“You shouldn’t have to convince people to go to paradise, but if I could go to paradise without dying and see all that is there, sign me up.” –Shelton Johnson, Yosemite park ranger, in The Way Home
Sign me up, too! It sounds like an adventure. Paradise waits for us when we explore the unknown, overcome challenges, and discover a newfound appreciation for the world.
Johnson’s words and other enticing tales inspired me at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival tour, which swung through my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, last week. This is a pretty cool festival that takes place each year in Banff, Alberta, showcasing mountain and adventure films, books, and speakers over the course of nine days. Then the show hits the road, screening select films at cities all over the world.
I saw several films, ranging in length from four minutes to 45, that spanned a wide variety of adventures—from mountain biking to kayaking, mountaineering to canyoneering, with some South Pole action to boot. It was a nice combo. But what struck me most was the common human condition that wove through widely disparate people and experiences.
The Denali Experiment was my favorite—about a team from The North Face who decided to climb Denali… and ski down—since why on earth would you merely climb a 20,320-foot peak when you can hump up it with a bunch of extra gear? The team included pro skier Sage Cattabriga-Alosa and pro snowboarder Lucas Debari, who have skill in spades when it comes to charging down mountain faces, but not much experience climbing them. Luckily famed mountaineer Conrad Anker was there to show them the ropes—literally. It was fun to watch the group coalesce around a common goal and share mutual admiration for one another’s trades. My favorite quote was Anker marveling at a trick Sage pulled off: “…a crevasse feature and he does a back flip and he lands it smoothly in touring gear with an expedition backpack on. What’s up?”
Another story of trailblazers, Last of the Great Unknown introduces us to a group of canyoneers exploring the uncharted finger canyons surrounding the Grand Canyon. They pored over maps to figure out where it might be feasible to penetrate the rocky depths and plotted a course into canyons so hard to access, few—if any—people have dared venture. What struck me is that even in this time of maps and GPS and thousands of years of exploration, some places are so remote, they still hold their secrets tightly.
The most heart-warming (or freezing) story of the night, Crossing the Ice features two Australian buddies who decided to make a go at skiing—unsupported—to the South Pole and back, despite the fact that it had never been done before (and they’d never skied before!). Sounds like an audacious plan, huh? Pulling 350-pound sleds, they tackled the arduous 1400-mile journey, completing it in 89 grueling days. It cost them a bit of sanity, a whole lot of heel skin, many hungry nights, and a combined 121 pounds of body weight. But they made it. Throughout it all, they displayed amazing tenacity, humor, friendship, and humility.
And finally, the last film I’ll mention is The Way Home. Remember that quote? Park Ranger Johnson spreads joy by introducing newcomers to Yosemite. In this film, African-Americans from a Los Angeles church group venture to the park—for the first time, even though they’re in their 60s and live just a half a day away. This is a common problem in the United States. Compared to other ethnicities, African-Americans have the lowest outdoor participation in our country. Only one percent of Yosemite visitors are African-American. This needs to change. What this film taught me is that while journeying from Los Angeles to Yosemite might not seem all that adventurous, for these folks with limited outdoor knowledge, it was a challenging and rewarding experience that pushed their limits, opened their eyes to a whole new world, and transformed their lives.
So the moral of the story is, adventure means different things to different people. Whether you’re pioneering a ski descent of America’s highest peak, penetrating unexplored canyons in the Arizona desert, tackling the South Pole, or exploring a national park for the first time—it’s all adventure. Extreme or not, it taps a fundamental piece of humanity that lives inside all of us. And we can all rejoice in the satisfaction of a day spent exploring the wilds. Thanks to the Banff Mountain Film Fest for bringing this into focus.