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for people who care about the West

Nature’s worth, through filmmakers’ eyes

A new wave of outdoor films encompass both conservation and adventure.


After several days carrying 80-pound packs, Steve House and Vince Anderson summit and ski in the remote Purcell Wilderness of British Columbia in the film Jumbo Wild. Adventure films like this are including more advocacy messages.
Christian Pondella / Courtesy Patagonia

Jumbo Glacier, or Qat’muk, is the wild heart of southeast British Columbia’s Purcell Mountains. It’s also the site of a decades-old fight over a proposed ski resort, and that fight is the subject of Nick Waggoner’s new film, Jumbo Wild. But though Jumbo Wild has no shortage of wilderness advocates criticizing development, it may be as captivating for adrenaline junkies as for environmental advocates — and it may represent the future of the outdoor film industry.

Waggoner, a 2008 graduate of Colorado College, got his start in a genre jokingly dubbed “ski porn” — gorgeous videos of skiers dropping off cliffs, surfing slow-motion through glittery powder and slicing down mountainsides. Much like surf, climbing and kayaking porn, its cousins, ski porn is a visual feast, and it’s what some of the biggest outdoor film festivals, like Telluride Mountainfilm, were built around.

But in an age when anyone with a GoPro can record their epic adventures, audiences are losing interest, says David Holbrooke, Mountainfilm’s festival director. To get featured in a competitive festival, you need something more. Something with meaning. “Can you tell a story?” Holbrooke asks. “That’s the most challenging part. We want people who can tell real stories.”

Waggoner was one of the first filmmakers to incorporate storytelling into outdoor sports cinematography; in 2013, Outside magazine called his approach “exceedingly rare.” Today, it’s standard fare. From Telluride to Banff, festival-goers are realizing that adventure is more compelling when there’s something on the line besides an athlete’s sponsorship money. Other recent festival favorites include Almost Sunrise, which follows two Iraqi War veterans as they walk across America, and Unbranded, in which four college graduates ride wild mustangs from Mexico to Canada. The former raises awareness of mental health and suicide among U.S. military veterans, while the latter tackles wild horses and public-land connectivity.

Conservationists like Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, founder of the nonprofit Conservacion Patagonica, hope that merging advocacy and adventure on the big screen will help bridge the divide between outdoor athletes and the places they play. “If you’re going to travel someplace, (you should) begin to take responsibility for helping protect it,” Tompkins says. “You can’t sit back any more and imagine that someone else is going to fight for the places everyone takes for granted.”

Film may be the most effective medium for turning recreationists into conservationists. The clothing company Patagonia, which helped fund both Jumbo Wild and last year’s DamNation, which documents the impacts of dams on rivers, sees outdoor films as integral to its mission to advance environmental causes. Nonprofit advocacy groups are increasingly aware of this, too. “There’s a recognition, especially in the environmental world, that throwing around facts and figures doesn’t hold water anymore,” says Hanson Hosein, a media expert at the University of Washington. “People have to be hit in the gut.”

Case in point: When American Rivers wanted to raise awareness about the river it deemed “most endangered” in 2013, it partnered with filmmaker Pete McBride to create the three-minute film I Am Red — a first-person story of the Colorado River told from the river’s perspective. The following year, the nonprofit fell back on an old standard: To spread the word about the perils facing the San Joaquin River, it produced a film that showed a guy standing in front of the waterway, talking about diversions and imploring people to write their Senator. To date, I Am Red has gotten nearly 158,000 more views on YouTube. Amy Kober, American Rivers’ communication director, says the extra views led to a noticeable increase in the number of people who signed petitions, joined American Rivers or wrote to Congress.

Yet the line between advocacy and entertainment is delicate, says Holbrooke — if you try too hard, audiences will balk. That’s where Jumbo Wild gets it right. After Waggoner spends time interviewing wildlife biologists, developers, tribal leaders and other stakeholders, he shows outdoor film audiences exactly why they should care about protecting the mountain. It’s the moment when Jumbo Wild spans genres, when it leaps from documentary footage to pro athletes carving big lines, and convinces skiers that even North America’s deepest, wildest backcountry won’t remain unspoiled unless someone fights for it. Without the backstory of what’s at stake on Jumbo, these scenes would be nothing more than powder porn. But when you know why they matter, they become the film’s most emotionally powerful moments.

Correspondent Krista Langlois lives in Durango, Colorado, and frequently covers Alaska.