In the midst of an early October snowstorm, academics, practitioners, writers and educators made their way to the famous northern town of Banff, nestled in the stunning Canadian Rocky Mountains. Some people made it to Banff before the snows began. Others, like me, got stuck on the highway for an hour or so as trucks and cars struggled to climb the slippery roads and got stuck, blocking the flow of traffic. And some who arrived later that evening were apparently stuck on the slippery road for hours and hours late into the night. But eventually, we all made it to the iconic and woodsy Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity, home of the Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival, and – from 2-5 October – home of the Thinking Mountains Interdisciplinary Summit.
Thinking Mountains was sponsored by the University of Alberta, with an organizing team comprised of members from the Banff Centre, the CMN in Alberta, Simon Frasier University, and others. The summit opened on the evening of 2 October with a reception and Opening Traditional Blessings from the Nakoda Elder Gilbert Francis, Bearspaw First Nation, both of which I missed because I was stuck on the bus in the snowstorm. I did make it in time for the evening Q&A session on “Writing Mountains – a conversation about women, mountains, and memoir”. All of the three female Canadian authors on the panel had embarked on challenging mountain adventures that pushed them physically and also forced them to confront other internal struggles and external obstacles. The authors were authentic, funny, and contemplative. This unique and satisfying event set the stage for what was to come: not your typical mountain conference.
The conference opened the next morning with recognition of the First Nations homelands on the site. This was followed by a keynote by Dr. Martin Price, UNESCO Chair in Sustainable Mountain Development and University of the Highlands & Islands, Scotland. Dr. Price reflected on decades of mountain science and working beyond disciplinary boundaries. His talk provided insights into sustainable mountain development and how projects had built on each other. His talk concluded with the whole group singing Happy Birthday to Courtney Flint, from Utah State University. I delivered the keynote on the second day – and it was hard not to be distracted by the view given the sweeping glass windows and the stellar snowy mountain vistas in Canada’s first national park. My talk presented findings from the synthesis work of the Mountain Sentinels Collaborative Network; and I also showed a sample from a documentary film I am developing. The keynote on day three was presented by Linaya Workman, who is from the Ägunda (wolf) clan of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations in the Yukon. She provided a heart-wrenching experience of her people and the “Kluane National Park & Reserve, The Story of Ǟtsìa Keyi, Grandfathers Land”. The history of Kluane went from the removal of the First Nations when the park was created, to the implementation of Land Claims Agreements, to ‘building new relationships with self governing partners. ”
The concurrent sessions were compelling — it was hard to choose which sessions to attend. These diverse sessions included a film screening and discussion; contributed papers/presentations; and round table discussions. The topics were broad and included subjects such as global tourism; mountain literature; glacier dynamics; human dimensions; protected areas; ecology and observations; social history and vulnerability; and teaching mountains.
But, that’s not all. The evening sessions provided opportunities to learn more about local and historical initiatives, culture, and adventure. We learned about the careful reintroduction of bison to Banff National Park. We listened to and laughed about mountain life and stories from award-winning author Sid Marty and musicians Joe Cunningham and James Van Leeuwen. We also watched a movie, followed by discussion, on the 1971 Tseringma Pilgrimage, an (anti-) expedition to the Himalayas. This was a pilgrimage made by Sigmund Kvaloy Setreng, Nils Faarlund and Arne Naess to the Himalayas that rebelled against the victory-driven climbing culture of the time.
On the afternoon of fieldtrips, I joined the Mountain Legacy Project’s hike up a small peak just behind the Banff Centre. The Mountain Legacy Project has been working since 1998 to document landscape changes in Canada. They have the largest collection of historic mountain photographs, and their work involves repeat photography, archival research, and image interpretation and analysis. We went on a repeat photography excursion and learned the careful process of how to set up and take the image – very precise. The earlier sun had melted the settled snow, but by the time we were hiking up the trail, it was in shadows, had hardened, and was slick. We quickly became well acquainted with our fellow field trip participants as we grabbed on to each other to prevent sliding down the icy slope. Coming down the trail was even more fun – and very fast. Through the Mountain Legacy Project, we were reminded of the importance of documenting long-term change and of the power and efficacy of simple techniques.
Thinking Mountains brought together a refreshing and unique mix of ideas, products and people. The program, facilities, surrounding environment and food were all truly outstanding. The organizers were gracious and thoughtful, and did an excellent job on all aspects of the conference experience. My most fond moments were meals – when diverse people such as scientists, mountain adventurers and literature experts – brought together by a common passion for mountains – would extend their time around the table to continue to exchange stories and ideas. It was a perfect mix of people, knowledge and perspectives – all wrapped together in the wintry mix of the majestic Canadian Rockies.