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Feature - War and peace in the mountains

Battle zones, recreational playgrounds or sacred spaces?

BANFF, ALTA. — It’s Sunday afternoon and after a week-long celebration of all things alpine at the Banff Mountain Festivals, the focus turns from nature, adventure and extreme sports to something more serious and sobering.

The winter sun casts long, diffuse shadows across the Banff Centre’s bucolic campus, where resident elk and deer usually chew on grass beneath a pine forest.

But for the past week, the ungulates have been replaced by 10,000 adrenaline addicts from around the globe who have gathered here to watch films, read books, attend seminars and listen to world-renowned adventurers.

It seems that insulated down jackets and sunglasses, not natural fur coats, are de riguer on campus at this year’s festival.

Into the Forbidden Zone

, a National Geographic documentary that follows uber-journalist Sebastian Junger, author of the best-selling book The Perfect Storm , and award-winning photographer Reza during a trip to war-torn Afghanistan, has just ended and a packed house of 950 stumbles out of the Eric Harvey Theatre into the crisp mountain air with dazed looks on their faces.

Junger and Reza travelled to Afghanistan in November, 2000, to meet with Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir, due to his fierce resistance of the invading Russian army during the 1980s.

The film shows the beauty of the dry Afghan mountains but also depicts the horrors of war; Northern Alliance troops whose limbs have been blown off by land mines and four-month-old children who are starving to death in refugee camps.

"Afghanistan is a country that has been forgotten by the rest of the world," says Ian Carrick, an Edmonton-based orthopedist who has worked there fitting land-mine victims with artificial limbs. "It’s a beautiful country that has been decimated by 30 years of war."

Massoud had been leading the fight against Afghanistan’s Taliban government until he was assassinated two days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Superimposed against this background, the film carries a walloping emotional weight and left the audience stunned.

Perhaps park-warden-turned-writer Sid Marty put it best at a mountain poetry seminar that took place earlier in the week during the Banff Mountain Book Festival: "We live in a strange world, where a six-year-old boy can carry a gun."

Immediately following the film, the majority of the audience made its way down a hill towards another theatre – similar to a university lecture hall – for a panel discussion on war and peace in the mountains. Ironically, this seminar topic was chosen last spring.

"Mountains are traditional zones of tension – physical, geographical and social – because they often form the boundaries between countries," Larry Hamilton, a Cornell University professor and mountain-environment conservationist, told a standing-room only crowd of 350. "Nineteen wars and seven armed conflicts in the past decade have been over border disputes in mountain regions, where misunderstandings have developed into social and political tension."

Another panelist, Harish Kapadia, one of India’s best-known mountain climbers, has first-hand knowledge of conflict in the mountains: his son was killed last year during a border skirmish between India and Pakistan in the Himalayas.

"I can only hope," he said, "that one day soldiers will be replaced by mountaineers."

But, according to Hamilton, mountain regions are also a place of hope and healing.

"Mountains can play a significant role in dissipating tension," he explained. "Mountains have an intrinsic metaphysical value – they provide solitude and spiritual renewal."

Kapadia agreed: "I am sure we can get there someday."

• • •

Last weekend, the World Cup ski circuit made its annual stop in Canada at Lake Louise. Unlike Whistler, where races were cancelled by bad weather three years in a row during the late 1990s, the event went off without a hitch.

Race organizers have gone on the record as saying the snow conditions at Lake Louise – a 60-kilometre drive north of Banff – will most likely go unparalleled this year.

In another month or so, all eyes will be on Garmisch-Partenkirchen as the World Cup circuit heads to Germany in late January, 2002, for two men’s super-G races.

Former Crazy Canuck downhiller and current Whistler resident Steve Podborski won three times in Garmisch during the 1980s. Interestingly enough, the race course is called the Kandahar – the name of the Taliban’s current strong-hold in Afghanistan.

• • •

Banff is the birthplace of mountain tourism in Canada. In 1885, the transcontinental railway connected Montreal to Vancouver and Banff National Park was established to help boost the area’s fledgling tourism industry.

Canadian Pacific Railway executives figured they could attract more people to the region – and, thus, help pay for the line – by building grand hotels in the western mountains. Hotels were placed in Banff, Lake Louise and Glacier House at the summit of Rogers Pass, and were staffed with Swiss mountain guides.

Today, Banff National Park sees an annual influx of 4.7 million visitors and the tranquil Rocky Mountains have been transformed into a tourist haven.

A sightseeing gondola is strung up the side of Sulphur Mountain. Three major ski areas – Lake Louise, Sunshine and Norquay – are located within park boundaries. Hikers and mountaineers clamber up and over mountain peaks and passes.

Banff is the face of mountain culture in Canada. When overseas visitors think about Canadian mountains, pictures of the Rockies automatically enter their heads.

Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho national parks, together with Hamber, Mount Robson and Mount Assiniboine provincial parks, form the UNESCO Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site, one of the largest protected areas in the world.

But while tourism now forms the backbone of many regional economies through out western North America, it does not come without a price.

"Mountain regions are being destroyed by war, but they can also be destroyed by development and over-use," argues Hamilton.

There are more than 33,000 designated protected areas in the world, says Hamilton, but they only cover nine per cent of the Earth’s surface. The United Nations has a goal of protecting 12 per cent.

But with mountains being turned into war zones and recreational playgrounds at an increasingly faster rate, will we ever have a chance?

• • •

The big winner at this year’s Banff Mountain Film Festival was a movie that explores the value of wilderness in the modern world.

Yellowstone — America’s Sacred Wilderness

took the festival jury’s grand prize with a beautifully shot film that examines the beautiful, and sometimes brutal, natural ecology of Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, where grizzly bears kill deer fawns to feed their cubs.

Another film that captures the metaphyiscal value of mountains is In the Light of Reverence , which documents the impacts of recreational and industrial development on the sacred sites of First Nation peoples.

The movie makes the point that mountains, and nature, can take care of the heart, soul and mind.

There are interesting parallels between this film and the current situations at Sun Peaks Resort near Kamloops and the proposed Cayoosh ski resort between Pemberton and Lillooet, where, in both cases, natives are protesting development.

The two films also offer a sharp contrast to the usual dude-mentries about BASE jumping, unicycling down Mexican volcanoes, sailing in the Antarctic and skiing down Alaskan peaks.

Banff itself, as Banff Centre president and CEO Mary Hofstetter noted in her opening night speech, is also recognized as a sacred site.

Back before the CPR, tourists and mountain festivals, the Stoney Cree travelled from their homes on the flat Canadian prairie, up the Bow River Valley through the foothills, towards a sacred spot surrounded by the high mountain peaks of Rundle, Cascade, Sulphur and Norquay and located at the convergence of three valleys.

"Banff is steeped in mystique," Hofstetter said. "It is a place of power, a place from where huge influence and change can flow."

And after taking in a week of mountain culture, where friendships were renewed day after day at the festivals and night after night in the pub, the 10,000 people who gathered here from around the globe went back home with some semblance of what makes the mountains such a special place.

Next time you’re up in the mountains, or when you view some of these films, take the time to think about what the mountains mean to you: War or peace? Development or nature? Conflict or spiritual renewal?

The Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour – which includes 250 North American screenings from Masset on the Queen Charlotte Islands to New York City – will be in Whistler Dec. 8-9 at the Myrtle Philip Community Centre.

Advance tickets are $13; $15 at the door. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., with films staring at 7 p.m. For tickets and more information, contact Escape Route at 604-938-3228.