Mountainfilm has gained a reputation over 42 years for airing some of the best documentaries about the outdoors, and significantly increasing the number of puffy jackets per square mile in Telluride, Colorado, for a week every May. This time last year, for obvious reasons, there was nary an out-of-town down feather to be found on Telluride’s streets. But 2021 will see a slight return to normal, with a hybrid festival featuring a limited capacity in-person event from May 28 to 31 and a virtual event from May 31 to June 6. The festival is offering all-inclusive passes for the online screeners for $150 to $250 or passes to individual screeners for $15; in-person attendees can purchase $20 tickets for each showing and will also have the option to see speakers like ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson, filmmaker Renan Ozturk, Arctic explorer Will Steger, and author Justin Farrell. Whichever experience appeals, some of the festival’s biggest draws are exciting new feature-length documentaries. Here are some highlights from the list.
‘Wall of Shadows’
Many films about mountain expeditions exhibit the uneven power dynamics between climbers and guides. But in Wall of Shadows, this is the subject instead of the subtext. Polish director and climber Eliza Kubarska centers the story on a family living in Nepal: professional guide Ngada Sherpa, his wife Jomdoe, and son Dawa. Early on, the family discusses the mountain at the center of the film, Kumbhakarna. “Is Everest easier than Kumbhakarna?” Dawa asks his father, who has climbed Everest, Ama Dablum, and many other major peaks multiple times. “Oh, Everest is much easier,” Ngada says. “Kumbhakarna is a lot more challenging.... Sherpa people won’t climb it because the mountain is sacred. You’re also very likely to die in the process.” Sure enough, it’s not long before we learn that Ngada has been hired to lead a team of Russian and Bosnian clients on Kumbhakarna. Wall of Shadows completely flips around the usual perspective of climbing films by focusing on the family’s doubts as they accompany the team to base camp, and Ngada struggles to decide whether or not he can safely bring the climbers to the peak—if he doesn’t, nobody will get paid. “They only listen to themselves,” Ngada laments of the clients at one point. “That’s not a good thing in the mountains.” Kubarska manages to follow the growing tensions between the pushy climbers and conflicted local guides so closely that the dramatic peaks feel almost beside the point.
‘Playing with Sharks’
Scuba diver Valerie Taylor has a shark’s tooth embedded under her chin, has friends who have survived shark attacks, and helped capture footage for the iconically scary shark film Jaws. Despite that, she refers to the fish as her friends, and approaches shark encounters with nonchalance and even… whimsy? The beginning of the documentary sees her packing for a trip to Fiji to visit a familiar group of bull sharks. “I’m going to be wearing a pink wetsuit,” she says. “I used to in the early days. And then I was told not to because it made me stand out and the bull sharks noticed. Well, I thought that was good, but apparently it’s not.” Playing with Sharks, which will play at Mountainfilm before becoming available for streaming on National Geographic, follows the many twists and turns of Taylor’s career evolution from a champion spearfisher to a scrappy open-water shark diver and filmmaker. She’s spent most of her life as a staunch advocate for understanding sharks, not fearing them. “There are hundreds of species of sharks in the ocean,” she says at one point. “Maybe five or six are potentially dangerous.” The documentary makes a good case that you can take her word for it; there’s almost no one else on earth who’s spent as much time alongside these creatures.
In the eighties, Alpine Meadows ski resort in California had one of the most advanced avalanche safety programs in the country, thanks to avalanche forecaster Jim Plehn and plenty of explosives. But by March 31, 1982, a series of spring snowstorms had set up conditions for the worst tragedy in the resort’s history. At 5 P.M. that day, a massive avalanche reached the parking lot, destroyed buildings at the base, and killed seven people. Directors Jared Drake and Steven Siig live in Alpine Meadows, and in Buried (which premieres at Mountainfilm) they revisit the disaster by interviewing locals who were part of the five-day search following the avalanche. Many Alpine Meadows employees already knew the area was high-risk. As Lanny Johnson, a former ski patroller, says, “There’s nowhere in the world where you can work as a ski patrolman related to avalanche hazard that’s any more dangerous than Alpine Meadows.” Larry Heywood, assistant patrol director at the time, explains that every lift, the access road to the resort, the base area, and the parking lot can all be affected by avalanches. Of course, the play-by-play of the avalanche speaks for itself. Those involved are still so affected by what they witnessed that several interviewees freeze up mid-sentence while describing that day.
‘The River Runner’
Scott Lindgren has achieved a lot as a professional kayaker: he’s run some of the toughest rivers in the world (and graced an Outside cover or two). But The River Runner, which premieres at Mountainfilm, focuses on the achievements that have remained just out of his grasp. For Lindgren, that means running all four great rivers that originate from Tibet’s Mount Kailash, a task that he pursued for more than 20 years, with one final river, the Indus, remaining just out of reach. But the film is also about Lindgren’s scary 2014 diagnosis with a baseball-sized brain tumor, which challenged his at-all-costs commitment to a high-adrenaline career. In 2017, in the run-up to an attempt on the Indus, his doctor wants to treat the tumor with radiation. Lindgren cancels all his appointments to throw himself into trip planning instead, and breaks up with his girlfriend, Patricia, who felt helpless that either his brain tumor or kayaking could kill him. As everything else in his life falls to the wayside, the feel-good nature of the rest of the film hinges on whether or not Lindgren succeeds in his Indus attempt. But what makes The River Runner fascinating is its honest portrayal of the never-quite-satisfied nature of the extreme athlete’s brain.