False moustaches in the Lowe Alpine yurt. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

False moustaches in the Lowe Alpine yurt. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

For many years I didn’t get mountain festivals.

Why travel to a town surrounded by enticing hills and sit in a darkened room watching celluloid tales of people enjoying the outdoors when you could be out on the tops having your own adventure?

After several November visits to Kendal to soak in the atmosphere of its annual festival, I think I finally understand the attraction.

Kendal: just 4,662 miles from the world's highest mountain. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Kendal: just 4,662 miles from the world's highest mountain. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Thousands of people flock each year to the Cumbrian market town on the fringe of the Lake District to crowd into the various venues that host its mountain festival, one of the biggest in the country and which provides a £2m boost to the local economy.

The film screenings, with a huge variety of adventurous activities brought to life for the audiences, are an obvious draw. But simply walking round the main site at the Brewery Arts Centre means you’re likely to be rubbing shoulders with some remarkable people.

So your ordinary Joe and Joanna can get up close to some of the top adventurers in the world – and get a glimpse into the extraordinary exploits and the motivation of individuals who have achieved what most of us can barely dream about.

Niall Grimes entertains in the Basecamp marquee. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Niall Grimes entertains in the Basecamp marquee. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

I’ll whisper this: sit in the Basecamp tent, which anyone can do without charge, and you can listen to some of the top names in mountaineering, running, climbing, mountain biking and exploring. This year you could see, among others, Sir Chris Bonington, Wainwrights ultrarunning record holder Steve Birkinshaw, Said Belhaj and his didgeridoo playing, plus numerous engaging adventurers.

Doug Scott made an appearance in the marquee as usual to boost his Community Action Nepal charity and one of my personal favourites, climber Niall Grimes, with his acerbic Derry humour, packed the Basecamp benches.

Of course, if you want to see the films, you need to pay, but there’s plenty on offer outside the auditoriums and for free!

Steve Backshall is in expansive mood as Yvonne Witter of Peak District Mosaic receives the group's award. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Steve Backshall is in expansive mood as Yvonne Witter of Peak District Mosaic receives the group's award. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

I particularly liked seeing national park volunteers receive the recognition they deserve, with awards presented by Steve Backshall to Peak District Mosaic, the Cleveland Way Adoption Scheme, 80-year-old Dartmoor volunteer Derek Collins and, at the other end of the age range, 19-year-old Caitlin McCauley, who picked up a trophy for her work with the North York Moors national park.

It never rains but it pours: visitors put the Columbia jackets to the test. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

It never rains but it pours: visitors put the Columbia jackets to the test. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

The theme this year seemed to be white jackets. Everywhere I turned, the white waterproofs provided by main sponsors Columbia seemed to be in evidence and, as if there isn’t enough rain in Cumbria, an indoor artificial rain storm gave visitors the chance to look miserable as they tested the water-repellent properties of the gear.

The Lake District park’s chief executive Richard Leafe was there too, wearing of course the obligatory white Columbia jacket. And no, he didn’t look miserable. He’s a big outdoor activities fan, so he has good reason to be cheerful that this huge event takes place on his doorstep and attracts thousands of extra people to his neck of the woods.

I politely declined the Lake District staff’s invitation to take a virtual-reality trip – real reality is hard enough to deal with in my view.

Mountaineer Alan Hinkes samples the beer while sporting a Lowe Alpine moustache. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Mountaineer Alan Hinkes samples the beer while sporting a Lowe Alpine moustache. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Reality of sorts was on offer in the Lowe Alpine yurt, where the brand was celebrating its 50th anniversary by, for some reason, insisting visitors donned false moustaches. A heavily disguised Andy Cave doled out the temporary face furniture at the entrance while fellow climber Alan Hinkes took the opportunity to sample the beer on offer in what was a fairly surreal setting.

Memories of a rocky past: a pair of EB rock boots. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Memories of a rocky past: a pair of EB rock boots. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

My brief flirtation with rock-climbing coincided with my equally brief time as a higher education student 40 years ago and, in those days, the boots to wear were EBs and there, hanging on the yurt wall, was a pair of the brand’s Super Grattons. Ah, unhappy memories of crushed feet and a grazed nose as I fell off yet another V Diff route.

Ray Wigglesworth outlines his vision for the future of the BMC's executive committee. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Ray Wigglesworth outlines his vision for the future of the BMC's executive committee. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

I’d hoped for an odd verbal firework at the British Mountaineering Council’s explanation of the outcome of its governance review following this year’s rancorous annual meeting, but chair of the process Ray Wigglesworth QC cunningly beat the gathering into mental submission by detailing the labyrinthine proposed structure and the contents of the 80-page report. More details of that when I’ve waded through the dense script but, for now, just know that the BMC is proposing to do away with its executive committee and national council and replace them with something else. In 51 recommendations.

Before Hull’s finest climber Andy Kirkpatrick began his inimitable rambling verbal assault on the various judging panel members – ‘looks like a drug dealer, or corrupt cop’ – we heard festival director Clive Allen tell the awards ceremony that this year’s was busier than ever, with initial figures suggesting 20 per cent more people had paid a visit.

For those frustrated with mobile communications, it was comforting to know that the Antarctic phone service is just as unreliable as a mobile signal in Wasdale as patron Leo Houlding’s voicemail from the frozen South was cut-off before he could finish his goodwill message.

The grand prize went to Nicholas Schrunk’s Blood Road, which follows mountain biker Rebecca Rusch and her Vietnamese riding partner Huyen Nguyen as they travel the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to the site where the American woman’s father was shot down 40 years earlier.

Sir Chris Bonington with film-maker Keith Partridge, left. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Sir Chris Bonington with film-maker Keith Partridge, left. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

On the film theme, it was interesting to talk to Keith Partridge, who has worked with the aforementioned Steve Backshall and has been to the summit of Everest with Kenton Cool. His biography of Sir Chris Bonington premiered at the festival. He revealed one of his next projects will involve the North Face of the Eiger with another well known climber.

As a photographer myself, I’m always amazed at the lengths my fellow snappers will go to to get that special image. Boot brand Danner unveiled the award winners at a little gathering enlivened by an odd tipple and copious supplies of tapas.

Mark Burkey’s shot of a caver in the Yorkshire Dales was probably my favourite if for no other reason than the technical difficulties of lighting a world that is ordinarily completely dark, but the grand prize went to James Appleton’s Big Night Out, which captured the elusive Aurora Borealis over the Svinafellsjökull Glacier in Iceland.

Charlotte Howie with judge Jim Herrington. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Charlotte Howie with judge Jim Herrington. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

And it was good to see 13-year-old Charlotte Howie receive her prize from judge US photographer Jim Herrington for her image of a paraglider in the Alps.

So now I think I understand the appeal of these festivals. There’s certainly a kindred spirit among the visitors to the Kendal event, who come to get a taste of what most of us are incapable of achieving.

The main Kendal Mountain Festival site. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

The main Kendal Mountain Festival site. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

It’s also an eye opener to just how many ways people enjoy their outdoor activities. And who can resist the chance to shake hands and get that selfie with your heroes and heroines, most of whom in the outdoor world I’m happy to report are not in the slightest stand-offish.

It might involve having to put on a moustache, or stand in the shower while people laugh at you. But the outdoors doesn’t have to be deadly serious.

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