Love, Life And Loss at Adventure Film

After a long day of watching movies and a late night of drinking, I slept with a man I love. Certainly no lapse of judgement, my friend Jeremy Collins invited me to share his bed in the Boulder Adventure Lodge at 1AM rather than drive twenty miles back to Golden through a sloppy storm of rain, sleet and snow. A few weeks earlier at another one of the many film festival events that we attend together, he joked with a crowd during a Q&A that we had shared many hotel rooms over the years, but never had we spooned.

On this particular occasion, on the last night of the Adventure Film Festival, we didn’t spoon either. Both of us are happily married. Our wives, each a vital force of nature to be feared, would likely kill us should we ever canoodle with another woman, let alone a dude.  The homo-erotic implications of our night together notwithstanding, the intimate relationship Jeremy and I share is born of a mutual passion for multi-media art, outdoor adventure and environmental activism. We have in common the same publisher at the Mountaineers Books. We both attended the Banff Centre in Alberta as artists in residence. We’re advocates for the preservation of our national parks, especially Yosemite. We each created images and stories from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And together we have mourned the loss of too many friends who have died in the mountains we love while pursuing their dreams. Once again we met to gather with our friends and extended family to commune in our shared affection for each other and the amazing world we all explore.

Jeremy Collins on stage at Adventure Film 2017 creating art with the latest in Google Virtual Reality technology

The Adventure Film Festival, held each year in Boulder, Colorado, is an annual celebration of artists, athletes and activists, a community to which Jeremy and I both belong. Gathering from remote locations across the globe we convene at the Boulder Theatre to share our stories and film projects of action and adventure in the world outside. Started by our friend, the late Jonny Copp, more than a decade ago in 2005, Adventure Film sets aside the self interests of ego and apprehension to revel in the accomplishments of our colleagues whose incredible deeds inspire the excitement and enthusiasm of an audience of individuals who may one day follow in our example. Though Jonny perished in the mountains of China while on expedition with fellow climber Micah Dash and cameraman Wade Johnson in 2009, the festival continues to assemble the great adventurers of our time to encourage those who watch to make their own legends.

In recent years, however, I’ve struggled with the notion that despite years in the company of so many wonderful people I don’t belong. Now that I’m over 50 years of age I have to admit that I don’t move with the speed and agility of my youth. A double hip replacement has given me greater mobility and much less pain, but I don’t always have the strength and endurance necessary for epic excursions into the wild. Even though I still plot to achieve ambitious goals over the frozen trails of the Northern Hemisphere and the turbulent whitewater rivers of the American continents, I still seem to suffer from the imposter syndrome that inevitably breeds doubt in my skills and abilities, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

 

But at Adventure Film I am reminded that everyone, EVERYONE who ventures beyond the horizon, past the scope of their imaging faces doubt and fear. From the stories of those who attend and present their films I have learned that it is only when we set aside comfort and security in the confrontation of own mortality that true adventure can be found. And as we go boldly in the woods of the unknown in the deliberate pursuit of life we might find when it comes our time to die, to paraphrase Thoreau, that we had truly lived.

It’s not uncommon to believe that a life of adventure is the exclusive domain of the wealthy and privileged. Those with the luxury of leisure time and disposable income to assume the costs of travel, training and equipment are indeed more likely to experience the thrills of some grand expedition or high profile mountain ascent. Stories portrayed in films like North of Known or Into Twin Galaxies seem far beyond the reach of those with modest resources. Few can imagine mounting a journey by paraglider along the Alaskan Mountain Range or kite skiing across the frigid island of Greenland to kayak a rushing river into the Arctic Ocean. But having watched the careers of athletes like Dave Turner, Erik Boomer and Sarah Mcnair-Landry for many years I know that from their humble beginnings the success they enjoy today has less to do with privilege than their sheer talent, dedication and discipline. Through hard work and sacrifice entry into this exciting world is infinitely more accessible than many realize. At its core the Adventure Film Festival is a testament to the possibilities that await those who dare to dream of something beyond the limitations of life’s circumstance.

In Above the Alley: P2  (the Brazil Project) Dominic and Nadia Gill of Encompass Films deliver a story of great vision. This sequel to Above the Alley, Beneath the Sky (2014), marks the progress of kids learning to rock climb in the impoverished favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The program called Centro Urbana Escalada (CEU), created in 2011 by Andrew Lenz and Asa Firestone, owner of the Boulder Adventure Lodge, now has an indoor climbing gym, several promising young athletes and a growing reputation of  excellence among climbers worldwide.

Making even the ordinary seem exceptional the Adventure Film Festival invites its audience to become part of every story. The movie Paul’s Boots directed by Fitz Cahall of Duct Tape Then Beer brought together hikers along the Appalachian Trail to share in a common mission. On the journey of more than 2,100 miles, complete strangers carried the boots of a deceased hiker to fulfill his lifelong dream. Viewers of films like Dragging 235 Lbs Uphill Both Ways, by Christina Franklin, learn to make adventures of their own through creative thinking and a little imagination. And in a parody mash-up of the movies Sufferfest and Dumb & Dumber director Jon Glassberg’s film Freedom of the Wheels follows the hilarious mission of adventure athletes Matt Segal and Will Stanhope as they ride a 50cc motor scooter over 200 miles from Boulder to Aspen, Colorado in winter for a day of ice climbing.

Members of Outdoor Afro Colorado

From issues of environmental activism in films like Water Warriors, Unbroken Ground, Dedicate: Diving Free and Canis Lupus to movies depicting the ascendance of women’s empowerment such as China Doll, The Space Inside, Brujas and Where the Wild Things Play, Adventure Film strikes a resonant chord with every note. Appealing to a diverse audience with the story of black bicycle entrepreneur Gregory Chrichlow in the short Chocolate Spokes by Brendan Leonard, the festival aims to invite and warmly welcome underrepresented segments of the adventure community to participate. This year the local leader of Outdoor Afro, Kriste Peoples, offered an inspiring hike through Boulder Canyon with a comprehensive lesson on  the history of the area’s African American community. And the films AscendEnock and La Cumbre raised awareness for the accomplishments of adventurers with disabilities.

For his ongoing efforts to elevate the status of wounded soldiers as adventure athletes, Gulf War veteran and Everest climber Chad Jukes received the 2017 Jonny Copp Award. With an appearance in La Cumbre as a mentor and guide to disabled climbers, Jukes, himself an amputee with a prosthetic leg, is an ambassador of the Range of Motion Project (ROMP). This global nonprofit provides the adaptive equipment and training necessary for those who have lost limbs due to illness or injury to lead productive, active lives. In the spirit of the Adventure Film Festival Jukes embodies the legacy of Jonny Copp by encouraging others to chase their greatest ambitions no matter what obstacles might stand in their way.

Cast and crew of La Curmbre

 

But even as we honored the great accomplishments of so many friends and colleagues at Adventure Film, we sadly lost two members of our community.  On October 7, 2017 Hayden Kennedy, who appears briefly the film Safety Third by Cedar Wright, was backcountry skiing with his partner Inge Perkins near where they lived in Bozeman, Montana. The two inadvertently set off an avalanche that swept Inge away and took her life. Though Hayden survived the accident, he returned home where he committed suicide. He was 27.

Having lost several friends over the years in his career as a climber, Hayden was conflicted. In an essay to the blog Evening Sends he expressed his apprehension over the great paradox of adventure sports. “As I’ve watched too many friends go to the mountains only to never return, I’ve realized something painful,” he wrote. “It’s not just the memorable summits and crux moves that are fleeting. Friends and climbing partners are fleeting, too. This is the painful reality of our sport, and I’m unsure what to make of it. Climbing is either a beautiful gift or a curse…I see both light and dark in climbing.”

Though I had met Hayden several times I am better acquainted with this parents. His father, Michael Kennedy, was the editor-in-chief at Alpinist Magazine. He had encouraged my aspirations as a writer and commissioned an article in which I first defined “The Adventure Gap” in 2012. His mother Julie Kennedy is the founder of the 5 Point Film Festival in Carbondale Colorado, where she graciously hosted another annual gathering of our adventure community. Their son Hayden grew to become a fine young man whom I admired both for his abilities as a climber and his kind, gentle spirit. He was a good person. I am deeply sorry for the Kennedy’s loss. I can only hope that they can find comfort in their enduring memories of him.

 Despite a lifetime of exposure to both the triumph and tragedy of life in the mountaineering world and a promising career as a professional climber, Hayden despaired the stark realities of doom that may accompany even the most carefully calculated plans for success. When the consequences of failure are so profound, the most ambitious adventurer must always pause and weigh the risks of every new objective. Each of us must understand that in this deliberate pursuit of life we also flirt with death and that must never be taken lightly, but it should not stop us from venturing onward into the wild.

Though Adventure Film is dedicated to the memory of a dearly departed climber, its primary purpose is to celebrate not how Jonny Copp died by how he chose to live. As we come together as friends we openly encourage one another to push past our limitations of fear and uncertainty, while quietly praying for each others’ safe passage along this dangerous journey.  In parting we silently wonder, as Hayden did, if this might be the last time we’ll see those friends, climbing partners and colleagues we love so dearly. 

Two mornings after Hayden’s death, the first snow of the year fell on the grounds of the Boulder Adventure Lodge.  Jeremy lay sleeping in the bed we shared as I dressed without noise in the dim light of the rising sun that slowly crept through the window blinds. As I shouldered my bag ready to head to the airport, I made for the door. With a sudden tug of deep emotion I turned back to see Jeremy as he slept. I resisted the urge to lean over and kiss his cheek goodbye or at least tousle his hair. With as much affection for him as my parents, my sibs or my wife, after so many years of friendship I’m not afraid to admit that I love this man. In the lives we lead, sometimes fraught with peril, I only fear that I might never see him again.

Turning to leave I walked out the door and quietly closed it behind me. The fallen snow on the ground muffled the sound of my footsteps as I walked to the car. I too have seen both the light and dark in adventure. Neither should be denied, or ignored, but we can choose to dwell upon one more than the other. The friends I’ve made at events like Adventure Film and even those I’ve lost have only made my life more worth living. For that I am truly grateful. This adventure will continue and I choose to walk in the light.

 

2017 AFF Boulder Trailer from Adventure Film Festival on Vimeo.

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Author:James

I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.