Kendal Mountain Festival 2021 Report

© Kendal Mountain Festival

The last couple of years have been seriously strange at times, with a significant element of social starvation. Whilst we're not out the woods as far as COVID is concerned, Kendal 2021 felt like something of a watershed moment in more ways than one. Whilst last year's online festival was (by all accounts) a massive success, anyone that's been communicating over Zoom throughout the last 2 years will know that there's a BIG difference to seeing something/someone online than there is actually sitting in a live audience - or opposite someone at the bar. Perhaps this is why Kendal felt like quite an emotional affair this year. I certainly found myself welling up, and virtually everyone I bumped into said the same thing - it was great to be back…

Since 2019 the organisers of Kendal Mountain Festival have been planning something big, moving their central hub - the Basecamp - away from the Brewery Arts Centre (where they were limited on space) and into the Abbots Hall Park (where they have a LOT of space).  The result was a significantly upscaled affair that not only accommodated a range of brands exhibiting their wares, but also two separate stages - each of which had a back to back series of free talks to attend. If this weren't enough there was a third stage of free talks over at The Shackleton Tent, just outside of the Brewery Arts (where the Basecamp had been previously). Between these you could easily have attended the festival without having bought a single ticket, yet gone home having seen an eclectic mix of speakers and sessions.

Buff Basecamp Stage  © Kendal Mountain Festival
Buff Basecamp Stage
© Kendal Mountain Festival

Rab Mountain Hut  © Kendal Mountain Festival
Rab Mountain Hut
© Kendal Mountain Festival

Beyond the Basecamp and onto to the speakers, sessions and films, something else was quite clear - how fantastically diverse Kendal has become. No longer is it just a climbing/mountaineering festival: it encompasses a broad range of outdoor activities including running, swimming, biking, skiing, paddling, flying and caving. In addition to this there's the arts and literature side, which has grown into a festival in/of itself too. The focus seems to have shifted away from being entirely on performance (i.e. hardest/fastest) to a much more holistic approach towards participation within the outdoors. As such, it feels much more relatable, and in doing so has - at least in my opinion - opened itself up to a much more diverse range of speakers and stories.

Carlos Casas of Colour Up  © Hannah Bailey
Carlos Casas of Colour Up
© Hannah Bailey

They/Them Q&A  © Kendal Mountain Festival
They/Them Q&A
© Kendal Mountain Festival

The Patagonia Climb Session and Merrell Running Session were perfect examples of this. Whilst both had some big hitters, the underlying philosophy of each wasn't about how hard these people hit - it was about how they approached their chosen activity. A particular highlight, in and amongst the many, was Eileen Jones' account of 'How Parkrun Changed Our Lives'. I've never actually done a Parkrun before, and only learned exactly what one is during the session, but the sense of belonging Eileen described, and to such a wholesome community, filled my heart with joy. In much the same way, Carlos Casas stole the show at the Patagonia Climb Session when he talked about 'an alternative way to climb':

"it doesn't matter how hard you climb, it doesn't matter your grade, it doesn't matter how much skin your fingers have left - that's irrelevant. I want to invite you all, whenever you go climbing next, try to look beyond yourselves, try to look beyond your projects and your training regimes, and look at the people you're with and try to connect with them, build a relationship with them. Don't do it for climbings sake, do it for you, for your fellow humans. Do it because it's nice, and it's easy. I think talking more broadly about that, that's the challenge we face as a sport when we talk about diversity and inclusion. If we manage to break that individualistic thought, if we manage to see climbing as a space to build community and unity, that for me is the best fuel for diversity and inclusion. Once you make people feel like they're welcome, once you start making people feel like they're safe, that's when you get a beautiful mix of people within climbing spaces"

Whilst there's a great many films, speakers and sessions that fit into this mould, here's a small selection that stood out (although many, many more exist):

  • A Woman's Place (Climb 1)
    • This film celebrates the Pinnacle Club's 100th anniversary, but in doing so does much more, by highlighting that the club - and its community - is more than the sum of its parts. The history, the heritage, all present in and amongst the new, and changing as each new generation joins. 
  • Patagonia Climb Session (aka. Soul Session)
    • I'm biased, as I co-hosted this one, but it genuinely affected me. Each of the speakers spoke honestly about their motivations and mentors, leaving me - and no doubt a great many within the audience - feeling revitalised and refreshed not just for our own climbing, but how through our actions and kindness we could help to influence other people's paths too.

  • Representation Matters - Taking on the Ramsay Round (Run Hike)

    • To Sabrina Pace-Humphries and Black Trail Runners, Charlie Ramsay is something of a role model, being a black man who's namesake - the Charlie Ramsay Round - is one of the UK's 3 Big Rounds. This is a story about why that matters, but also why completing it as a team mattered too.

All-in-all it feels like a very different festival of ten years ago, where Al Lee and Paul Diffley were battling it out head-to-head. This isn't to detract from those years, as they made - and continue to make - some great films; however, what we have now is more - a lot more - and that's something we should be celebrating. If it's conquest that you're after, Kendal still has that in spoonfuls, and here's a few highlights from those that I happened to see throughout:

  • James McHaffie - Extreme Rock
    • Again, another shameless plug, as I happened to host this session, but Caff was the star. I think everyone within the audience had to recalibrate their level of difficulty to take into account the fact that, if you're Caff, E7s are actually alright and RPs and skyhooks aren't as bad as they sound.
  • Sabrina Verjee - Wainwrights and Wrongs / All for One
    • Earlier this year Sabrina not only completed, but broke the outright record for doing all the Wainwrights. Between the talk, and the film, you get an insight into what that massive undertaking actually involves.

One final benefit of the last 12 months is that it fast tracked Kendal to becoming an online festival, so unlike previous years you now have the benefit of being able to see those sessions you might otherwise have missed. Alternatively, if you didn't make the fesival at all, it's all there online to watch afterwards.

If you would like to sign-up, visit the website for more details/options.

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25 Nov, 2021

Thanks for that Rob. It is very similar to my experience this year: it was the best KMF I've seen in my decades of attendance. I'd add a few other points and some more highlights.

It was great to see local food and drink providers back. The past problems were not the festival organisers fault but it's vital in the modern context of the festival that local is given priority.

The age profile was noticably a lot younger and more diverse this year, which was great to see, and I guess benefitted from there being a lot more excellent free events on those three stages. I also suspect many older regulars were (rightly) nervous about covid risk, it will be nice to see them back next year.

My favourite (by a smidgen) event at the festival was also hosted by you: Sarah Jane Dobner's sonic multimedia presentation on her book: A Feeling for Rock, as part of the literature festival. I think it's creatively pointing out likely positive directions for the wider aspects of climbing in a way that echoes what Johnny Dawes once did for the future of dynamic movement on rock..... a more artistic look at some important and occasionally controversial issues.

As someone who was helping staff a stand (BMC...a big up to the superb team) it was very obvious the extra space really did benefit the exhibitors. People could actually move about this year, even in the busiest times! Yet there were some rumblings about cost... I'm not sure what can be done but it was a shame some lower budget commercial organisations didn't make it. They do keep an eye on good causes, on which subject my favourite stand, from an excellent bunch, was again Climbers against Cancer, for the wonderful attitude of the people. The people make a festival and it was wonderful chatting to everyone, from toddlers looking up at climbing heros and dressing up in old equipment for a photo, to old friends, to the volunteers who made it run, and of course to my own heros (our stars are so accessible and friendly), to those who are very much part of our history but retain a youthful enthusiasm, and to some delighful surprises, including an enthusiastic Afghan female mountaineer refugee.

My hope is that sessions such as this generate a bit of a following afterwards, based on feedback, word of mouth, and the fact you can catch-up on the sessions through the Kendal Player.

On that note, I did a bit of binge watching yesterday. Personal highlight was Torn, although it did break me. The same could also be said for Farewell to Adventure, which I hadn't see before. Between the two I felt like an emotional wreak by the end of the day!!

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