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.

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