Banff Canada

Finding Adventure at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival

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I bolt upright and out of my sleeping bag, nearly knocking my head on the canopy roof. That feeling of slight panic and mostly confusion that occurs when you’re jarringly awoke from a deep sleep.


“Hello?” I mumble.

“Security! Sore-ee, but ya can’t sleep here, eh.”

Barely conscious I mutter my excuse about how it was late and not wanting to drive after the major snow dump the day before.

“Sore-ee, you’re gonna have to move on.”

I fumble blindly in the dark for my sandals and later stumble out of my cozy truck camping cocoon… Into the cold and frigid dark of night–temperatures hovering in the high single digits (Fahrenheit). I hop down from the back of my truck into the crunch of snow and ice–walking carefully as to not to get my socks wet. My unwanted wake up caller had already left.

I sit in the cab of my truck, waiting to wake up a little more… I watch my frozen breath filling the cab with each exhalation. I glance down at my cell phone: 4:30 in the morning. Begrudgingly, I drive off into the ice and snow covered streets of Banff–looking for just one more place to spend a few more hours of my last night in town.

Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival

Banff is an idyllic little mountain town situated high in the Canadian Rockies. I immediately felt an affinity and familiarity with the town even though I’d never been there before. The mountains have that effect, I suppose. It reminded me of Ouray, Colorado, where I began this trip of mine, albeit much more touristy, upscale, and full of chain restaurants.

Every year thousands of outdoor adventure filmmakers, athletes, writers, and aficionados descend on this little mountain town to attend the multi-week film and book festival. The top films and books of the year are screened and featured, and then ultimately winnowed down into a Best of the Festival set of award winners. These films and books run the gamut of outdoor adventure sports, from bouldering, alpinism, surfing, sailing, mountain biking, and more. It’s got a little something for everyone.

I’ve been to a handful of climbing festivals and outdoor adventure film screenings/slideshows/talks over the years, but nothing compares to the shear breadth and scope of the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. It’s like a what’s what and a who’s who of the outdoor world. Where else are you going to nearly run into Conrad Anker, within moments of arriving to pick up your tickets, later have Cedar Wright stop you to ask for directions (Sorry, I was just as lost as you!), and then sit alongside Everest legend Tom Hornbein and the most prolific mountaineering writer, David Roberts, in an auditorium the next day? Not to mention the dozens of other inspiring adventurers doing absolutely amazing things…

Like, seriously amazing things… Solo big wall climbing absolutely alone in the wilds of Patagonia for more than a month, riding a bicycle 750 miles across Kyrgyzstan to climb virgin peaks, or spending two years building a small sailboat by hand and setting off down the Baja coast.

There are too many great stories, adventures, and films featured to share in a single blog post, and while the only way to get the full experience is to actually go to Banff for the festival, you CAN get a pretty comprehensive taste of the best of the festival by attending one of the World Tour screenings (check out the schedule).

There are, of course, some stories that shine above others. One of which won the Festival’s Grand Prize, very deservingly so, about two guys that build a small shack out of scrap wood and garbage on a quiet beach in Norway, north of the Arctic circle, where they then spend the winter where the sun doesn’t shine, surfing (!), snowboarding, and existing in this most inhospitable of places. Nordfor Sola is absolutely a must see if you have the opportunity to do so, it embodies the nature and spirit of adventure like no other. Just watch the trailer:

The Flip Side of Adventure Media

The vast majority of us attending the Banff Festival will never embark on an adventure on the scale of those which are featured here. These films and stories can by unbelievably inspiring and get you psyched to get out there, but they can also be somewhat demoralizing… If the films and stories being told here are the cutting edge of adventure and are setting the bar so to speak, does that therefore mean that you’ll never have a “real” adventure or that adventure is somehow less relevant or important?

With conga lines to the top of Everest, tweets from the South Pole, Alex Honnold soloing Yosemite’s Triple Crown, and young kids completing the Seven Summits or climbing El Cap, should we even bother striving to do adventurous things?

To be sure, there are societal benchmarks in the world of adventure and then there are personal benchmarks in the world of adventure. Will I ever be great climber? No. Does that mean I shouldn’t climb? No. There will never be another first person on Everest. Does that mean no one else should climb Everest? No.

Adventure Relativism

One time, in Sedona, I was out hiking with my Mom. I was leading the way up this rock to a vista–it was fairly benign, in my view. But my Mom was worked up, a little scared, she felt like it was a scramble or climb, even using her hands at times. That was adventurous for her, no doubt. She had the perception of risk and uncertainty in that moment. It’s all relative.

“Adventure is just a personal thing, I decided, it means whatever you want it to. To me it means having a go at something that might be exciting or difficult, just to see if I can.” from Lois on the Loose by Lois Pryce of the Overland Expo.

Adventure = Risk and Uncertainty

The beauty of climbing, in my mind, is that no matter what level you currently climb at, you can find a way to push yourself into a new realm of risk, uncertainty, and adventure. Just because Alex Honnold can solo El Cap, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a major personal milestone for most climbers.

Climbing is not about the grades, it’s not (or shouldn’t be) a competitive sport, it’s not about comparing yourself to everybody else. Climbing is an intensely personal, albeit social, endeavor.

Both climbing and adventure, to me, means embracing the new, uncomfortable, and uncertain.

My friend Kel summed it up as such:

“Because adventure involves the unknown, we must pay attention and be ready to respond to whatever arises. Miguel de Unamuno said that “To fall into habit is to cease to be.” That’s pretty strong language! I’ve got my habits and routines, and as far as any being exists independently of the social and material world (which isn’t that far), I’m pretty sure I exist. But, in broad strokes, he is speaking truth. Our routines become a shortcut to really thinking about and experiencing our lives. Adventure asks me to avoid that rutted path and to step into the bushwhack-backcountry of the considered life.”

This is why traveling abroad is such a time honored, adventurous tradition. It is a short cut to adventure, even the simplest of tasks can become an uncertainty, like grabbing lunch in the town market, using the local bus system, or even trying to track down a some toiletry.

But we can and should embrace the spirit of adventure in our daily lives and where we live. You needn’t make first ascents nor travel to the most remote sections of the planet to find adventure. Do you always eat at the same restaurant? Order the same dish? Drive the same roads? Hang out with the same crowds?

“What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.” George Mallory

What does adventure mean to you and role does adventure play in your life? Do you find ways to embrace adventure in your day to day life?

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Finding Adventure at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival epic-dirtbag-adventure, armchair-alpinist


Head Writer and Adventurer at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, perpetual wanderer, and self-proclaimed dirtbag (but that might not mean what you think). Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington D.C. where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out truck camping to road trip across the American West, and then across all of Central America and South America. When he isn't on the move, you can find him living as an expat in Colombia. He is also the author of the best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget that will help you travel more for less. Follow the adventures on social media or read more.

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