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Review and Interview in Monday Magazine

Mountain Porn: Getting Off on big rocks

Two Sundays ago, I joined the hale and well-fleeced crowd that squeezed into the UVic auditorium to watch the best-of selections from the Banff Mountain Film Festival. The popular festival, now in its 24th year, is organized by the Banff Centre for Mountain Culture, which also pulls together festivals of mountain literature and photography to promote the hardy virtues of the alpine life. I'm sure we'll see a showcase of mountain dance before long.

While a few of the eight works screened certainly qualified as cinema of the highest calibre (especially Vision Man, a gorgeously shot documentary set in northern Greenland), a number of the shorts (on such extreme recreations as BASE-jumping and white-knuckle mountain biking) suggested a less rarefied genre of mountain culture.

Sunday night, gawking at off-piste skier Dominique Perret bombing down near-vertical Alaskan slopes, backed by a body rockin' techno soundtrack, creamy slo-mo explosions of carved snow bursting around him, his every wiggle framed by jump-cutting camera angles, I realized what we were really here to watch: mountain porn.

Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against it. Just like the straight-up variety, if it's produced with class and originality, mountain porn has its proper place in every civilized home - Lord knows, I've kept well-thumbed copies of alpine smut under my mattress for years.

Like many sea-level enthusiasts, much of my current interest in high altitude mountaineering dates from Into Thin Air, John Krakauer's gripping account of the fatal climbing disaster on Mt. Everest in 1996. That book, which summitted the bestseller lists for months, has set off an avalanche of successors: The Climb - Tragic Ambitions on Everest, Everest, Mountain Without Mercy, Climbing High: A Woman's Account of Surviving the Everest Tragedy, The Other Side of Everest, Climbing the North Face, Through the KillerStorm. The subtitles alone make it clear that for all the hypoxic foreplay and summit-seeking money shots, it's the underlying snuff element that's the real draw behind mountain porn - whether it's gruesome accounts of frozen climbers, Outside Magazine's cover pic of George Mallory's recently discovered body, or the daily coverage on of the avalanche death of acclaimed American alpinist Alex Lowe.

So I was anticipating more of the same when I cracked open John Baldwin's Mountains of the Coast, a recounting in words and photographs of the author's many journeys along alpine ridges, icefields and other remote corners of BC's Coast Mountains. While the book's PR bumph promises standard mountain porn fare - "stories of first ascents, sudden blizzards, rumbling glaciers and dangerous ski-traverses" - what Baldwin delivers instead is a matter-of-fact account of these hikes and ski trips, backed by mesmerizing photographs that emphasize the abstract beauty of the landscape over any near-death narrative. Mountain porn? This is mountain erotica at its classiest.

Competitive mountaineers, more interested in heart-stopping first ascents of technically daring cliff faces in exotic locales, have long passed over BC's coastal peaks. For the casual hiker, these same ranges are only accessible by float plane, arduous bushwhacking, and the commitment of a week or more.

So, for years, they've remained rarely visited alpine terrain.

"I was fascinated by the fact that nobody seemed to know that much about the Coast Mountains," says Baldwin, a UBC engineering researcher, explaining why he's returned so monogamously to these peaks for two decades, completing over 200 first ascents and skiing, in several traverses, from Bella Coola to Vancouver.

"When Mt. Waddington was discovered in the '20s and climbed in 1936, people disbelieved the first survey of the summit. They were incredulous that a mountain on the coast could be higher than anything in the Rockies. That attitude persisted. People assumed that the whole Coast mountains were like Howe Sound or something - green slopes rising up from the sea. But in behind there are all these high glaciated summits - you really have no sense of that from anywhere."

Through Baldwin's camera lens, the natural shapes and textures of this high alpine area - the glacial scouring, drainage patterns, conical seracs and jagged icefalls - acquire the hypnotic symmetries of modern painting. "The whole landscape is quite abstract, especially on the ski trips," Baldwin says. "There's not the normal sort of trees and things you relate to. There's just the patterns in the snow. And everything's so big, it's just a different scale-so it really does bring out an abstract quality."

Of course, the current renaissance of popular interest in mountain culture has focused more on the adrenalized dangers of 'peak experiences' than this more abstract, meditative vision of alpine travel.

"The part of mountaineering that does involve risk-taking - that's the part that people who don't climb are really drawn to," says Baldwin.

"But the other side of mountaineering is about the beauty of the mountains. No matter what kind of climbing, I think that's there as well. That's another side to it that I don't think people are necessarily aware of." Ogling his snapshots and spreads of BC's spectacular coastal ranges, I couldn't agree more.

-David Leach, Monday Magazine