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Jack Tackle: the narrative of climbing

“Climbing and adventure stories lend themselves to good storytelling because they’re about events and places that are out of the ordinary in every way,” says writer and mountaineer Jack Tackle. “If someone possesses the skills to write or talk about their experiences well, then the stories can be compelling and interesting to a lot of people. Many will never climb a mountain or kayak some rad river, or ski a sick line. But they will want to read and hear about it because it may motivate them to do something different, or change how they look at the world.”

Jack Tackle on Mt. Kennedy in the Yukon (left). Photo by Jack Roberts. Photo (right) by Andrew Burr.

Part of The Banff Centre’s appeal is its blend of arts and mountain culture, and the Mountain and Wilderness Writing program is a unique synthesis of the two, routinely attracts a diverse roster of writers who hunker down in the Leighton Artists’ Colony every November to work on nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.

The scope of the program has expanded to include subjects as remote as Mars, but climbing and mountaineering narratives are still at its foundation. For Tackle, a veteran climber and guide, the program presented an opportunity to devote concentrated time to crafting a book about his career and adventures.

Known for his exploration of remote areas and discovery of new routes in places like Alaska and Patagonia, Tackle’s personality befits an accomplished mountaineer. Soft-spoken yet assured, he immediately inspires confidence, with a demeanor cut with flashes of humor and self-deprecation. “Climbing itself isn’t that interesting,” he told me. “It isn’t like driving an F-1 car”.

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Adventurer Bruce Kirkby on the genius of Google and Burmese cheese

Adventurer, writer and photographer, Bruce Kirkby, has spent more than two decades exploring the most remote corners of the planet. He was here at the 2013 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival wearing a number of different hats – as an interviewer, in conversation with Everest mountaineer  Apa Sherpa; as a panelist for the release of Rock, Paper, Fire (a collection of writings from Kirkby and other alumni of the Mountain and Wilderness Writing program) and as a jury member for the Banff Mountain Book Competition.

Author and adventurer, Bruce Kirkby, here during the 2013 Banff Mountain Film and Book Competition. Photo: Don Lee.

When I met up with him, he had only had three hours of sleep, but seemed to be buzzing from the adrenaline of the festival. I decided it was no time for lengthy discourse, so I opted for some quick-fire questions:

When travelling, what do you always take with you? A toque.

What are your best river, land, winter and summer adventures? Running the Blue Nile, Somalia; Walking across Iceland with my wife (37 days); paddling in Scorsbysund, Greenland (40 days) and visiting the Mergui Archipelago, Burma.

Who has been the most interesting adventure traveler you’ve met? Wilfred Thesiger, the desert explorer. He was the last of the great explorers and a beautiful writer too.

What do you consider the best form of travel? I’m having a bit of a love affair with the horse lately. Yes, I’d have to say horse.

How long have you gone without a shower? Somewhere between 40 and 60 days.

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Mountain writers: “A natural feel for story”

Mountain and Wilderness Writing program directors Tony Whittome and Marni Jackson. Photo: Meghan Krauss.

Mountain and Wilderness Writing program directors Tony Whittome and Marni Jackson. Photo: Meghan Krauss.

Marni Jackson and Tony Whittome have led The Banff Centre’s Mountain and Wilderness Writing program since its inception in 2005, and they say it’s reached a sweet spot. The Banff Centre Press has just published Rock, Paper, Fire, a collection of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry by past  writers from the program. Jackson and Whittome have worked with dozens of writers over those eight years – some well-established and others just starting out – and they say that the program has evolved over the years, but personal stories will always be at the heart of it. “The remarkable thing is the spirit which develops among these very different writers coming from different areas of experience, and age ranges, and different countries,” Whittome says. “It’s a kind of organic unity that develops.”

Rock, Paper, Fire includes 24 pieces: essays and stories by writers and adventurers including Barry Blanchard‘s essay First Ascent, about family, friendship, and loss, and the role climbing has played in his life through it all. Transgressions, by Katie Ives, recalls the moment her love of climbing began — when as a child, she ascended a steep sea cliff with her father watching from below. Helen Mort’s collection of six poems, titled No Map Could Show Them, reflects on climbing from a woman’s perspective.

Jackson says she believes people who are comfortable in the outdoors usually make good writers. “They seem to have a natural feel for narrative and story,” she says. “They have a goal they want to reach, so you have that narrative arc.” Whittome adds, “There’s something about solo climbing or exploration — there’s an interior quality to that. You inhabit your mind a lot, obviously in writing, but also in significant achievements outdoors.”

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Taking the mountains home

Helen Mort, one of the six participants in the Mountain and Wilderness Writing program, read from her work earlier this month at WildFlour Café. Photo: Kim Williams.

About halfway through my three-week residency at The Banff Centre I became obsessed with the idea of getting some kind of Rockies-related tattoo. I’m not sure exactly what I had in mind – Mount Rundle on my back? A comedy coyote perched on Tunnel Mountain? As long as it hurt and was permanent it would do. Why, other than my usual lack of aesthetic sense?

Andy Kirkpatrick, a speaker at this year’s Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, captures the impulse best in his book Cold Wars. In the last chapter, he’s climbing on the Northeast Face of Les Droites when something shiny on the wall catches his eye. It is a fist-sized crystal - a lump of quartz.

“The last crystal I’d seen like this was on Poincenot in Patagonia…. My instinct had been to smash one out with my axe and take it with me, but as I lifted up my hammer I had stopped, believing that if I stole it, the mountain would punish me.The same thought came into my head again, as I stood there on Les Droites, that the mountain would punish me. That the mountain cared. I lifted my hammer and smashed it out and put it in my rucksack.” Continue Reading →

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Don Gillmor’s “sense of the mountains”

“There’s a sense of the mountains that you can’t recreate in your head sitting in urban Toronto.” – Don Gillmor

Don Gillmor, participant in Mountain and Wilderness Writing, deep in discussion. Photo: Kim Williams.

I first read Don Gillmor’s writing in The Walrus magazine when I was moving back to Canada from Scotland. It happened to be “The Cities Issue” of The Walrus and featured an essay of Gillmor’s on Calgary: a city I’d never visited but that became a mythic place in my mind through his writing.

Don Gillmor has won nine National Magazine Awards; written children’s books, as well as for GQ and Rolling Stone; and served as faculty in The Banff Centre’s Literary Journalism program. He has the deft ability to find universal truths in the commonplace. As a participant with The Banff Centre’s Mountain and Wilderness Writing Program, he is working on his latest essay in which climate change and the end of skiing are likened to the perils of old age and death.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Gillmor in the Leighton Artists’ Colony earlier this month to discuss his new work.

What is Gillmor’s relationship with skiing? Is the sport of skiing disappearing?
You’ll have to listen to find out.

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