Mountainfilm: celebrating the human spirit |

Mountainfilm: celebrating the human spirit

Allen Best
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
The 29th annual Mountainfilm festival takes place May 25-28 in Telluride, Colo. The event features 88 films, as well as workshops, talks and other events. (Matt Inden/Mountainfilm)

TELLURIDE, Colo. ” Telluride, to first-time visitors, is always an exquisite surprise. Most visitors arrive via the red-walled canyon of the San Miguel River, emerging at a highway intersection called Society Turn.

An exquisite setting unfolds. Ahead lies a pasture, verdant in spring and speckled with golden dandelions. Three miles beyond is Telluride, boxed in by canyon walls, draped by waterfalls named Ingram and Bridal Veil. Rimming the basin are white-capped 13,000-foot peaks. The setting is large yet intimate, boldly colorful and often inspiring.

That description also applies to Mountainfilm, a festival of movies and ideas every Memorial Day weekend. It’s an event full of big things: mountains, ideas and people, but in a place that promotes lots of elbow-rubbing.

The festival sprawls. Films span the globe, and although the name “mountain” serves as a thematic tent for the subject matter, it’s a big enough tent to contain ideas, such as bombs in Indochina or oceanic pollution, that are seemingly far distant.

Always there are adventure films: Himalayan expeditions, base jumpers flinging themselves off buildings and bridges, of climbers scaling improbable faces. Always there are environmental films, and always there are films that might be called cultural.

Where the movie called “Flagging” fits in is unclear, but it’s among the most memorable that Mountainfilm veteran Joe Schmidt has seen. Just 13 minutes long, says Schmidt, a climber from Eagle, Colo., “Flagger” tells the story of a highway flagger at a seldom-traveled job site and his attempts to entertain himself.

That’s the lure of Mountainfilm to repeat attendees: the unexpected. It’s thick with around-the-corner surprises. “Flagger” may not be a big idea, but it’s a smile that lingers even now.

The unexpected is sometimes in the flesh. Such was the case with Norman Vaughan, a Harvard dropout who accompanied Admiral Richard Byrd on his 1928 expedition to the South Pole as a dog-crew leader. He led a lifetime of similar adventures, and at age 89, climbed the 10,300-foot peak in Antarctica that bears his name.

Appearing at Telluride in 2003, the then-98-year-old Vaughan was both humble yet ambitious, vowing to climb that mountain again for his 100th birthday ” and toast the event with his first glass of champagne in his life.

He didn’t make it ” he died later that year, just before Christmas. But few fail to remember the sight of the walker-assisted Vaughan, of his sense of purpose and energy.

“Intimacy,” says Schmidt instantly, when asked the lingering appeal of Mountainfilm.

If the Internet, YouTube, and four tiers of television channels have shrunk the world, they all lack the intimacy of Mountainfilm for people sharing an affinity for mountains. It’s what you see on screen, but also the conversations waiting in line for coffee or at a book-signing, or just the chance to go talk with the filmmakers and their subjects.

Walking down Telluride’s Colorado Avenue you share sidewalk space with larger-than-life figures: people like Sierra Club icon David Brower, Grand Canyon savior Martin Litton, or a throat singer from the steppes of Mongolia.

You could end up spending five minutes talking with the CIA agent who supervised the training of Tibetan guerillas at Camp Hale in the late 1950s, hear the always excited musings of ethnobotanist Wade Davis, or rub elbows with Robert Thurman, a top scholar of Tibetan Buddhism (and father of actress Uma).

Among those featured guests in the past were Telluride’s own Charlie Fowler, who died in an avalanche last winter on a remote peak in China. He’ll be honored this year.

Then there are people like Greg Mortenson, whose 1992 expedition to K2, the world’s second-highest peak, proved to be the catalyst for his selfless work since then: establishing schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“The combination of the physical world and spirituality is absolutely delightful,” says Cathy Casper, a teacher at Eagle Valley Elementary School. The mountains are a perfect emblem of the physical world, with the climbing of Everest being the ultimate of physicality, she says, but always within that physical context is a spiritual journey.

“It’s not just a bunch of jocks there,” adds Casper. “Nor is it just a bunch of navel-gazers either. Too much of either extreme and it would be boring. The combination is what makes it exciting.”

New as executive director of the film festival this year is Peter Kenworthy, an English major who became a banker but seems to prefer words and images to numbers. Still, he has a lot of numbers to work with. Mountainfilm has become a $1 million festival, including in-kind services.

Among the sponsors this year is National Geographic. “The amount of support they are giving us in financial terms is huge, but it’s more than just that,” says Kenworthy. “It’s their connections around the world, with the people who are part and parcel of our world.”

Kenworthy reports 650 films were submitted to the festival this year, and of those, 88 were culled for showing, beginning Friday evening, May 25, continuing into Memorial Day. That’s fewer than last year. Also new this year will be more segmenting of the themes: cultural vs. adventuring vs. environmental at the different venues.

One of Kenworthy’s favorite films last year was about an Israeli-American who suffered from birth with a condition that kept him at an improbable light weight. His doctor predicted he wouldn’t live past age 6. But he did, and when he reached his 20s he vowed to travel to America ” still weighing only 29 pounds ” to confront the doctor. “It was for him the equivalent of hiking to the top of Everest,” says Kenworthy. “It was a real inspiring story of the indomitable spirit.”

Several years ago Mountainfilm adopted the phrase: “Celebrating Indomitable Spirit,” as its tag line. “I really think it captures in large part the essence of Mountainfilm,” says Kenworthy.

The festival offers a broad price range. The any-venue Ama Dablam pass costs $1,000, but a somewhat more limited Sheridan pass costs $250. A six-pack transferable pass at $100 would be attractive to those with a more limited, dabbling appetite. With all the photography and other free shows, plus the fetching hikes around Telluride, there’s never enough time for it all anyway. Showings commonly include three films.

Energy is a major theme in this year’s Mountainfilm schedule. The Moving Mountain Symposium will be held Friday, and some energy-related themes will be evident in the programming throughout the weekend. The Eiger, the famed Swiss peak, is a secondary theme.

Carbondale’s Randy Udall, director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, is moderating the panel at Moving Mountains.

Among those on the panel will be James Kunstler, whose latest book, “The Long Emergency,” is about the challenges he believes are posed by future reductions in oil production during a time of global warming. Also on the panel will be various proponents of alternative energy.

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