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Thrills, chills and spills in a festival of outdoor films

click to enlarge Churning rapids and frenzied music, come hell or white water
  • Churning rapids and frenzied music, come hell or white water

First it was IMAX. Then came 7-Up commercials.

It wasn't long after earning the label of extreme that extreme sports started slipping toward the mainstream and utilizing the medium of film for self-promotion. What used to reside in the exclusive realm of obscure documentaries is now a vibrant element in the popular culture. We may not all participate in vertical ski descents and kayak plunges through towering waterfalls, but especially in these parts, who can't claim that some of our best friends are extremists?

With KAVU Day fast approaching, it's that time in the season when we all turn our attention to the KAVU Day Festival of Outdoor Films. You can be forgiven if you don't already have some unique and distinctive traditions woven into the fabric of this special day, since next Thursday marks the first year of its celebration. We'll even forgive you if you don't know who KAVU is, despite the fact that they bill themselves as the leader in "true outdoor wear."

The film festival, which consists of all or part of four films and runs a total of 90 minutes, celebrates "people who live the life, as well as those of us who would like to be living the lifestyle." It is telling that KAVU promotes the final product as "the best new footage" from the outdoor industry, since, for the most part, the films don't attempt to tell a story or document an adventure so much as to simply bombard the audience with image after high-intensity image. Stories about adventurers, we learn, are old school. Footage, footage, footage is the mantra of the new school.


Nothing demonstrates the trend toward high-octane visual imagery better than the opening film in the collection, an extreme kayaking feature called Twitch. Though the piece would be considered a "short" by virtually any standard, sitting down and experiencing it feels extremely long. The film is so jampacked with white waterfalls that it achieves the unlikely state of monotony within a few endless minutes.

The film has no narration, no interviews and only a line or two of any kind of spoken word, most of which is as follows: "At least my back's not broken." Granted, we're not coming to these films for the dialogue, but as the subsequent three films show, there's more to image than meets the eye.

Twitch locks in churning rapids and frenzied music, and sticks with that formula come hell or white water. The variety comes in the form of some nice shots of kayaks spiraling and spinning in standing waves and a few runs in the kayak down gentle ski slopes. To ensure that we recognize the rebellious attitude of the athletes, filmmaker Eric Link includes the requisite shot of kayaker Gavin Murdoch smashing glass beer bottles against his head.

The Realm

Take heart, things do get better, film by film, and ultimately, the whole "festival" is worth watching. Teton Gravity Research's The Realm is a step up from the river flick, focusing on the extreme skiing that has been consistently documented in recent years. The excerpt offers enough to entice viewers to be interested in more, but it is also plenty to satisfy the average filmgoer. Extreme skiing, descending down vertical glaciers and cascading off of cliff faces, is certainly the most cinematic subject matter in the genre, and the masterful blending of grace in the face of gravity makes for some breathtaking moments. The filmmakers even go so far as to offer some welcome philosophical insight, reminding viewers that "fear should be treated like fire. It's a good thing. It keeps you warm. It can also burn the house down. Use your fear." Throw in a corporate logo, and you got yourself a fresh ad campaign.


click to enlarge Testing the theory of a solid Alaskan snow
  • Testing the theory of a solid Alaskan snow

The most original of the films is the mountain-bike rock shocker, Shift. The film bucks the trend established in the previous two films, veering away from relentless images of flawless execution on the longest, steepest, fastest routes and earning high marks for creativity by focusing on intriguing obstacles in a variety of shapes.

The featured mountain bikers take on everything from the streets of San Francisco to a wooded wonderland of man-made bridges, ramps and wood ladders looking like some kind of Ewok obstacle course. It's also refreshing to see so many crashes after two films in which nothing ever goes wrong. The city tricks look easy, descending stairways and railings, even jumping from building to building, and we get the impression that the city is merely a practice court for the mountain work, where the smashes and endos are as thrilling as the boggling successes. It's impossible to overemphasize how important the crashes are to a film like this, giving reassurance to those of us still a little wobbly that we are, in fact, indestructible.

Higher on the Mountain

By far the best of the bunch, Rob DesLauriers' Higher on the Mountain is the payoff that makes the rest of the film worth sitting through. DesLauriers divides his story into three parts -- even providing narration to help communicate the story he is telling about the last quarter-century of hard-core mountaineering and the subsequent powdery descents on skis and boards.

The film breaks down the arena into its two factions, old school and new school. The former is championed by the likes of Scott "The Extreminator" Schmidt, whose legacy of appearances in Warren Miller films has accounted for an increase in the college dropout rate. We follow his expedition to the Altai Mountains in the no-man's land between China, Mongolia, Kazetstan and Siberia for a 20-mile, 8,000-foot ascent where the team camps in a snow cave and acclimatizes by spending days swimming through pure, untouched powder, making the first turns ever on the remote mountain.

These expedition members cut their teeth in alpine adventures dating back to the '70s, and now with families to go home to, they've begun to take a different approach to risk and to open up to the spiritual perspective of their escapades.

In contrast, the scholars of the new school, epitomized by huckster "Sick Rick" Armstrong, are "scared of nothing but an uphill climb." The two schools converge in the Bear Tooth range for a joint expedition culminating in a four-hour, 3000-foot climb "to ski where the consequence of falling is sure death." Banking on the belief in the consistently solid Alaskan snowpack, the expedition was thrown for a dangerous curve when they set off a fracture while skiing and snowboarding down, setting the face loose in an avalanche and giving the cross-generational extremists a reality check.

Fueled by a driving soundtrack featuring everyone from Maceo Parker to String Cheese Incident, Higher on the Mountain and the entire 90-minute festival will have you cutting fresh turns in your sleep, riding waterfalls without a paddle and strapping laser boosters to your mountain bike. Just don't try this at home.

KAVU Day Festival of Outdoor Films

WHERE Colorado Music Hall

WHEN Thursday, Dec. 9, at 8 p.m.

INFO $5 donation benefits the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the Trails and Open Space Coalition of the Pikes Peak Region.

Tickets available at Mountain Chalet or at the door. Call 633-0732.


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