Twenty-two years ago, the Banff Mountain Film Festival made its debut at the University of Utah. The inaugural year attracted only 125 viewers. For this year, the venue was sold out. The World Tour features the top 30 films selected by the Banff jury from 300. Stopping in over 200 cities in North America alone, the tour has become a healthy addiction for many outdoor enthusiasts.
The films ranged in duration from two minutes to an hour, and each one showcased a unique cast and plot. Spirited, insightful, hilarious, nerve-racking and inspiring describe the various films shown over the three-day period. You can catch the most action-packed, high-adrenaline films from the festival at the Rad Reels showing in Salt Lake on Thursday, Feb. 28 at Kingsbury Hall. Here are a few that stood out:
The Gimp Monkeys is a documentary about a group of disabled climbers aimed at ascending the formidable Zodiac Route on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Each member has a disability that would discourage most individuals from trying to accomplish such an endeavor. Of the three-man team, one is missing an arm below the elbow and the other two each use a prosthetic leg. The determination of these men to stay true to their passion is remarkable. “We are climbers first and disabled second,” says one of the men. Spending four nights and five days on the big wall is no mean feat. Hauling hundreds of pounds of gear and sleeping on portable ledges that are barely wider than a bus-stop bench is the norm. As the team works its way upward, numerous challenges present themselves, and even the most physical specimens get turned away—but not this crew. They persevere and fight their way to the top. Reaching the summit it is clear that there is no excuse to not follow what you love. This represented the first all-disabled ascent of El Cap.
The Last of the Great Unknown. Salt Lake City native and avid canyoneer Dan Ransom has a problem. He and his amigos spend the better part of each year traversing the Grand Canyon in search of impossibly small slot canyons to explore and descend. Using wetsuits, harnesses and short pieces of rope, they repel into chasms untouched by humans. Sometimes they don’t know what to expect and improvisation is the name of the game. Drawing inspiration from the great explorers of the Grand Canyon is what has kept Ransom and company searching for what lies just below the shadows. The team does what is considered expedition-style canyoneering. Each member carries a pack that is no less than fifty pounds and contains all the necessary survival gear for such a dubious task. “Will the rope be long enough?” is the question of the day. Wading through chest-deep pools of icy water is another treat that awaits these intrepid adventurers. At the end of their journey into the depths awaits the mighty Colorado River. They then unpack their tiny, one-man rafts and float gently downstream to their pull-out spot. The culmination of the last five years and 130 first descents leaves the men wanting more. They estimate that it will take them another four years to finish the remaining 70 projects on their list.
Wild Bill’s Run chronicles American folk hero Bill Cooper. It follows his legendary and audacious trans-continental snowmobile expedition from Minnesota to Moscow. The beginning of the film comes with the disclaimer that “the following story is often true.” Set in the 1970’s Cold War era, the movie focuses on a group of friends and family that embark on a journey to cross the arctic on small snow machines over the course of several months. Cooper’s bearded and burly physique makes him standout amongst the group and his background comes to life. Leaving home at age 13, Cooper learned to fend for himself in the woods of northern Canada. Venturing out for long periods on his own made him self-sufficient and crafty. Teaming up with his step son and close friends for this one-of-a-kind trek garnered all sorts of attention the world over. Starting in Willow River, Minnesota, the seven-man team forged ahead into the wild, snowy environs of Canada. Myriad problems plagued the expedition and left several of the members asking, “What am I doing here?” Cooper’s response was generally, “Well, everyone has to be somewhere.” This jovial film is aimed at the heart of the explorer and is replete with a mysterious and dedicated cast of characters. From the camera man to the logistics manager, each has a unique attitude that made the plan work. Working with the Inuit people of Canada and Greenland saved their lives when running out of fuel out on the ice. Stormy weather and equipment ill adapted for the job made for a challenging day-to-day existence. Finally reaching Devon Island and open water, they decided to cache their sleds and equipment and return the following year better prepared. Over the next year, the group disintegrated and Cooper had to find a few other outlandish souls to accompany him on the last leg.
The second part of the journey began where they left off. However, the cache of food and sleds had been ripped apart by a polar bear and it forced the group to reconsider their objectives. They carried on undeterred and trusted Cooper because they had no one else to trust. Arriving in Thule, Greenland the group could go no further. They were on the lamb from Greenland authorities due to illegal entry to the country and had run out of supplies. Admitting that it was not possible to complete their mission, the men headed home battered and disheveled.
A few year’s after returning home, it came to light that Cooper was a drug runner and had been involved in a sophisticated marijuana smuggling operation. His exploits forced him into hiding and he was never heard from again. The friends he left behind from their expedition couldn’t believe what they heard. Eventually, the name Wild Bill Cooper became a rumor on the lips of people across the continent. What really happened to this bearded man has yet to be discovered.
Flow Hunters. Rush Sturges and his posse of fearless kayakers have put together a film about the wild rivers of New Zealand. Finding the most secluded areas to paddle has been a life goal of the crew. Chartering a helicopter to drop them into the nether reaches of the west coast allows them to find such seclusion. Technical Class V rapids await them and certain death looms at every corner. While navigating a steep section of river, local paddler Jordy gets pinned against an undercut rock. The team struggles frantically to free him using rescue ropes from the shoreline, but the power of the churning water proves too much. Jordy disappears under the surface. Fortunately he was able to eject from his boat and was flushed downstream a few hundred feet later. Facing the challenges of their 34-day mission keeps the men honest about what is possible and what should be risked so far away from home. Their final descent into the Tree Trunk Gorge requires a mandatory 20-foot drop into a tiny rift in the Earth. Flowing down canyon they realize moments of clarity where the body and soul agree. A truly mystical experience that will bring them back to these remote places again and again.
Industrial Revolutions. Scottish trials bike rider Danny MacAskill is at it again in this cleverly crafted film. Trials riding is a combination of balance and patience where the cyclist uses his bike to navigate across obstacles both natural and man-made—imagine gymnastics on a bicycle. Working his way through an abandoned train yard in Scotland, MacAskill jibs everything from train cars and tracks, to old iron works left behind from the industrial era. He even manages to find a steel cable strung across the yard and tightropes it in impossible style. Add in a few back flips and 360’s from feature to feature for good measure. It is clear that this man is at the forefront of his craft and inspires a younger generation to get out and pedal.
Mountains In Motion. Never before has the power and subtle changes of the mountains been so easy to witness. Shot over the course of one and a half years using time-lapse photography, the film captures the audience’s attention immediately. Snow turns to ice and then back to water. The barren landscape becomes lush and green and the clouds meander back and forth across the jagged peaks, all in the blink of an eye. The hills are alive and the spirit of the mountain explorer is awakened. Stunning photographical compositions of the natural environment of the Canadian Rockies astonish the viewer. The colors of Aurora Borealis reflected off the waters of lonely alpine lakes delight the senses and appeal to the soul of man (or woman).
The Boy Who Flies. Finding what is truly important in life is an elusive endeavor that consumes you for eternity. 30-year-old Benjamin Jordan had a dream to fly across his native Canada via paraglider. After achieving this goal, he was left with a hole in his heart. Nothing excited him anymore and he had nothing to wake up to—until he had a dream. In his dream, he had met a young man in Africa and taught him to paraglide. Awaking from this vision inspired Jordan to head across the Atlantic to Malawi. This tiny landlocked country is very poor, but it has some of the most astounding culture and hardworking people Jordan had ever seen. He soon met Godfrey, a young man with a dream to fly. Jordan was astounded that he was meeting his vision in the flesh. The two teamed up and struck out on a journey across the country to Mt. Mulanje. The fabled peak was said to be the place humans should not go because they will be enticed by the spirit and then led to their death. Jordan wanted to make a difference in the life of the regional people by showing them that they could live their dreams, no matter how outlandish. Jordan and Godfrey purchased bicycles and traveled across Malawi teaching school children the power of flight. They utilized newpaper and garbage collected from around the schoolyard at each village to craft small kites. The idea was to show the children that in order for their dreams to have wings, they needed to put in a little work. Jordan also wanted to help Godfrey learn to fly a paraglider. Each visit entailed the men teaching the kids to make kites and then head out to the village common and Godfrey would unpack the “Purple Dragon” and attempt to take flight. Failure was the ultimate result each time. Discouraged and heartbroken, Godfrey wanted to return to his home to help his family. “How can I stay here and play when my family needs me,” he lamented. Jordan refused to let him lose sight and the two pushed on towards Mulanje. Arriving in the foothills, they practiced day after day and worked with the village children on their kites. Jordan also experienced some emotional set backs as he was the “Adzunga” or white man. Everywhere he went, Adzunga, Adzunga, Adzunga. He began to grow frustrated and did not want to be seen as some over-privileged white tourist sticking cameras in people’s faces. It turns out that each man simply needed to embrace his position and carry on. “Ndizotheka”— “It is Possible”—became their chant around the village. Children thought their visions of flying from Mulanje were impossible, but they were determined to prove otherwise.
Climbing to the top of Mulanje put the fear in Godfrey. Ascending the mountain was very difficult and by the time they reached the summit, it was growing late. Jordan urged Godfrey to go first but he believed he would fall to his death. Through the power of song and spirit, Godfrey eventually took the leap. The wing captured the wind and soared into the sky. Emotion overtook young Godfrey and he marveled at the village below. His dream had come true. Jordan followed him over the vast plains and reveled in their accomplishments. Tears of joy streamed down Godfrey’s cheeks as he circled the landing zone. Cheers of “Ndizotheka” erupted from the children. Landing in the village finalized his belief that he could achieve the impossible. He also became the first paraglider pilot of Malawi and continues to inspire the youth to pursue their dreams.