Telluride, Colorado, over Memorial Day weekend is one of the nicer places to be on the planet. The old mining town at the end of the box canyon is fresh and green. Waterfalls flow with spring runoff. The locals are making the transition from a winter of skiing, snowboarding, and ice-climbing to a summer of hiking, biking and flyfishing.
But first they spend a few days sitting in darkened movie theaters and screening rooms, putting it all in perspective at the MountainFilm in Telluride festival.
This is MountainFilm’s 34th year, and according to director David Holbrooke, it has evolved naturally from its roots as a tiny "festival about showing climbing films” to a gathering of people celebrating mountains, mountain culture and the issues that threaten them and the larger world.
Of course, there’s still plenty of pure sport and adrenaline. In addition to films like Outside the Box (competitive wall climbing), Ready to Fly (women’s ski jumping), Ice Revolution (ice climbing In British Columbia) and Treeverse (mega-ziplining), there will be rough-cut screenings of House of Cards (a new film documenting the ascent of Meru's difficult and dangerous Shark’s Fin by climbers Conrad Anker, Renan Ozturk and Jimmy Chin), and dozens of high-energy shorts.
Still, there’s an undercurrent of restlessness at MountainFilm, and it’s not just from outdoor athletes getting stoked in the screening rooms. Environmental conservation and sustainability are strong themes across the festival.
“People who explore the mountains are the first ones to see the changes—to see what’s happening to the indigenous cultures, to see what’s happening to the glaciers,” Holbrooke says. “They’re the intrepid ones who go there, and they know the glaciers are receding, because they’ve been going there much of their lives.”
“We want to get people out of those seats and into the mountains, onto the front lines, and have some sort of impact.”
One of the festival’s special guests, Dr. Geoffrey Tabin, exemplifies that idea. A one-time Everest summiteer himself, Tabin has combined his love of mountaineering with a medical career focused on helping indigenous people blinded by cataracts caused by the intense sunlight at high altitudes. Every year, he and teams of volunteer opthomologists perform scores of free cornea transplants in Nepal and Ethiopia.
“One of the things I love about Geoff is that he’s not just doing it to build awareness,” says Holbrooke. “He’s not just going to let you know that there are blind people who don’t have to be blind. He’s going there to make sure that when he leaves, there are hundreds and hundreds of people who can see—who weren’t able to see when he showed up. And what a fundamental thing that is.”
Not all of MountainFilm’s stories take place in the mountains, or even on land. One film, Plastiki is the story of an expedition that sailed across the Pacific in a 60-foot boat made from recycled plastic. Inspired by Thor Heyerdahl's classic adventure story Kon Tiki, a crew led by environmentalist/adventurer David de Rothschild sails through the vast sea of plastic debris floating in the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and documents the impact it has on the oceans and marine life.
And some of the films hit closer to home. Ken Burns will premiere his latest project, The Dust Bowl, at MountainFilm. The Dust Bowl is the story of the greatest environmental disaster in American history, in the 1930s, when hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and prairie were laid waste by drought and destructive farming practices. The once rich Midwestern topsoil was destroyed, causing dust storms throughout the Great Plains.
“It feels like it happened a long time ago, but it could happen again,” says Holbrooke. In fact, he says, it is happening again, not far from Telluride.
“Over the last few years we’ve been getting dust storms we never used to see. They’re coming because Utah, as they say, is open for business.” Specifically, the business of mineral and natural gas extraction. “So a landscape that’s been in place forever is being churned up, and the result of all the extraction to the west of us is blowing east into Telluride—and across the country.”
Tickets to MountainFilm are available online. There will also be a national tour later this summer.