FilmSpace: Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes

Film critic Scott Wilson reviews the new documentary film about Scottish climber Hamish MacInnes.

Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes – ★★★★☆

Hamish MacInnes keeps getting left for dead.

As a climber, buried under avalanches, fellow mountaineers left him behind in the snow. It’s the done thing; the landscape is volatile, the community understands it’s the only way to prevent a whole group dying on an expedition.

At the time of filming Final Ascent, MacInnes is 87, having spent time in hospital after being found unconscious in his back garden, apparently close to dying. While there, with a urinary disease affecting his memory, he says he was considered by the staff to be as good as dead.

Hamish MacInnes is still alive, now 88. In an interview earlier in life he’s asked if God is watching over him thanks to all the lucky escapes he’s made. He admits some luck, but doesn’t pray to anyone. Instead, we see a competent and passionate man, talking as if scaling the sides of the earth’s most fearsome creations is like any other day job.

Final Ascent is that rare thing in which the person at the heart of a documentary about mountains stands as tall as the mountains themselves.

Recounting his life is a more miraculous feat when considering his memory loss. Having pieced it back together from his own books and films, he takes us through his experiences, not in any sort of chronological fashion, but rambling along the way a keen walker would. He’s shown to be not any one thing: as much a photographer as a climber, known for inventing tools as well as being part of search and rescue teams.

Final Ascent is that rare thing in which the person at the heart of a documentary about mountains stands as tall as the mountains themselves. What makes MacInnes such a captivating figure is his obvious love for everything he’s spent his life doing, as into talking about safer pickaxes for use in snow as he is about the time it cost £40 to attempt Everest. To an outsider, such as this reviewer, he comes across as the pillar of the profession, a jack of all trades and a master of all of them. While he naturally drew attention for his accomplishments, he was driven by his attraction to this way of life, making for stories told with an infectious enthusiasm, even as he recounts them verbally in a nonchalant way.

That matter-of-fact delivery becomes chilling when so many stories end with the death of a fellow climber. It comes with the territory, and perhaps he knows all too well they died doing what they loved, respecting them for devoting their life to what mattered most to them. But it’s hard not to feel like his life is punctuated with the sadness of being part of a community which has a significant death toll. The documentary is a peek into a lifestyle which many of us know little about in that sense, where people become used to death, knowing each new climb could be the last when at the mercy of something as changeable as the weather.

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This 87-year-old MacInnes speaks in a heavy Scots lilt, like all his stories are folk tales, but archive footage shows him with an olden days BBC accent. Looking past the autobiographical nature of the film, it’s hard to avoid wondering what the lasting effects of his hospital stay are. He occasionally shares a laugh, but mostly stares slightly off-camera, using the same rhythms and cadences to tell all manner of anecdotes. One hopes he considers it a life well lived, and also a life he’s able to recall, and that the bridge between the man he was before his memory loss and now has been gapped.

Mostly though, it’s a delight to spend time with MacInnes as he comments on footage from the 60s when climbing the Matterhorn, talks about the yoga practices which saved his life, and how he found a place to rent in Glen Coe for £1.50 a year. It’s a surprisingly effective documentary, in that director Robbie Fraser never becomes more interested in the mountains or MacInnes’s achievements than the man himself, every aspect of him at that. The footage shown is that which he himself used to bring his memories back to him, so what better way to summarise a life filled with devotion and the utmost professionalism to the mountains than to share it with us. It’s a documentary which provides the thing all good documentaries must – insight.

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