“It’s like in the middle of nowhere,” is what I tell my friends who have never heard of Ithaca. But is it really? Every year, the Banff Mountain Film Festival comes to town and every year, the residents of Ithaca, including members of Cornell, attend the event and amaze the tour group with their unabated enthusiasm. Banff is the world’s largest film festival with 306,000 people from 40 countries in the audience participating in its mountain festival world tour. On Friday night, the hosts were Chris Leeming, lands program coordinator for Cornell’s Outdoor Education Program, and Charla Tomlinson from Banff, Alberta, the town in Canada after which the Banff Centre is named. Tomlinson’s official title position is irrelevant; what is relevant is that people call her position the “Road Warrior.” Her job is to conquer the road while on tour all over Canada and the United States, showing films that range from clips of extreme skiing to group hiking. According to Tomlinson, the farther away she gets from Banff, her hometown, the more enthusiastic the crowd gets, and Ithaca was no exception. As I noticed, and as she pointed out, only when the lights dimmed did people in the audience started cheering. Many were people returning audience members, people who couldn’t get enough of the festival from previous years, and in fact, this year, Banff doubled its ticket sales from 6,000 to 12,000. Not too shabby.
There were a total of 12 films shown on Friday night showcasing a variety of outdoor activities and spectacular filmwork. One was about offwidth climbing, which is like “ultimate fighting with a rock,” as one of the world’s best offwidth climbers describes. It looked incredible, though I personally would never do it. Another film forever changed my previous opinion that skiing is for sissies. And there was yet another one of an old man (I mean, like 92-years-old, old) who digs snow caves, cross-country skis and overall is way more active than me, for fun, because even though “[he] can’t hold his teeth in … and don’t see very good, he’s still livin’ and goin’.” He was so adorable that I wanted to go out, get lost in the woods and develop survival skills just for him (maybe next year, though). The longest film, at 44 minutes, however, was “Crossing the Ice,” the story of two young Australian men who traveled from one edge of Antarctica to the South Pole and back. It’s impressive enough that they were able to accomplish that, but what made their journey particularly significant was that it was the first trip of its kind to be completely unsupported. These two men, these two completely brazen and intrepid morons who didn’t even know how to ski until several months before the voyage, walked without any assistance from the outside world into the wilderness — no air support, no animal support, no nothing. No one thought they could do it, not even the two Aussie adventurers themselves. But they did it. It took them 62 days to get to the South Pole and 90 days in total to make the round trip. Through perseverance, grit and unconditional bromance, they made history.
Banff is truly an extraordinary event. Our Road Warrior and festival guide informed us that it wasn’t only outdoor-lovers, but also filmmakers who come to the Banff tour and gain inspiration just from observing the audience’s reactions. The Road Warrior called us a part of the “Banff ecosystem”; we were part of a global community that is supported by and inspired by Mother Nature, by outdoor activity and by the physical world. The Cornell Outdoor Education Program, one among the many local and national sponsors, is an integral part of bringing Banff to Ithaca and has been sponsoring Banff for the past 15 years. As I spoke with Chris Leeming, the COE Land Coordinator who hosted the festival, his enthusiasm was infectious. It is clear that COE and Banff have the same objective, to “get inspired by the natural world.” COE offers all sorts of opportunities to students from leadership positions to simply realizing “wow, look how beautiful it is outside!”
I, for one, do not have any interest in the outdoors. Climbing a slab of rock or looking at dirt is not what I do for fun. But Friday’s festival changed my perspective of the outdoors. As Shelton Johnson, a ranger from Yosemite National Park emphasized in the film “The Way Home,” “if [the embrace of the earth, of the continent] is America’s best idea, and we played a role in its creation, how dare we not choose that for ourselves?” Ithaca may be five hours or more away from any major city, it may seem like we’re in the middle of nowhere, but we are in the hub of the natural world. From taking your first hike to going on another bike ride, getting out there is a privilege we shouldn’t take for granted. As Chris Leeming said, “It’s about doing something new.” It doesn’t have to be insanely audacious; it’s all about appreciating the world, about “learning more about yourself,” and “this sounds crazy, but [about] being better human beings, better stewards of the land.” After the Banff Film Festival, though, Chris’ words don’t seem crazy at all.