Epic cycling, tough climbs and elemental suffering: the Banff Mountain Film Festival | adventure travel

TThe last two years have been tough at times for those who enjoy outdoor sports. Climbers with no rocks on their doorstep have ruined themselves by elbows hanging from door frames. Cyclists have invested in indoor training equipment. For many, getting outside meant running in nearby parks and running to hills and lakes whenever the opportunity arose.

While outdoor adventure documentaries have long been a staple of this community, the pandemic has given them new meaning as a reminder of a world beyond working from home and trying to stay fit.

Danny MacAskill in The Plates. Photo: Dave Mackison

The Banff Mountain Film Festival has long showcased the best of the genre and in recent years has taken it touring too, showing at 50 venues across the UK and Ireland for the remainder of the year.

Some of the films will be familiar to many, but they are worth watching on a big screen. In this category is The Slabs, featuring Scottish mountain biker Danny MacAskill’s terrifying descent from the 500m Dubh Slabs on the Isle of Skye.

The film, which was filmed during lockdown in 2020, was viewed millions of times when it was first released online last year. I’ve watched it several times, and MacAskill’s descent from the steepest section, a rounded ridge of bare granite, still has my heart in my mouth.

Danny MacAskill with his bike
Danny MacAskill in The Slabs Photo: Dave Mackison

“Like all of us, 2020 has taken a few curves in terms of travel and plans for the year,” MacAskill said. “I spent the first few months of lockdown driving by myself. As lockdown eased a bit we decided to go out and try to make some movies. I figured I’d start looking near home.

“The Dubh Slabs are a well-known climbing route used by rock climbers and mountaineers to access the Cuillin Ridge. It’s that long, long, bare slab of rock that rises out of Loch Coruisk.

“We ended up filming the slabs in two days instead of one. We got a lot of the lines I dreamed of doing on the first day, but towards the end the cloud came and the last plate was blocked because it started to rain. I tried to go all the way down, much to the dismay of my friends.

“The bike got a bit out of control when I was about 50 meters off the ground. Luckily I got it back. I don’t think it was very nice with my friends watching. I was on the edge of control. The tires were 99% at their grip limit and the brakes were right on the limit too.”

Another mountain bike theme is ‘Follow the Light’, which sees pro cyclist Kilian Bron travel to Cappadocia in Turkey to ride among the photogenic ‘fairy chimneys’ – the unique towers clustered on the high plateau of Central Anatolia.

Killion Bron rides through the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia under a cloud of hot air balloons
Kilian Bron in Cappadocia, under a cloud of hot air balloons. Photo: Jb Liautard
Killion Bron tackles narrow paths in the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia
Kilian Bron negotiates narrow paths between the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia Photo: Jb Liautard

He is often seen riding under a cloud of hot air balloons, but the now spectacular scene sees Bron following a drone-mounted torch through a narrow canyon at night.

The film’s French director, Pierre Henni, says: “[That shot] lasted three evenings and we had to experiment a lot.

Bron lit by a torch mounted on a drone through a narrow canyon at night
Bron lit by a torch mounted on a drone through a narrow canyon at night Photo: Jb Liautard

“It was almost pitch black, so the only light source for the drone pilot and driver (as well as the filmer and photographer) was this flare on the drone, so it had to stay close to Kilian. Once the torch ended. We had to put on our headlights so the drone operator could see the landing zone.”

Shot in Germany’s Frankenjura, Action Directe features a different kind of sweaty hands. It follows French star climber Melissa Le Nevé’s protracted quest to be the first woman to scale the great limestone promontory from which the film takes its title – nearly 30 years after the late Wolfgang Güllich made the first ascent

Climber is overhanging rock
French climber Melissa Le Neve in Action Direct by Fabian Buhl. Photo: Fabian Buehl

Climbing the short but heavily overhanging wall in the forest near Bayreuth requires a series of movements on individual finger pockets in the rock, all clearly shown in the film, and a dramatic jump to hold.

Yet all of this seems neat alongside Exit the North Pole, which follows famed polar traveler Børge Ousland and his colleague Mike Horn’s attempt to make a minimalist 1,300km traverse of the thinning ice of the Arctic Ocean.

Börge Ousland and Mike Horn in polar gear
Exit the North Pole follows Boerge Ousland and Mike Horn’s attempt to traverse the thinning ice of the Arctic Ocean

The pair used pack rafts and ski poles to navigate the thinnest of ice when they couldn’t ski, and the resulting film depicts an exercise in elemental suffering in a place few of us will ever visit.

“When it’s dark 24 hours a day, everything becomes much more difficult,” Ousland said. “You only see the small beam of your headlamp – this is your world. You have no idea what’s behind you. A polar bear can sneak up on you without realizing it.”

Raven, 13, in British Columbia in A Dog's Tale
Raven, 13, in British Columbia in A Dog’s Tale

If that sounds like tough stuff, there are several more playful films on the lineup, including A Dog’s Tale.

Anyone who has gone trail running or mountain biking with their dog will feel an instant connection. This is the story of Raven, a 13-year-old retired walking dog who lives in Squamish, British Columbia. While it’s a twist on a familiar format — mountain bikers leaping over berms in slow motion — its real charm is the dogs tearing down the descents with their owners.

Completely different is the award-winning Dream Mountain, which follows Nepalese mountaineer Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita, who scaled 6,440 meters in Cholatse in the Everest region with her husband and two-year-old son in November 2019.

Small figure with a baby on his back in front of a huge mountain peak
The Nepalese mountaineer Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita in the dream mountain Photo: Cira Crowell

Pasang, Nepal’s first mountaineer and the first Nepalese to scale K2 – the second highest mountain in the world – finds the Cholatse expedition with her son in tow different. Now she has to deal with the conflicts between her climbing dream and her sense of responsibility.

Pasang with her son in her backpack
Pasang with her son Photo: Cira Crowell

“One morning I was interviewing Pasang on a ridge overlooking Mount Everest and the village of Khumjung where she was born,” says filmmaker Cira Crowell. “She struggled to express the challenges she faced growing up – when she was told climbing and mountains were inappropriate for girls.

“A bell rang in the cold air and the pupils at Sir Edmund Hillary School poured out of the stacked stone buildings to form neat lines for the morning meeting. It triggered a memory in Pasang, who said, “You know, all these guys down there can do whatever they want in life. The girls can’t. All girls should also be able to follow their dreams. ‘

“It was a mic drop moment as we reflected on the fate of the girls below and how limited their options still are. That moment embodied the central theme of Dream Mountain.”

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