten­tial virtues and ques­tions.”—tony Whit­tome

di­lu­tion. It’s a topic with strong opin­ions, al­though the fac­ulty tries to re­main ag­nos­tic. Jack­son in­di­cates that there is now in­creased writ­ing that in­cludes a Tro­jan horse to bring in mes­sages on things like bio­di­ver­sity, as well as more women writ­ing about ad­ven­ture. Rus­tad adds, “There are younger writ­ers now who re­ally want to work on en­vi­ron­men­tal sto­ries…in a way to add a whole other layer on top of out­doors writ­ing. There is this enor­mous push to go on a trip and see how that fits into a chang­ing world.” Whit­tome con­firmed, how­ever, that “climb­ing and moun­taineer­ing is es­sen­tial to the pro­gram and we’ve al­ways wanted to have that as a se­ri­ous fo­cus.”

The fu­ture seems pos­i­tive for moun­tain writ­ing. The Banff Festival, and the Moun­tain Wilder­ness and Writ­ing Pro­gram, ap­pear to be stim­u­lat­ing a lot of in­ter­est and en­gage­ment; there is, as Whit­tome says, “an enor­mous sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship be­tween them.” I noted dur­ing the 2019 festival, when lo­cal alpin­ist Ian Wel­sted was in­ter­viewed by Powter for the Voices of Ad­ven­ture se­ries, that he said, “I hope moun­tain lit­er­a­ture will get to the point of re­ally fine lit­er­a­ture. I think fic­tion could re­ally flour­ish into some­thing big­ger. I would like to write fic­tion. The cat­e­gory is wide open.” I’ve al­ways en­joyed Wel­sted’s writ­ing and can’t wait to read his fic­tion.

In all of this, Hall draws a sim­i­lar­ity to “pass­ing folk­lore around the camp­fire by telling tales. The festival is per­haps a tribal gath­er­ing, and the books, ar­ti­cles, po­etry is an ab­so­lutely im­por­tant part of this.” As Whit­tome points out, the prac­tice of climb­ing is in­tro­spec­tive and some of those qual­i­ties can lead to good writ­ing. “Climb­ing writ­ing can raise all kinds of deeper moral and ex­is­ten­tial virtues and ques­tions.” Climber, author and speaker Margo Tal­bot put it di­rectly: “Moun­tain writ­ing wouldn’t be where it is to­day if it wasn’t for the Banff pro­gram. These climbers didn’t know the power of their sto­ries.” Jon Popowich is a pho­tog­ra­pher and reg­u­lar Gripped book re­viewer. He’s based in Ed­mon­ton and

will be at the 45th Banff Cen­tre Moun­tain Film and Book Festival this fall.

Below: Don Gor­man, pub­lisher of Rocky Moun­tain Books, at the book festival Bot­tom left: Jan Red­ford sign­ing a book dur­ing the book festival

Left: Pat Morrow, the first climber to com­plete the Seven Sum­mits, signs a book at the festival

Bot­tom: David Smart, co-founder of Gripped, post-awards at the festival

Left: Leg­endary climber and author Allen Steck

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