A magnificent and poignant tribute to one of the most significant mountaineers and innovators of the last few decades, shown at a secret screening at Kendal Mountain Fesitval 2018.
Review by Alex Roddie
Edited 20 November: Hamish MacInnes and Chris Bonington made the first winter ascent of Raven’s Gully, not the first ascent as originally stated.
The intro was intriguing: “We now have a screening of a major new British mountain film that we can’t tell you about! What we can say is that you won’t be disappointed – it’s a story that you’ll instantly recognise.”
On Saturday afternoon at the Kendal Mountain Festival, we had a tip-off that this special film screening would in fact be a portrait of none other than Hamish MacInnes. Intrigued, I found myself a ticket and headed upstairs to Screen 2. I was not disappointed.
Hamish MacInnes is a legendary figure in the story of 20th-century mountaineering. Friend and climbing partner to Chris Bonington, Tom Patey, Doug Scott, Dougal Haston and many more, Hamish was a member of several early Himalayan expeditions, and in addition to his many achievements in the greater ranges made significant first ascents at home in Scotland, including the first winter ascent of Raven’s Gully (Buachaille Etive Mor) with Chris Bonington in 1953.
In the absence of Sir Chris Bonington, who was ill, Final Ascent was introduced by Director Robbie Fraser and Producer Douglas Eadie, who described it as “Not a film about mountaineering but a film about memory”. At this point the audience was still very much in the dark about the subject matter of the film, but when asked “How many of you think you know what this film is about?” a few hands were raised.
The film began with archival footage depicting mountaineering and rock-climbing in the 1950s or 1960s, and it soon became clear that the subject would be Hamish MacInnes. Born in 1930, Hamish still lives in Glen Coe and his house is filled with an immense archive of film, books and photographs depicting his life in the mountains.
“He pieced his life back together by reading his own books, viewing his own photographs, watching his own films”
But despite Hamish’s remarkable achievements in mountaineering – which include the first British ascent of the Bonatti Pillar, and an audacious two-man shoestring-budget attempt on Everest in 1953 – he isn’t immune to old age, and recently collapsed outside his home. He was taken to the Belford Hospital, Fort William, and confined against his will, believed to be suffering from dementia and a danger to others. In the opening scenes of the film, Michael Palin describes the heartbreaking scene of this legendary figure, who thrives in the open air, confined and cooped up in a place so utterly against his nature.
Hamish’s contributions to climbing technology and mountain rescue are thoroughly explored. He ambles through to his workshop where he reaches into a box and pulls out a few old ice axes – various models of Terrordactyls. These were the first all-metal ice axes, a key safety innovation that has saved countless lives (wooden ice axes tended to snap). He also demonstrated the key features of the folding MacInnes Stretcher – still used in mountain rescue internationally to this day. He explains how he has lost count of the number of books he’s written.
Although Final Ascent tells the amazing story of Hamish MacInnes’s life through a combination of his own archival footage and scenes shot more recently in his own home, it’s really the story of how Hamish regained his memory, which he lost completely for a period of several months. He pieced his life back together by reading his own books, viewing his own photographs, watching his own films – a process that gradually restored the events of his life. Due to this process of rediscovery, Hamish MacInnes is able to look at his own story with a curious degree of detachment.
“There comes a time when everyone seems destined to end up on the scrapheap,” Hamish says in the film. “Decisions were made and that’s where I ended up. But I’m not dead yet.”
It’s clear that this is very much not the case. Without giving away too much, the ‘final ascent’ alluded to in the film’s title refers not only to the gargantuan ‘expedition’ of regaining his own memory, but also an ascent more literal than you might expect.
Final Ascent is a wonderful and poignant mountain film that illuminates the life of one of the top mountaineers of the 20th century. It was a pleasure to attend the preview screening at Kendal. Final Ascent will be released in UK cinemas in 2019 after its world premiere at Kathmandu IMFF in December 2018.