Posted March 19, 2007

As a Mountainfilm Tour presenter out on the road, I introduce myself to the audience du jour as their “guide for tonight’s cinematic journey around the world” and then proceed to tick off the locales we’ll collectively visit through the eyes of filmmakers, do-gooders, animals and heroes. Sometimes it’s a fleece-n-birks crowd, other times it’s a formal affair or sleepy eyed college kids taking a break from learning or partying. It’s a two-way experience as I get just as much out of it as they do. I return to the hotel or home of a host absolutely wired from the rush of sharing seldom seen labors of love with a roomful of folks hungry for inspiration, education and just darn tootin’ fun. It’s a tough job but somebody has to show it.

My latest round of shows took me to Golden, Colorado; Brunswick, Maine; Breckenridge and Ouray, Colorado. The venue in Golden was the American Mountaineering Center (AMC), home of the American Alpine Club (AAC), the newly inaugurated Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum, a very comprehensive mountaineering library with an impressive rare books room, and a host of other organizations such as Outward Bound West and the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. It’s a lot under one roof and you can’t help but leave overwhelmed by the effort that has gone into preserving and sharing our nation’s alpine personality. If you find yourself on the Front Range of Colorado, do take the jaunt to Golden for a “peak.” The show was, as expected, heavy on the climbing side. Showing “The Accidental Mountaineer,” a lovely short recounting first ascents of Alaska’s biggest by Barbara Washburn during the 1940s, was a treat considering the Washburn’s daughter, Betsy Cabot, was in attendance and got to see footage of mom she had never seen before. The feature, “Fitzroy,” took us back to 1968 on a road trip to Patagonia to make the first ascent of The California Route with the “funhogs”: Yvon Chouinard, Dick Dorworth, Lito Tejada-Flores, Chris Jones, and Doug Tompkins. If you haven’t seen this classic gem of a film, you’ll get a chance at Mountainfilm 2008, and here’s why … it’s the reason why Mountainfilm in Telluride exists (and hence the Tour and this wordy post). You see, “Fitzroy” won the Grand Prize at the 1969 Trento Mountain Film Festival in Italy and the experience led Tejada-Flores and some other notables like Royal Robbins to recreate an American version at Telluride’s Historic Sheridan Opera House thirty years ago this coming May. The film’s soundtrack is shrill and dramatic but the camerawork by Tejada-Flores is superb. I’m thrilled that it and Tejada-Flores and Dorworth in person will be a part of the festival’s retrospective, but hopefully it won’t be as unnerving an experience as it was in Golden. About halfway through the film, an elderly gentleman suffered a heart attack. Lights up, movie off, no less than four doctors in the house, and the Tour’s first (and hopefully last) mid-feature medical evacuation was under way. I’m happy to report that the man in seat M5 survived and will be outfitted with a pacemaker. After the commotion, I shakily dimmed the lights, pushed play, and we were all back amidst the finest wind and granite Argentina has to offer. Another shameless festival plug I must insert here is a presentation called “Climbatology: Climbers and Climate Change” that debuted at the AMC the night before, personably “Ankered” by Conrad. The program takes a then-and-now look at glaciers in the Everest region through the work of Alton Byers, director of the Alpine Conservation Partnership, deemed by the AAC’s website as “arguably the best photographic documentation of how climate change is affecting the world’s highest, most famous mountain.” It’s not just the side-by-side photographic pairings of disappearing glaciers in the region that alarm climate change scientists but the appearance of enormous moraine lakes that pose catastrophic dangers to inhabitants and ecosystems in the valleys below should an edge fail. In triplicate with short presentations by Dawa Sherpa and Kitty Calhoun, “Climbatology” also documented the disappearance of previously climbed vertical ice in Africa and once-snowy landing strips into remote areas of Alaska and it resonated with the audience of climbers and trekkers. And now the plug: a condensed version of “Climbatology” will be presented at the 2008 festival. Done.

The four shows in Brunswick, Maine were an entirely different litter of kittens. Hosted by The Frontier Café in the town known for Harriet Beecher Stowe and Bowdoin College, the super cozy, 75-seat theater embedded within a brewpub/organic restaurant/coffeshop/arthouse/can-I-just-move-in-right-now space made me realize that it’s not the quantity of butts in seats but the quality of those butts. Keep in mind that it’s a long winter in Maine and what seemed to warm the soul almost as much as the delicious handcrafted soups and lattes (that are allowed in the theater!) is the mishmash of visual treats that traveled by my side in my carry-on luggage. The content challenged assumptions about residential lawns (“Gimme Green”) and flyfishing (“Running Down the Man”); provided cultural introductions to the coconut gathering Minang people of Indonesia (“Gatherers from the Sky”) and philosophizing ski bums (“Solilochairliftquist”); and took us up to the soaring summit of India’s Thalay Sagar (“Harvest Moon”) as well as a short but very steep crack in Yosemite (“The Obscurist”). I really love first-time Tour shows because I get to dig deep into the archives for the best and the weirdest and give an audience a yitload to talk about and process on the way home. It’s Mountainfilm’s mandate to open up conversations worth sustaining and looking back on the too-many-to-count post-show exchanges I had with attendees while discreetly attempting to wrap up all things technical for the night, the shows in the meticulously renovated Fort Andross mill building in Brunswick, Maine did just that, and more. I can earnestly say “Mission Accomplished” without a banner in sight.

On the day I returned to Colorado, I immediately whizzed off to Breckenridge for the last of a series of monthly shows at the Speakeasy Movie Theatre, benefiting both the dZi Foundation, based in Ridgway, Colorado, and Mountain to Mountain, based in Breckenridge. Founded by a handful of climbers that over a span of 25 years had logged many a trip to the Himalaya, dZi is a swirling phenomenon of over 45 self-sustaining projects in remote regions that “empower local visionaries—and communities—to reach their true potential.” If you told dZi’s founders on their first treks into the Asian mountains that they would be filling on-the-spot, no fee eye glass prescriptions to over 1,400 children, they’d have looked at you like one of those indifferent yaks that indirectly support climber’s dreams. And this Optical Solutions Project is just one of the many realms dZi has committed to serve. It’s what you make of those in-the-moment, tangential mindbursts about “giving back” that count. Mountain to Mountain, though a relative newcomer to the world of nonprofits, has a great mentor in its relationship with dZi. Its mission to “promote education and community development by creating ties with mountain communities at home and abroad” heralds one of my favorite (and preferred) human survival theories: linkages. As the crowd-pleasing film “The Hatch” subliminally pointed out, the trout in the Gunnison River are linked to the annual epic stone fly hatch that are linked to the flyfishermen who are linked by their efforts to preserve the unique ecosystem. The survival of all of the above, however, is linked to the power enjoyed by only one ellipse of that chain: the human vote. By now, you’ve probably realized how important I think an outrageous 10-minute mountain biking film like “Trial and Error,” set in an old growth forest in British Columbia slated for clearcut, can be and is. In my opinion, the filmmakers that independently produce these glimpses of possibility, beautifully synchronized to music and dialogue, deserve a red carpet that reaches Mars. (By the way, I nervously put in “Fitzroy” for the first time since “the Golden incident,” hoping for a solid 29 minutes of darkness, and whew, no dialing of 911. I guess you could say I got on that horse and rode it all the way to Patagonia and back.)

My last two shows rounded out a five-year tradition for me—two nights in Ouray, “the Switzerland of America”—for the dZi folks. Same faces, same hunger, same beer sponsor (New Belgium), different movies. Over the years, this particular group of repeat attenders has seen over 80 films from the Mountainfilm library and just can’t get enough. Because of the inordinate amount of helmet-haired ice climbers that make their way up the fire hall steps each year, I feel like I can pull out a classic climbing film like “The Bat” and get away with it without alienating or boring too many non-climbers. Knowing one’s audience is an asset in many jobs but being able to customize a show for an annual reunion of like-minded adventure film buffs, and all for a good cause, is one of the greatest parts of this one. I’m fortunate to have this gig every once in a while and hope my “guided” evenings have inspired people to travel, learn, document, link up and pitch in.

Will the world be saved from the ravages of its human inhabitants by mountain-based non-profits banding together and putting on a smattering of movie nights on five continents? It’s a stretch but I ask “why not?” Paul Hawken, author of “Blessed Unrest” and special guest at Mountainfilm 2007, believes that a new movement is afoot, one being forged by the over one million dot.orgs of today (and growing daily). His website describes it as “the largest movement on earth, a movement that has no name, leader, or location, and that has gone largely ignored by politicians and the media. Like nature itself, it is organizing from the bottom up, in every city, town, and culture, and is emerging to be an extraordinary and creative expression of people’s needs worldwide.” If a provocative three-hour evening of films sparks any semblance of awareness into action then we have not only entertained but also done our good deed for the day. That’s my take and I’m sticking to it. One of Mountainfilm’s mottos of past was “imagine the power of film to change the world in which live.” Whether it’s in Telluride over Memorial Day weekend or your butt in a seat at a Tour show’s microwaved version, it’s all good and it all matters. See you in line …

Posted by Daiva Chesonis

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