I was there at the beginning.
But I think I can be forgiven my fuzzy memories of the earliest Mountainfilm festivals. In May of 1979, our house on West Colorado Avenue rang with the delighted cries of two-year-old Cloe. And we had another one in the oven, four months from popping. You could say Ellen and I were additionally occupied.
I do remember Lito (our friend and fellow Telluride Ski School instructor Lito Tejada-Flores) talking about Trento, the granddaddy of mountain film festivals, and his inspiration for Mountainfilm. And I remember the gathering together of some of Lito’s heavyweight friends from the climbing world.
Not literally heavy, of course, but big names in the story of climbing: Yosemite big-wall pioneers Yvon Chouinard and Royal Robbins, American Alpine Club president Bob Craig, Climbing magazine editor Michael Kennedy.
Chouinard and Lito had gone to Patagonia together on what they dubbed “The Fun Hogs Tour,” in 1968. They drove from Berkeley to the tip of South America to climb a new route on a spectacular granite monolith called Fitz Roy. Among the results of that trip: Lito’s film, Fitz Roy: First Ascent of the Southwest Buttress, won the Grand Prize at Trento the next year; Yvon had the name for his future clothing business, Patagonia; and so did Doug Tompkins, another Funhog. Lito, always playing with meaning, suggested Doug call his new clothing company Esprit de Corp(oration).
Funny, Robbins also went into the outdoor clothing field with his label, Royal Robbins. What was it with those climbers and their garment genius?
Mountainfilm was much smaller then. There were large blocks of time during the day when there were no films to see. Guests and ticketholders were encouraged to get out and climb or ski.
I remember tai-chi-ing up a couple of mellow 5.8 routes in Ophir’s Crack Canyon with Chouinard one year. He was patience personified; for me, it was Fantasy City. The festival had just screened a film called Dream of White Horses, in which a young, brash, phenomenally talented Henry Barber soloed the eponymous sea cliff in Wales. It was simultaneously the most nerve-wracking and most beautiful climbing I had ever seen – Barber’s fluid choreography up the white rock contrasted with the terrific exposure the higher he got.
Both Barber and Robbins relocated to Telluride for a time following their Mountainfilm guest appearances. Henry built a house near the Ames hydro plant that looked straight up the Ames Wall.
Another time (it might even have been the same year) Chouinard asked me to take him fly-fishing. He was just starting in a sport that would become a passion up there with his surfing and his conservation work. We tried everything from nymphs to dry flies on a stretch of the San Miguel between Placerville and the Norwood Bridge, but caught nothing. The water was too murky with spring runoff.
My steady assignment in those early years was to lead anyone who wanted to go on a ski tour from Ophir to Telluride, the classic Bear Creek ski. We’d meet in the frosty dawn in front of the Opera House, the only festival venue in those days. Overnight temps were colder then; the snow was hard and good all the way to the big rock below Bear Creek Falls, 4,000 vertical feet from the ridgeline.
One of those early years I found myself cramponing up the crunchy, blue-shadowed snowfields on the Ophir side with just one festival guest, John Harlin III. He was at the time the editor of Backpacker magazine, but I knew him also to be the son of a famous alpinist who had made a reputation (he was nicknamed “the blond god”) as one of a group of bold Americans climbing in the Alps in the early 1960s.
Harlin, the son, was strong and broad-shouldered with boyish, straight blond hair. He told me as we walked that he battled asthma, but that going higher seemed to clear his breathing. The higher we went the better he felt.
At the top, at 13,400 feet, as we sat waiting for the snow to soften a little more, he grew quiet.
I wouldn’t find out until later, after asking around, that Harlin’s father had died trying a new direct route on the North Face of the Eiger, in Switzerland. The frayed rope he was ascending broke, sending him plummeting 4,000 feet to his death. Young John was there, with his mother and his sister. He was nine years old.
Noticing that I had noticed his silence, he spoke up: “I just had a birthday,” he said. “And I was just thinking that today I’m older than my father lived to be.”