Mountainous  Movie Adventures

World class climber, alpinist and adventurer Leo Houlding brings his tales to Banff.

The 48th Annual Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival combines art and winter-sports culture for a week-long party

The Gateway to the Rockies” is how Martin Short described Calgary in a Canada-centric short film shown for years at Disney World. The Rocky Mountains, an ever-present fixture of our collective skyline, offer a promise of adventure that captures the imagination of everyone who gazes longingly at their beauty. Mention hiking or skiing in a Calgary bar and watch as even the most buttoned-up patrons perk up and chat excitedly about their weekend adventure on the Six Glaciers trail or show off a tattoo of the Three Sisters.

But in many ways, Calgary is the gateway to the gateway. Yes, we always see the mountains; but Banff exists right between them, nestled in the shadows of summits with awe-inspiring names like Yamnuska and Assiniboine. A 90-minute drive west (and a $10.50 national parks fee) is all it takes to go from Calgary’s skyscrapers to this picturesque town populated with avid skiers, rugged mountaineers, and adrenaline junkies. 

Up a winding road on a hill above the main streets of Banff lies a sprawling complex of modern buildings with high glass windows set into red brick buildings, with phrases such as “Meet Me In Town” painted onto signs along the pathways within the surrounding woods. This intriguingly secluded complex is the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and it is here the Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival will be held, between Oct. 28 and Nov. 5. 

The spirit of adventure that clings to the mountain air is the perfect backdrop for this multi-disciplinary bash. 

That party had humble beginnings. “It’s a quirky idea that a few climbers in 1976 had while drinking beer in someone’s basement, a one-day event,” says festival director Joanna Croston with a laugh. 

And 47 festivals later, the event has expanded into a nine-day shindig that takes over Banff with more than 60 events at the Banff Centre itself and over 85 films in competition. And when the final movie finishes at the Jenny Belzberg Theatre in November, the entire festival hits the road for a world tour, hosting up to 1,100 screenings on all seven continents … including Antarctica.

Croston, herself an accomplished climber and writer, has been a key part of making the festival happen for the past 16 years. After working with the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies for years, she developed a passion for, in her words, “the merging of art and mountaineering,” a passion she carried into coordinating and programming roles with the Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival and World Tour. She has been the festival director since 2019 and directs the world tour. 

Narrowing down over 500 entries into a curated 85-film festival can’t be done without a vision. “A lot of the content we are getting is really indicative of the times we live in,” she reflects. “There’s a lot of conversations about climate change and the glaciers melting … we’re going out to these hills, and we are noticing these changes. What can we do to mitigate them?” 

These existential questions form the backbone of much of the programming of the festival, which includes live events and speakers incorporated into the film programming. A great example is the keynote presentation from Jeremy Jones that will occur on Nov. 3. Jones, an internationally recognized snowboarder, is the founder of Protect Our Winters, a global non-profit that has brought together snow-sport industries and enthusiasts to protect places like the Rockies from climate change since 2007. 

“The mountains, to me, are the great teacher; they challenge me, they make me feel alive, they ground me, but they also take me to this really special place,” he said in a 2022 CNN mini documentary, beautifully capturing the emotions felt by everyone who experiences mountainous beauty. 

Inclusivity is another guiding principle for this year’s festival. “Indigenous Dialogue is an event I’ve added that is a part of our commitment to truth and reconciliation,” says Croston. “Mountain culture has often omitted Indigenous people, and these sessions are for their voices and narratives to be heard.” 

This special event, which will occur on Nov. 5 on the Rab Stage at the Banff Centre, is entitled “The Power of Women’s Stories” and will feature a panel led by Dr. Erynne Gilpin, a Victoria-based researcher and climber of mixed (Saulteaux Cree-Métis and Filipina/Celtic) descent. 

This panel also addresses another focus of the festival: championing women’s voice in winter sports. Reflecting on this reality, Croston says, “The absence of women in our programs for decades was noticed by many women, and I feel we’ve made great strides.” 

It’s heartening to see programming that addresses this reality. On Nov. 4, a panel entitled “Breaking into the Industry” will feature emerging filmmaking voices such as Heather Mosher, Sarah Steele and Jess Kimura. Kimura, an icon of modern snowboarding and a champion of equity within the sport, will also be a keynote speaker later that evening before a packed schedule of films in competition at the Jenny Belzberg Theatre. This event, along with many others, will be accessible to the visually impaired, hearing-impaired and deaf audience members. 

“Every year, we bring in these secret gems of humans who people may not have had contact with,” says Croston. “People that have never had the opportunity to speak
in person.” 

One such person is Ashima Shiraishi, an American rock climber who gained a reputation as one of the top boulderers and sports climbers in the world after starting the sport at the age of six. A week before her 15th birthday, she climbed a boulder problem — the route one takes when climbing up a gym bouldering wall or an outdoor boulder — with a difficulty rating of V15, the current limit of climbing difficulty. 

“People may have known her from when she was this real kind of ringer in her teenage years,” Croston says, “but now she’s a young woman. I don’t know that her voice has been her own yet, and this is the opportunity for that to happen.” Shiraishi will speak at a panel alongside local climbing icon Sonnie Trotter on the opening night of the festival, along
with the presentation of The Summit of
Excellence Award. 

Don’t be intimidated if you’re not a ski bum yourself, dear reader. In fact, in many ways, that’s the point of all this live programming at a mountainous movie festival. 

Croston says, “I think that coming to see the speakers brings it all down to a layman’s level. You realize that these are just humans as well.” There’s certainly something to be said about witnessing high-flying feats of winter sportsmanship on the big screen and then sharing an evening with the athletes and photographers behind it all. 

“I like to think we appeal to the armchair adventurers, too,” Croston says. “A lot of people come in and love to hear these stories of epic adventure and they’re just absolutely thrilled to not be a part of it.” 

Despite all the live programming, the heart of the festival has always been the films, and it’s where Croston would advise a new attendee to focus. “If you come for an all-day program, you’re going to see everything from the environment to skiing, to climbing, remote cultures and adventure. It’s a real mix of genres,” she says. “You might see a lot of high-adrenaline programs, and then we also have some really beautifully slow-paced, creative pieces.”

But the thread between it all? In her words: “All narratives are about being inspired by the mountains.” 

Whether you’re catching a live panel, hopping around the various vendor markets, watching a movie, or grabbing a pint on Banff Avenue, everywhere you look, the mountains will be there. It’s the perfect gateway for the adventures offered by the festival and a fabulous excuse to visit Banff in the off-season. 

Not bad for the boozy idea several “dirty climbers” had in the ‘70s. 

The 48th Annual Banff Centre Mountain Film And Book Festival will announce its full selection of films and programming on Oct 5. Tickets and festival passes are available now at