Mountainfilm On My Mind

Senior Editor Tracy Ross reflects on the Telluride MountainFilm Festival

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I’m a total sucker for anything that officially celebrates the indomitable spirit, so it’s no surprise that I would be completely floored, and elevated, by the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival. Now in its 31st year, MF, as it’s known, was started by a bunch of mountain bums who, somewhat

narcissistically, wanted to ride, ski, and climb by day and then watch movies about themselves riding, skiing, and climbing by night.

A lot has changed in three decades. Today’s Mountainfilm still celebrates the gnarliest of gnar (exhibit A: the short film “Look to the Ground,” about the 90-percent blind mountain biker Bobby McMullen, who regularly tears up the singletrack around Whistler, grinding gravel into his knees, elbows, and grill), but it’s also so much more than that. This year’s films covered everything from the Apocalypse Now-inspired Big River Man, about tubby Martin Strel and his self-challenge to swim the Amazon River to the stark profile, “Reporter,” about New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his own challenge to report something as existentially depressing as genocide — and actually get people to care.

Of course BACKPACKER being BACKPACKER, we had to put ourselves through some physical torture before we could justify sitting still for more than an hour at a time to watch movies. So EIC Jon Dorn, mapping coordinator Kristy Holland, and I started our festival with a six-hour, 20-plus-mile singletrack hump up the Deep Creek trail near town. Turns out we rode the thing backwards (at least according to locals), which accounts for the 5,500-foot elevation gain (ouch), miles of near-vertical hiking, and traverse over, as one friend called them, “the death cliffs.” Once depleted, though, we were more than game to get our film on, starting with the reason we were there in the first place, Ken Burns’s 12-hour epic, The National Parks: America’s Greatest Idea.

Burns has been working on this film for 10 years. He’s visited all 58 parks. He can quote John Muir more eloquently than John Muir probably could. After Episode 2 Burns sat down with me near the patrol shack on Telluride mountain. He answered my 4,000 questions, calmly explaining his craft, inspiration, difficulties, wishes, and most powerful moments in the parks. He talked about God and how interconnected parks (or wild places) and religion have always been. And more than once he mentioned “the half life of John Muir’s vision,” which I thought was a gorgeous phrase.

As he talked, something became clear to me that I’d never thought of before. I’d always thought that parks, by definition, were protected in perpetuity. Not so, according to Ken.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he told me. “Which is why I DEPUTIZE you and challenge you to go out there and get as many people as possible into a park. Parks are not an elite place where only the backpackers should go. They’re for American and every American should take ownership of them.”

All of which is to say, the next time you’re standing at an overlook on the Grand Canyon, or hanging out below Yosemite Falls, don’t scoff at the girl in the high-heel flip-flops or the guy smoking a Camel straight.

Explain to them that beyond the crowds and the marked trails and the concessions is a place where each of us can go to hear the small quiet voice, to have, as Burns calls it, an “essential moment” that can transform our lives.

—Tracy Ross