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You Had to be There: Banff 2012, Part I

Writer and Banff Mountain Film Fest veteran David Roberts recounts his experience


I was eating a burger on the patio of the Cowgirl in Santa Fe. It was a breezy day in May 2008, with the sun dancing in the cottonwood leaves. All around me, New Age cowgirls and ‘boys were chatting away over their own burgers, but a single voice, more strident than the others, wafted toward me from about five tables away.

“And then Krakauer got up and just blasted Anatoli.”

“No.”

“Yeah. And Anatoli just sat there, deer in the headlights. ‘What you say? My English not so good.’ But he knew he was getting slammed.”

“Wow. Really?”

“And then Roberts got up—Roberts was Krakauer’s teacher somewhere, you know? Then Roberts let Anatoli have it, too.”

“Christ.”

“Yeah. Poor Anatoli.”

I paid the bill and sauntered over. “Excuse me, guys, but I couldn’t help hearing my name bandied about.”

The raconteur stood up, blushed, and introduced himself. It was Nick Heil, a young writer for Outside. He half-apologized, then introduced his companion: Lincoln Hall, the fine Australian climber, who had cheated death on Everest two years before. We shook hands. I said to Heil, “Don’t worry, you’re not the first guy who’s thought we were pretty hard on Anatoli.”

As I walked back to my car, I reflected, The amazing thing is that Heil was telling it like it happened last week. In point of fact, however, the confrontation between Jon Krakauer and Anatoli Boukreev had occurred eleven years earlier, in November 1997. Nick Heil must have been a teenager when he sat in the audience that day.

That’s Banff, I mused. What happens in Banff doesn’t stay in Banff.

*   *   *

Last week, I participated in the 37th annual Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, generally acclaimed as the preeminent conference of its kind in the world. As I sat in the Max Bell Auditorium listening to climbers tussle with the conundrum titled “Chomolongma: Goddess or Gong Show?,” I flashed back on that explosive exchange in the same venue way back in 1997. Into Thin Air was number one on the bestseller list, but Jon had declined to serve on the panel debating the 1996 disaster on Everest. Anatoli, whose performance as a guide for the ill-fated Mountain Madness team Jon had excoriated in his book, was on the panel. His own version of the debacle was about to come out in his ghost-written book The Climb.

On the panel, Anatoli spoke very little, claiming his English was poor, so his girlfriend, Linda Wylie, spoke for him, explicating his version of the Everest events. But then Anatoli took the mic to argue that because journalists always get it wrong, a media blackout on Himalayan expeditions might be a good thing. (The “journalist” in 1996, of course, was Krakauer.) That was too much for Jon, who stood up and spoke from the audience. As he later wrote in a postscript to the 1998 edition of Into Thin Air, “The upshot was that at one point I rose to Boukreev’s bait and some ill-advised, very heated words were exchanged across the crowded auditorium.”

Some of those heated words were mine. Loyal to my former protégé, I seconded Jon’s attack. I remember using the words “dishonest” and “self-serving.” The hall buzzed with catcalls and cheers. Moderator Geoff Powter tried to douse the flames.

As his postscript indicates, Jon felt bad about his outburst almost immediately. Once the panel had dispersed, he found Anatoli outside the auditorium, where the two men had a long talk. They came to some sort of truce.

A month and a half later, Anatoli was dead, buried in an avalanche on an attempt on a new route in winter on Annapurna. Jon ruefully ended his 1998 postscript, “I realized that I’d begun my conciliatory efforts much too late.”

Nothing happened at the festival last week quite as explosive as the 1997 showdown, but for five days I reveled in the usual potpourri of mind-blowing films, provocative speakers, long-dormant friendships renewed in the hallways, and drunken debates waged long into the night at Banff Centre receptions and downtown pubs. The whole time, I reminisced about memorable episodes from my eight or 10 previous trips to the festival. You had to be there . . . .

You had to be there when Stevie Haston, the bad boy of British climbing, gave a slideshow in which he managed at the same time to convey supreme ennui as he explicated his own genius to the masses and snide dismissal of the rivals who thought they might be in his league on crag and couloir. According to Haston, Greg Child, who had given his own slideshow the night before, was “a wanker.”

The next day in the Max Bell, when a panelist dryly alluded to “egomaniacal performances like the one we watched yesterday,” a sudden noise erupted from the audience. Haston burst from his congenital slouch, shouted, “Oh, fuck off!,” fled for the exit, and slammed the door behind him.

You had to be there in 2000 for Chris Bonington’s two-and-a-half-hour slideshow about his reconnaissance of some obscure and nameless peak in western China. Bonington was the featured Saturday night speaker in the Eric Harvie Theatre, and every one of its 956 seats was occupied. I sat near the back with photographer Chris Noble. We began to suspect that something was amiss when, 20 minutes into the show, Bonington had barely begun the hike in to base camp. “This porter was a remarkable fellow,” he said as a slide of a thin man bent under a hundred-pound load lingered on the screen, “and his uncle was even more remarkable. Let me tell you a little story about the uncle.” Next slide, please, I silently begged, but Sir Christian was riding the flood of his manic enthusiasm.

At last, fifteen minutes past the scheduled hour limit, Bonington’s team got to the mountain, identified the most likely route, and packed up to head home. I said to Noble, “Okay, a little long-winded, but not bad. Nice reconnaissance trip for Chris, especially at his age.”

But then Bonington brightly intoned, “That was 1998. We decided to go back in 1999. Next tray.” The audience suppressed a groan. Noble whispered to me, “Let’s get out of here.”

At the designated festival pub downtown, we swigged our beers. “How can a guy who’s given so many slideshows,” I wondered out loud, “who’s got the whole routine down pat, go on and on like that?”

Noble smirked. “Saturday night at Banff? It’s a big deal, even for Bonington. He got carried away.”

One by one, other refugees showed up at the pub. “Has he gotten back to base camp yet?” Noble and I hooted. “No, he’s still telling every porter’s life story,” someone answered. (I later learned that festival director Bernadette MacDonald, in a backstage wing, was frantically trying to catch Bonington’s eye as she pointed at her watch. Had she had the proverbial vaudeville hook, she would have deployed it.)

In the pub, as wave after wave of escapees arrived, the mirth crescendoed. But then a dark thought bloomed in my brain. “You know,” I said to Noble, “when the show’s over, Chris himself is going to come to the pub, and he’ll expect everybody to tell him what a great job he did.”

Sure enough, almost three hours after he had launched into his presentation, the last refugee arrived in the person of Bonington. He was beaming with satisfaction. (Bernadette told me later that at the end he had asked her, “Did I go on perhaps a wee bit long? Ten or fifteen minutes over?”) In the pub, all of us stared into our beers, avoiding Bonington’s eye, hoping he wouldn’t pull up a chair at our table.

To this day, I wonder if Bonington knows about the Banff legend to which he gave birth. 

*   *   *

You had to be there in another Banff pub in November 1999 when Wade Davis and David Breashears strummed their dueling banjos. Some nine or 10 of us had assembled around a long, narrow table, and by chance Davis sat at one end, Breashears at the other. Though not a climber, Davis had announced that he was going to write a big book about George Leigh Mallory. He had signed a handsome contract and was well into his research.

The only trouble was, just the previous May, Conrad Anker had discovered Mallory’s body sprawled face down on the north face of Everest, and now Conrad and I were co-writing a book about it, to appear soon as The Lost Explorer.

Davis now declared to our table that he had never really intended to write a book about Mallory, except insofar as the man had played a part in the early exploration of the Himalaya. Gathering steam, he launched into the kind of brilliantly articulate monologue he seemed to have mastered. “What’s quite interesting to me,” he told us, “is that when John Noel crossed the Sepo La in 1912—“

Breashears had been watching Davis with a jaundiced eye. Now he interrupted: “1913. Yeah, I’ve been there. It’s the shortest way to the Kampa Dzong.”

This footnote only drove Davis to further expostulation. The rest of us remained mute as the two experts traded volleys. The Harvard Ph. D., National Geographic Explorer in Residence, versus the Kloberdanz Kid, who never went to college. Book learning versus the learning under one’s boots. The duel escalated. Conrad, sitting opposite me next to Jenni Lowe, stared slack-jawed at the combatants, swiveling from one to the other, as if watching a high-speed ping pong match—or perhaps a couple of boxers trading haymakers.

How is this going to end? I wondered. Abruptly, Breashears played his trump card. With Davis in mid-peroration, Breashears yawned, stood up, stuck a quarter in the nearby pool table, racked the balls, and started pocketing them right and left. Davis spluttered on, but there was nobody left to one-up.

Well, last week Wade Davis was back at Banff. It had taken him 12 years to write Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest. There was a lot of buzz about the book. It had been short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize, Britain’s most prestigious award for non-fiction. It was expected to win the grand prize at Banff. And on Saturday night, in the same slot Chris Bonington had occupied more than a decade earlier, Davis was going to tell an audience of 1,250 everything we needed to know about Mallory and Everest.

To be continued...

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