The past two years have been rough at times for those who enjoy outdoor sports. Climbers without crags on their doorstep have ruined their elbows hanging from door frames. Cyclists have invested in indoor training machines. For many, getting outside has meant running in nearby parks and dashing to hills and lakes whenever the opportunity has arisen.
While outdoor adventure documentaries have long been a staple of this community, they took on a new meaning during the pandemic as a reminder of a world beyond working from home and trying to stay fit.
The Banff Mountain Film festival has long showcased the best of this genre, and in more recent years has also taken it on tour: over the rest of this year it is showing at 50 venues across the UK and Ireland.
Some of the films will be familiar to many, but are worth catching on a big screen. In this category is The Slabs, featuring Scottish mountain biker Danny MacAskill’s terrifying descent of the 500-metre Dubh Slabs on the Isle of Skye.
Filmed during lockdown in 2020, the film garnered millions of views when it was first released online last year. I have watched it several times, and MacAskill’s descent of the steepest section, a rounded ridge of bald granite still has my heart in my mouth.
“Like all of us, 2020 threw a few curveballs in terms of travel and plans for the year,” said MacAskill. “I spent the first few months of lockdown riding for myself. When the lockdown eased a bit, we decided to go out and try to make a few films. I thought I’d start by looking close to home.
“The Dubh Slabs are a well-known scrambling route that climbers and mountaineers use to access the Cuillin ridge. It’s this long, sustained bare piece of slab rock that rises from Loch Coruisk.
“We ended up filming the slabs over two days rather than one. We managed to get a lot of the lines that I’d dreamed of doing on the first day, but the cloud came in towards the end and the last slab became off limits because it started raining. I did try to ride the very bottom of it, much to my friends’ horror.
“The bike started getting a little bit out of control when I was about 50 metres from the bottom. Luckily I got it back. I don’t think it was very nice for my friends watching. I was on the limit of control. The tyres were at 99% of their grip limit and the brakes were also right at their very limit.”
Also on a mountain biking theme is Follow the Light, in which professional cyclist Kilian Bron heads to Cappadocia, Turkey to ride among its photogenic “fairy chimneys” – the singular towers clustered on the high plateaux of central Anatolia.
He is often seen riding beneath a cloud of hot air balloons, but the most spectacular scene has Bron following a flare mounted on a drone through a narrow canyon at night.
The film’s French director, Pierre Henni, says: “[That shot] took us three evenings and we had to experiment a lot.
“It was almost pitch black, so the only source of light for the drone pilot and the rider (as well as the filmer and photographer) was that flare on the drone, so it had to stay close to Kilian. As soon as the flare was ending. we needed to jump on our headlamps so the drone operator could see the landing zone.”
Filmed in Germany’s Frankenjura region, Action Directe offers a different kind of sweaty-palm experience. It follows the protracted efforts of top French climber Melissa Le Nevé to be the first woman to climb the large limestone prow from which the film takes its title – almost 30 years after the late Wolfgang Güllich made the original ascent
Climbing the short but fiercely overhanging wall in forest near Bayreuth requires a sequence of moves on single finger pockets in the rock, all shown clearly in the film, along with a dramatic leap for a hold.
Yet all of these seem manicured alongside Exit the North Pole, which follows the attempt of famed polar traveller Børge Ousland and colleague Mike Horn to make a minimalist 1,300km traverse of the thinning ice of the Arctic Ocean.
The pair used pack rafts and ski poles to move on the thinnest ice when they could not ski, and the resulting film depicts an exercise in elemental suffering in a place few of us will ever visit.
“When it’s dark 24 hours a day, everything becomes much more difficult,” said Ousland. “You only see the small beam from your head torch – that’s your world. You have no idea what’s behind you. A polar bear can sneak up without you even noticing.”
If that sounds like tough fare, there are several more playful films on the programme, prominent among them A Dog’s Tale.
Anyone who has gone trail running or mountain biking with their dog will feel an immediate affinity, with this is the story about Raven, a 13-year-old retired trail dog who lives in Squamish, British Columbia. While it’s a twist on a familiar format – mountain bikers jumping berms in slow motion – its real charm is the dogs tearing down the descents with their owners.
Entirely different again is the award-winning Dream Mountain, following Nepali climber Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita as climbed 6,440-metre Cholatse in the Everest region with her husband and two-year-old son in November 2019.
Nepal’s first female mountaineering instructor, and the first Nepali woman to summit K2 – the world’s second-highest mountain – Pasang finds the Cholatse expedition different with her son in tow. Now she has to consider the conflicts between her dreams of climbing and her sense of responsibility.
“One morning, I was interviewing Pasang on a ridge overlooking Mount Everest and Khumjung village, where she was born,” says film-maker Cira Crowell. “She was struggling for ways to express the challenges she experienced growing up – being told that climbing and mountains were inappropriate for girls.
“A bell rang in the cold air and the students of Sir Edmund Hillary School poured out of the stacked-stone buildings to line up in neat rows for morning assembly. It triggered a memory in Pasang, who said: ‘You know, all those boys down there are free to do whatever they want to do in life. The girls cannot. All the girls should be able to follow their dreams too.’
“It was a mic-drop moment as we considered the fates of the girls below, and how limited their options still are. This moment epitomised the central theme of Dream Mountain.”