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Night of the Legends and New Kids: Banff 2012, Part IV

Forget the films. The climbing greats, past and present, inspire the crowd in person.


The Banff festival reaches its frenzied peak on the weekend, when films stream nonstop before packed houses in both the Eric Harvie and Margaret Greenham Theatres. Many ticket holders consider this the main reason for coming, but as for me...well, I’m not the type who can sit through more than three movies in a row without getting bleary-eyed and fidgety. I need to roam the hallways or swig a beer at the Maclab Bistro in hopes of bumping into an old friend or making a new one.

The films inevitably celebrate the recent and the spectacular. This year, a French base jumper rethinking her sport, a psychedelic, illegal big-wall assault on a jungle cliff in Venezuela, Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra grunting fiercely as they duel over 5.15 in southern Spain, and the like. 

Yet something Banff also does really well is to thrust venerable writers, climbers and wanderers in front of youthful audiences who, if they have ever heard of these ancients, know them only as hazy rumors. Last year the festival lured Dervla Murphy out of her native Ireland, three weeks shy of her 80th birthday. I first read her astounding book, Full Tilt, about bicycling solo from Ireland to India, armed with spunk and a pocket pistol, in 1965. When I saw her name on the Banff program, my first thought, I’m ashamed to say, was, My God, is she still alive?

Films be damned—Murphy stole the show in 2011.

This year it was Colin Thubron, one of the finest travel writers alive. I knew Thubron was indeed alive, for I had just read his wonderful memoir, To a Mountain in Tibet, about his pilgrimage in the aftermath of his mother’s death to Kailas, the peak that is sacred to one-fifth of the world’s population. Before his reading, I asked five people in the audience under 35 if they’d ever heard of Thubron, who is only 73. Nope.

Slender, dignified, with a great plume of white hair swept back from his forehead, Thubron opened with a sly disclaimer: “In spite of the immense promise of this screen behind me—” he waved his hand at the centerpiece of the Max Bell Auditorium, “I must apologize for showing only one slide.” The slide was a map of his route to Kailas.

Thubron didn’t steal the show as Dervla Murphy had, but in his own self-effacing way he delivered one of the deepest 40-minute talks I’ve ever heard. I jotted down: “Formidable erudition. Grasp of history. Curiosity about the world.” The central motif of Thubron’s talk, as of his journey, undercut the cherished platitude that I was willing to bet 99 percent of the Banff crowd subscribed to: The notion that mountains are all about self-fulfillment, affirmation, triumphing over obstacles. “In Buddhist and Hindu culture,” Thubron remarked, “the ascent of mountains means death. Pilgrims go to Kailas to practice their own death.”

Beneath the chill of that assertion, I felt the jolt of a rare discovery: Here was a profound idea that had never occurred to me before. I wanted to march up to the Eric Harvie and tell the crowd, “Stop watching all these goddamn films! Go listen to Colin Thubron. You shall not look upon his like again.”

This year Banff also had Fred Beckey. No other American has ever put up half as many first ascents as Beckey has, and some of them are world-class touchstones, such as the first ascent of Devils Thumb in 1946 or the Beckey-Chouinard route on South Howser Tower in 1961. I’ve known Fred for almost 50 years, but I’ll never figure him out. At 89, almost deaf (he refuses to wear a hearing aid), he remains a piece of work: The self-styled scrounge and dirtbag climber, the guardian of secret routes he plans to knock off before the next generation steals them.

In The Club, a quasi-saloon beneath the Eric Harvie, Fred limped in, bent forward at the waist, his weathered face craggier than ever, sat down, and started shouting into the microphone. His slide show was a piece of work, too. He started in with a characteristic conundrum that I’m still trying to decipher. “Fortunately,” Fred announced, “the earth has got a lot of good mountains in different places, but it hasn’t always been that way, because the earth used to be flat.”

For the next hour-plus, Fred flashed dusty old slides of one of his climbs after another on the screen, his voice never varying from its monotone boom. He lavished the same care on some grubby 5.6 crack in the Olympics as he did on his first ascent of Denali’s Northwest Buttress. A grainy 1949 film clip took my breath away, as in tennis shoes, pounding soft-iron pitons into cracks with what looked like a ball-peen hammer, he stood on his belayer’s shoulders as he fought his way up Lighthouse Tower in the Cascades. Good lord, I said to myself, what a graceful climber Fred was in his prime!

Some six or eight of his photos showed avalanches in full career. “You wouldn’t want to camp there,” he said each time. He had his formula down for transitioning from one range to the next: “Taking another big camera jump,” Fred announced as he leapt from the Tetons to Yosemite. Whenever a slide of a familiar peak came up, Fred would intone, “Mount Robson needs no introduction to this audience.” “This is El Capitan in Yosemite, which needs no introduction here.”

Fred has been accused of having no sense of humor. Yet the audience in The Club was hanging on his every word, and howling with laughter at many of his deadpan utterances. And surely there was a soupçon of irony at his own expense in the last slide he showed. There was Fred standing on a highway, holes in his shabby shirt and trousers, his thumb stuck out, as he held a hand-lettered cardboard sign that read, “Will belay for food.”

Yeah, the oldies were goodies this year at Banff. But some of the goodies were young. Last year the Voices of Adventure colloquy featured Edurne Pasaban, the first woman to climb the fourteen highest peaks in the world. This year the Friday night speaker was Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, who last summer became the first woman to climb all fourteen without bottled oxygen. (Pasaban had climbed her first, Everest, with supplemental oxygen in 2001, all the others without.) Both women had become superstars in their native countries (Spain and Austria), and each was selected by the National Geographic Society as its Adventurer of the Year.

For Outside magazine in 1982, I had interviewed Reinhold Messner in Munich, as he was closing in on becoming the first man to climb the fourteen 8,000-meter peaks. In my single hour in his apartment, I realized I was in the presence (“glare” would be a better word) of one of the most titanic egos I had ever met. And though Messner dismissed his race with the brilliant Polish climber Jerzy Kukuczka to reach the finish line first as “a media invention,” there was no ignoring the bitterness of that rivalry.

It was at Banff that I first met both Pasaban and Kaltenbrunner. I subsequently profiled Edurne for Rock and Ice, and right now I’m trying to help them both get their memoirs published in the U.S. They could hardly possess more different personalities. Pasaban is vehement, emotional, driven and prone to deep depressions. Kaltenbrunner seems so polite, sunny, and even-keeled, it’s hard to picture her fighting her way up the north side of K2 in storms that defeated most of her teammates, as she did on Friday night, wowing the audience.

Face-to-face with each superwoman, I tried to get them to confess to a rivalry akin to the Messner-Kukuczka war, but it just wasn’t there. Each testified so ingenuously to her deep friendship with and encouragement of the other that I finally had to squelch my cynicism. As proof, both recounted how they had climbed to the top of Broad Peak arm-in-arm in 2007, embracing on the summit. 

At the end of the Friday show, in an onstage Q&A, Bernadette MacDonald posed her last query: “What would you say to young girls?”

Kaltenbrunner beamed as she gazed over the audience. “Find your own passion,” she exhorted. “Feel enthusiasm for what you’re doing.”

It wasn’t quite as epiphanic a statement as Colin Thubron’s insight about Kailas, ascent and death, but I do believe that near me in the audience, young girls were swooning. At Banff, there’s nothing wrong with a feel-good ending. 

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