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Feature - Views from on high

A dispatch from the 2002 Banff Mountain Summit, on extreme landscapes and lofty ideas

BANFF, ALTA. — It’s been three nights and two days of all things alpine here in the Rocky Mountains and my head is spinning from attending seminars on extreme landscapes, discussions on mountain culture and traditional native and vertical dance routines. The events have become a blur in my mind, and I need to clear my head.

I wake up in Corbett Hall, one of the Banff Centre’s campus-like residences, and brew myself a cup of freshly ground organic coffee on the Coleman stove, located in what I have come to call the Hobo Kitchen. My roommate for the week, a magazine editor from Fernie who has been living in my mother-in-law’s suburban Calgary basement for the past couple of months, brought the stove so we wouldn’t be forced to dine at Banff’s expensive restaurants. Think of it as camping inside, we decided.

I sweep back the curtains to reveal another picture-perfect day, cold and clear. Through the window I can see the sloping roof of 2,949-metre Mount Rundle, perhaps Banff’s most recognizable mountain. From my vantage, Rundle is a classic Rocky Mountain dip-slope geological formation that looks like a writing desk tilted on its side.

Finishing my cup of coffee, I decide to drive back home to Golden, B.C., to see my partner and young daughter before returning to Banff for book and film festivals that will fill the rest of the week. I hop in my truck and start home with thoughts from the past two days simmering in my head as I try to make sense of what has taken place.

According to Bernadette McDonald, the Banff Centre’s vice-president of mountain culture programs, the Oct. 27-29 Mountain Summit was to explore how extreme landscapes – in this case, mountains – shape people’s lives and, in turn, how people impact these landscapes. The summit was also scheduled to coincide with the United Nations’ 2002 International Year of Mountains celebrations.

World-renowned academics, adventurers, anthropologists, conservationists, mountaineers, performers, poets, scientists and writers gathered here to discuss, muse about and ruminate on their experiences in extreme landscapes. Seminar topics varied from the culture and inspiration of extreme landscapes to the consumption and increasingly corporate nature of these places. The town of Banff itself is a good example.

As I drive down from the bucolic, pine tree-lined Banff Centre campus, I enter a wholly different world. Banff – like Whistler and other mountain resort towns in B.C. and Alberta – is home to an ever-increasing number of fastfood restaurants and multinational retailers.

Last night, I watched two bull elk lock antlers and playfully spar with each other. Now, as I wait for the light to change at the intersection of Wolf Street and Banff Avenue, I watch as tourists from around the world walk down the street eating a hamburger from McDonald’s while carrying bags from the Gap. I am in the heart of the Canadian Rockies but I might as well be in the concrete canyons and suburban sprawl of Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto or wherever. The summit panelists all talked about mountains as extreme landscapes but that depends on your point of view.

Leaving Banff behind, I merge onto the Trans-Canada Highway and drive towards the mountains. Within minutes, I am surrounded by high peaks and become enveloped by lofty ideas as the words of summit panelists come to mind.

Ice climber-adventurer Will Gadd talked about how the Banff-Canmore-Calgary corridor is under constant threat from development pressures. "Just look at the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs," he said. "It’s one big city, an incremental cancer that is spreading across North America.

"I’ve never seen a place that looks better as a Wal-Mart, than in its natural state," Gadd added.

Park warden-turned-poet-and-writer Sid Marty railed against Alberta Premier Ralph Klein’s development-at-all-costs approach to governance. "There is a constant invasion of people whose motives are speculation and investment, rather than creating a homestead," Marty lamented as he told the story of how he had been displaced from nearby Canmore by an expensive real estate market.

Marty now lives in the Rocky Mountain foothills near Pincher Creek, but that area’s ranchland is now being developed and subdivided into second-home ranchettes for oil-rich Calgarians. "If outrage was whiskey, I’d be drunk every day here in Alberta," he said.

Bob Sandford, the driving force behind Parks Canada’s heritage tourism strategy and the Canadian International Year of Mountains celebrations, echoed Marty’s sentiments. "Landscapes are literally being eaten alive," he said. "Our culture has an insatiable appetite for eating up more than just the view.

"We are eating away at our spiritual connection with the landscape, and the commercialization and commodification of these spaces undermines those personal values," Sandford noted. "What kind of cultural landscape do we live in when it’s judged purely by economic factors?" Lessons, perhaps, for the Whistler-Squamish-Vancouver region.

After a half-hour of recalling those voices from the summit, my mind turns from the past few days to last summer as I approach Lake Louise. Rising majestically into the autumn sky is Mount Temple, a 3,543-metre hulk of a mountain that I had climbed in August. Its peak is 500 metres higher than any other in the region, and is one of the highest in the entire Rocky Mountain range. When people think of the Canadian Rockies, an image of Mount Temple’s north face – a wall of vertical rock capped by perpetual snow and ice – most likely enters their heads.

However, Mount Temple is by no means a technical climb. A route, basically a scramble, traces the mountain’s southwest ridge to its peak. When I finally summitted, after stumbling and weaving my way up through the thin air, no less than a dozen people arrived as I regained my breath and drank in the view.

Less than a week before I had stood on top of Temple, I had embarked on a different, although equally stimulating, journey. In downtown Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, I had stood staring – for hours, it seemed – at a huge oil canvas of Mount Temple by Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris, a deeply spiritual man, who believed mountain places to be a symbolic bridge between earth and sky, the material and immaterial. In Harris’s abstract painting, an aura radiates out from behind the mountain, and I felt the same sort of energy as I stood on Mount Temple’s summit.

Back in Banff, ethnobotanist-explorer Wade Davis spoke passionately about his take on the inspiration of extreme landscapes. "What intrigues me is how other cultures view and interpret the landscape," he said. "I believe there is a difference between the spiritual and the physical journey.

"Since the start of time, people have experienced landscapes on their own terms, and have told narratives and stories that construct a mythology to tie them to those places."

Davis – a B.C. native born in North Vancouver, who now works for the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. – went on to posit that mountaineering and skiing could possibly be a way to tie us, inhabitants of the modern, urban world, to the land.

It can be seen as a vision quest of sorts, he said, where people go into nature and bring back experiences to their community.

"These people withdraw from society and go into the natural world, only to return with a new inner strength, whether it be physical, spiritual or emotional," noted Davis. "These stories then become our collective cultural narrative.

"But our capacity to forget has become problematic, and only the ability to remember through these stories is our strength and possible solution."

Edwin Bernbaum, a professor at Cal-Berkeley and an expert on sacred mountains, elaborated on Davis’s theories. "Mountains are associated with the highest ideals of humans," he said during a summit seminar. "Mountains are the heights of inspiration and sources of renewal, wisdom, creativity and vision."

Bernbaum went on to explain that mountains have been used for meditation and religious practice, such as how Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, or the way Buddhists make pilgrimages to sacred mountains; by poets, writers and artists for inspiration, such as Basho, a Japanese haiku poet, Beat generation writer Gary Snyder, and the Group of Seven’s Lawren Harris; and by mountaineers and skiers.

"Mountains put us in touch with a higher being, allow us to transcend normal, everyday life and leave behind the illusions of this world to discover new, authentic ways of being," he said. "Mountains give us a sublime meaning and vitality to life, and make it worth living.

"The struggle of life is forever upward. But at the end of the journey is joy, which is the true essence of life."

With this sage advice in mind, I exit off the highway, drive across the overpass and pull into Lake Louise’s small village. I step out of my truck and breath in the cool, crisp mountain air as I look up at the impossibly beautiful scene.

The sun has vanished from the sky, leaving nothing but pastel tints of peach and salmon on the surrounding snow-covered peaks and the clouds that effortlessly move across an infinite blue canvas. I stare up at Mount Temple and recall each footfall that it took to carry me to the top. I remember how I felt on the high summit and the lofty idea that, from up there, the world seemed to make perfect sense.

Greig Bethel lives in Golden, B.C., where he teaches creative writing at the College of the Rockies. He is currently working on a book about Kootenay ski-bum culture.