Blown away by the Banff Blue

John Edwards

The 7th Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour came to Birmingham Town Hall on Saturday 5th March, with their Blue programme of 7 films showing at 2.30pm and their Red programme of 6 films at 7.30pm. I chose to turn up on ‘spec’ (thus saving over £3 on booking fees) for the afternoon programme as I’d already seen the main climbing film in the evening set at “Reel Rock 10” at the Crescent Theatre last September. 370 films entered the 9 day Canadian Festival last November and the best of them are given 1,000+ screenings when they tour 40 countries. The estimated worldwide audience is over half a million and I thought I’d give a flavour of this year’s tour as you may be able to catch it somewhere else. It’s at Keswick 27 - 20 April & it finishes in GB in Kilkenny on 28th May; plus lots of clips and images end up on YouTube & other internet sites.

1st up was “55 Hours in Mexico” - a 9 minute film which explores ‘the limits of the ‘weekend warrior’. It follows 4 friends who’s crazy plan is a weekend from sea level California with the aim of climbing and skiing down the 3rd highest peak in North America - the continent’s highest volcano Orizaba, which at 5636m (18,490 ft) is just 6 metres lower than Elbrus. They fly to Veracruz, hire a car (should have been a 4x4 - AND they forgot a road map!) and drive up to the Piedra Grande Hut to start the climb, after 2 hrs kip, at 4260m. The ‘net says “a fit team should be able to summit in 6-10 hrs” and, because they were lucky with the weather and didn’t suffer from mountain sickness (much), they succeeded and were able to enjoy a spectacular ski descent down 35 degree slopes before returning to work on Monday morning. Now there’s a challenge to WBMC’s weekend warriors!

2nd film “Operation Moffat” was the BMC’s tribute to Britain’s first female mountain guide and author of “Space Below My Feet”, who celebrated her 90th birthday 12 months ago with an ascent of Great Dodd. After 6 years in the Land Army & Auxiliary Territorial Service, Gwen Moffat met a climber in 1946 and deserted, so that she could dedicate her life to the pursuit of mountains and steep rock. The 20 min film explores how 2 young female climbers are inspired to live more like Moffat: to try to worry less about the future & go wild more in the ‘now’, by alternating sequences of them climbing colourfully with B&W footage of Gwen doing the same routes. The famous ’stills’ of bikini-clad, barefoot Gwen on sea cliffs are there, plus some great quotes from the great lady:-“I didn’t climb hard but I did climb well”; “I was very much in love with the mountains”; “I think I was only benighted 3 times!”; “I don’t miss them (the climbs & mountains) because I have my memories so they’re a part of me” and one that might apply to us all sometime, “Looking back it feels like it was somebody else!”

Extracts of the BMC film are available free via the web.

The final film before the interval had won the ‘People’s Choice Award’ & featured an even greater ‘death wish’: paddling a canoe over Niagara Falls - apparently Jesse Sharpe paddled over the edge in a decked canoe in 1990 without a helmet or lifejacket and his body has never been recovered! This 30 minute film follows 24 year old Mexican professional kayaker Rafa Ortiz & his team of fellow canoeists & photographers from the time 3 years ago when he decided he wanted to be the first to successfully descend the 167ft Horseshoe Falls from the Canadian side in a kayak. To train for this he & his team repeated the descent of the 189ft Pelouse Falls in Washington on which Tyler Bradt set the world record in April 2009 (see video on the National Geographic website) and completed the World Record Steepest descent on the Santo Domingo River, Chiapas in Mexico. Amazing head-cam footage on this, and on Ague Azul nearby which they descended a few days later, during which the Gerd Serrasolses almost drowned. The first 60ft big fall should have been routine but the Spaniard missed a couple of hand-rolls to right himself and ended up floating lifelessly at the bottom of the falls 3 and a 1/2 minutes after going over the top. The team got him ashore and Rush Sturges & Ortiz started giving CPR. As the internet account says, and the “Chasing Niagara” film shows, ‘the scene, captured inadvertently by Serrasolses’s helmet-mounted camera, is almost unbearably raw.’ 4 minutes later life flickered back to Gerd’s face and he made a total recovery after being helicoptered to hospital and given oxygen

This near-miss had consequences, for when day zero for Niagara arrived Ortiz decided he didn’t feel like it. It wasn’t just the drop, although the positive vibes on this had gone, there was the possibility of a $10,000 fine and a ban from the authorities that would exile him from Canada where he worked as an instructor. And if something went horribly wrong, his mates could be charged with manslaughter & get a life sentence. So Niagara Falls await a kayak descent but the sponsors, Red Bull, had invested a great deal of money in the project so the remarkable film was completed, along with archive footage of 63 yr old Annie Taylor going over in a barrel in 1901! The film also pointed out that a ‘flat landing’ is possible in a kayak on drops of up to 40 ft but anything higher than that and there is a risk of a broken back, so kayakers must get the nose down and enter vertically. Some ditch the paddle on the descent to avoid the risk of it smashing into their face, but that makes the roll to right the vessel at the base of the fall far riskier. Fascinating stuff!

During the interval Cotswold were giving out ‘goody bags’ (I got one) & several raffle prizes were given out (I was unlucky). I also tweeted a plug ‘n photo for the WBMC!

The 5th film “Eclipse” was my favourite as it showed fantastic images of Svalbard, a place I loved when I visited in 2009. Photographer Reuben Krabbe became famous when he captured a skier descending with a backdrop green curtain of Northern lights and his dream was to capture a skier silhouetted by a total solar eclipse. He estimated there would only be 3 opportunities to do this in his lifetime and the 1st would be on 20 March 2015 when a total eclipse would be visible from the Faroe Islands & the mountainous Norwegian archipelago. The latter’s terrain creates a much more spectacular backdrop for skiing so he and 3 skiers spent 2 weeks camping on the Fridtjov-breen Glacier, scouting and preparing for the shoot. In Svalbard during March skies are cloudy 60% of the time but they were lucky and Krabbe, positioned over a kilometre away from the skiers got many brilliant images before, during & after the 2 mins 28 seconds of totality. Should you & I have taken the chance too and been there?! No matter, as you can see his great photos easily if you Google him...and the full 30 minute film I paid to see is available free online on the Big Lines website.

The penultimate film “The Important Places” won the ‘Best Short Mountain Film’ but no mountains featured during the 10 minutes! Rather it followed a son trying to get his father on a journey to recapture the past. 43 years ago Doug had paddled the Grand Canyon and his son hoped repeating the trip in November 2013 would help him learn what his father was like as a young man and re-discover something about ‘the important places’ that form our memories. It was a good film but annoyingly Forest Woodward kept stressing how old his father was - and he was only 70 ish (well 77 actually) and the ageism spoilt it for me.

I did like the Heraclitus quote, however: ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.’

The final film “Showdown At Horseshoe Hell” I halfremembered from Reel Rock 10 - maybe I dozed off in places then! In 20 minutes it describes the wildest event in the climbing world, held in September at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Arkansas, when elite climbers and novices alike try to amass as many ‘points’ as possible in 24 hours of continuous climbing. Teams of 2 get points for every climb they complete (without a fall) & points based on the difficulty of the route. Last year ace climber Alex Honnold & his girlfriend (who was more of a runner than a climber) were up against Nik Berry & Mason Earle, who had Tod Johnson - the 1st ever champion in 2007, as a trainer plotting their campaign. To beat the record points total his schedule for them to complete a route every 3 minutes! At 10am on the Friday a shotgun started the teams running to the cliff face. Honnold couldn’t be bothered to climb anything easier than 5.7 and the film showed the shock & amusement caused when he fell off one! By the time head torches had to be switched on for the overnight climbing, most climbers’ fingers were well masked in tape & chalk and muscles were aching with lactic acid. By the time dawn broke, the climbing problems during last 4 hours exacerbated by lack of sleep & problems with motivation. At 10am on the Saturday everybody crashes out, waking in the late afternoon to hear the results which are followed by a full-on climber’s party. For the record, the individual points record was 34,000 & team total 67,690 set in 2014 by a team that did 201 routes during their 24 hours of climbing

As you can read on Honnold regained the individual points record, completing something like 150 pitches, averaging around 5.11c, worth 43,490 points. However, Berry (39,410 points) & Earle (37,900 points), with the help of Tod Johnson, set a new record for team score of 77,310. The film ended with 24 yr old Nik looking straight into the camera, smiling and saying “I will never return... EVER!”

You might also be able to catch something of the Red Programme online so here are the films that were shown in the evening at the Town Hall:

  • “A Line Across The Sky” (40 mins) The Fitzroy Traverse (7 summits spanning 4 miles with 13,000 ft of extreme climbing) was completed during a rare extended weather window by big wall climbers Tommy Caldwell & Alex Honnold in a 5-day push & this won them the Piolet d’Or award. A great film I’d seen before (and you can watch a 7 min trailer on or buy the whole film from Vimeo for $19.99.
  • “Denali” (8 mins) Celebrates the bond between humans (Ben Moon) and dogs (Denali). The latter wouldn’t move from Moon’s hospital bedside when he was being treated for cancer in 2004 so, years later, when Denali’s health started to decline (cancer again) Ben repays his 4-legged friend by visiting some of their favourite places one last time. Quotes include “Life isn’t always how you expect it, but when you’re there for each other, that’s what matters,” & “I like the smell of balls” Unless you hate dogs you MUST have a look at this one! Typing “Denali dog” will find it on YouTube!
  • “Pretty Faces” (11 mins) An all-female ski film celebrating women who thrive in the snow, featuring big mountain skier Rachel Burks’ first ever visit to Alaska.
  • “Curiosity” (13 mins) About ultra-marathoners Bosio, Olson & Koerner as they prepared for the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc. It’s another one that’s on YouTube!
  • “Unbranded” (43 mins) Four young Texans adopt, train & ride a string of wild horses 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada, with the aim of proving the worth of wild horses and raise awareness about their plight.
  • “Unreal” (12 mins) A mountain-biking film for ‘the dreamers, the rule-breakers, the ones who never grow up, the ones who know the way into the unReal world’ made by Teton Gravity Research.
This article was written by John Edwards and published on this website on the 28th March 2016