Prepare to panic as Banff Mountain Film Festival brings K2 doc to Scotland

At a time when some festivals seem to be having an identity crisis as a result of the pandemic, the Banff Mountain Film Festival continues to serve its core market of extreme sports enthusiasts, writes Roger Cox

Andrzej Bargiel preparing to take on K2 PIC: Marek Ogien / Red Bull

​Since the spring of 2020, when it began to dawn on the directors of major arts and film festivals that live, in-person performances and screenings would either have to be cancelled or replaced with virtual, online events, much ink has been spilled over the importance or otherwise of location when it comes to conjuring up that mythical thing known as “the festival experience.”

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With last year’s Edinburgh festivals taking place almost entirely online, for example, some wondered to what extent they were still the Edinburgh festivals. You didn’t have to be in Edinburgh to experience them, after all, and a lot of the work available to view ​virtually had been created outside the capital. If a New York-based theatre-lover sat down ​​to stream a production of Hamlet made and filmed in Taiwan via the Fringe website, could they really be said to be experiencing the Edinburgh Fringe? Where, exactly, was the "Edinburgh-ness" of their experience?

Inevitably, this sudden focus on the essence and identity o​f​ individual festivals – the question of what, apart from their location, makes them distinctive or unique – has led to much tearing of hair and wringing of hands​ over the last year-and-a-half. Meanwhile, the ​festivals ​​that have been best protected from this sudden, gaping vortex of existential angst have tended to be the​ more specialist ones, which​ already understand and​ cater for a specific, niche audience.

Exhibit A: the Banff Mountain Film Festival – the annual celebration of films on mountain culture which has been running in the town of Banff, Alberta since 1976, and which, in recent years, has confidently brought its world-beating programme of films to an international audience courtesy of "World Tour" events in hundreds of different cities, without appearing to lose much sleep over whether this somehow dilutes the brand or erodes its fundamental “Banff-ness.”

This year, as a side-effect of the pandemic, there are only three World Tour screenings in Scotland, two at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh, on 1 and 2 September, and one at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow, on 11 October. The organisers say they have been unable to arrange events for Aberdeen, Inverness, Pitlochry and Stirling as in previous years, but they hope to make a return to these locations in 2022.

Scotland, of course, has its own homegrown mountain film festivals in Dundee, Edinburgh and Fort William, and these very successfully occupy their own niche by showing a mixture of Scottish and international films to do with climbing, skiing and the rest (watch this space for more on their upcoming editions). Banff, though, is the Cannes of the mountain film festival circuit. To get your film shown here you’d better have captured somebody doing something pretty darn special, and you’d better have done it in a suitably jaw-dropping, big screen-friendly way.

Andrzej Bargiel negotiating a bit of a bergshrund on his descent of K2 PIC: Marek Ogien / Red Bull

Just to give a flavour, films screening as part of this year’s World Tour events in Edinburgh and Glasgow include Ocean to Asgard, in which four climbers pioneer a new route ​up the fortress-like Mount Asgard on Baffin Island in Arctic Canada; Return to El Guayas, in which a trio of kayakers attempt a first descent the wild Colombian river of the title; and The Ghosts Above, in which National Geographic photographer Renan Ozturk joins an expedition up Mount Everest to try and determine once and for all whether Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay really were the first people to reach the top of the world’s highest peak.

Even in this mightily impressive company,​ however, there’s one film that stands out from the crowd: K2: The Impossible Descent. Yup, you read that right: de-scent. For most serious climbers, simply reaching the top of the world’s second-highest peak and getting back to Base Camp in one piece would be the achievement of a lifetime; K2 may not be as high as Everest, but it’s much more deadly, with only three climbers out of every four who reach the summit making it back alive. Polish​ ski mountaineer Andrzej Bargiel, however, set out to become the first person to climb to the top and then ski to the bottom, and not only was this the first-ever ski descent, ​he also did it solo​ ​and without supplemental oxygen.​ It’s a truly mind-boggling achievement, the mountaineering equivalent of winning the Olympic 100 metre hurdles while juggling chainsaws.

The first half of the film goes out of its way to prepare you for how terrifying the ski down will be and then the descent, when it comes, is a hundred times worse than you could possibly have imagined. As one of the film’s talking heads helpfully points out, “pretty much every single place on K2, if you fall, you will go to the bottom” – and then, at a critical moment, Bargiel gets caught in a white-out, and has to decide whether or not to attempt the next few turns in zero visibility. It’s genuinely heart-in-mouth stuff, wherever you end up watching it.

Andrzej Bargiel with his team following his historic descent PIC: Marek Ogien / Red Bull

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