One morning, the mountains that surround Banff disappeared. A bank of cloud had invaded and obscured them. Suddenly, the town was a floating island, a nowhere. It lasted a few days, on and off, and was more unsettling than you’d think.I like having mountains in the backyard. I’ve come to rely on their strict edges, their implacable, hard-to-impress presence around the human circle of the town. They remind me of a snooty condo board in an exclusive building that will never truly approve of anyone.
Then the bombs went off in Boston, and terrorists were thwarted from derailing a Via Rail train. The Tsarnaev brothers’ next stop, we are told, was Manhattan – no less than Times Square. Mountainous events that captured the obsessive attention of the world.
Details are everything. But then the news eats us alive – instead of controlling the furious pace of the present with our screens and our tweets and our multiple technologies, it controls us. We wolf down all the information we can see, and end up stuffed with exhausted despair.
As the news flooded in, I kept stepping outside and looking up at the peaks. Every time I did, I felt better.
Human beings have always been drawn to mountains – to climb them, name them, frame them, mine them, “conquer” them. And I’m not the only one who spends a lot of time looking up at them: Five million tourists come to Banff every year, and they all take the same pictures.
I’ve been trying to figure out why.
From the balcony of my northeast-facing room at the Banff Centre, I can see four mountains: Norquay (home to the first rope ski tow in the Rockies, in 1938), Brewster, Cascade and Rundle.
Cascade is the queen, named for the skinny waterfall that hypnotizes drivers as they flow into Banff on the Trans-Canada Highway from the east. Cascade is the blowsy turret that anchors the end of Banff Avenue, the town’s main street.
A wide band of snow around its midsection funnels down into four gullies, and looks very much like a garter belt. At 2,998 metres, she’s a big girl, Cascade, and sexy.
I prefer Rundle, 50 metres lower but more brooding and dramatic, more like a teenager. The southern face of Rundle is a continuous plate that tilts up out of the earth, then drops away on the other side – a 12.5-kilometre wedge between Banff and the town of Canmore, a thrust smeared across the sky. It embodies the contradiction of the mountains: their welcoming intimacy (the gradual slope you can walk up) versus their danger (aiieeeeeeeee!).
Over all, Rundle looks like a massive shoulder leaning into whatever’s coming. The cliffs of its peak, however, appear so private and intimate that they can take your breath away. It seems impossible something so close is nine hours distant on foot.
You’ve probably seen it. Rundle is the most photographed and painted peak in the Rockies. “Mount Rundle is my bread-and-butter mountain,” artist Walter Phillips once acknowledged. He was an Englishman who came to teach at the Banff School of Fine Arts in 1940 and stayed for 20 years before he went blind and died three years later. “I never tire of painting it, for it is never the same.”
There are entire subgenres of writing and painting dedicated to describing the permanent changeability of mountains, and why we long to look at them. But no one has ever nailed the experience once and for all.
Some writers don’t even try. Farley Mowat grew up on the Prairies and hated the shadowy, enclosing Rockies from the moment he first saw them as a teenager. He preferred an open landscape, the way others seek the ocean or a beach. A.Y. Jackson never got the hang of painting mountains, and admitted as much (he blamed the mountains). Writer Marni Jackson, on the other hand, once described the sight of the Rockies as “a strong signature across the bottom of the sky,” and has been using the mountains for inspiration, on and off, for 40 years. Onlookers project on to the Rockies what they need to see.
Not long ago at breakfast, I ran into Kevin Drew, co-founder of the band Broken Social Scene. He had been at the Banff Centre from Toronto for 10 days, and had written and recorded 14 songs, which seemed like a lot. He was wearing glasses, a blue tuque, his usual beard and a large parka that was itself of mountainous loft.