Final Ascent


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Final Ascent
"Hamish MacInnes is one of the last of the great adventurers. His story is wild, thrilling, poignant and true."

Living in the early 21st Century, we are a generation unusually removed from the spirit of adventure. Earth still has a few unexplored wildernesses but the popular archetype of the great explorer has faded and, with it, the invitation that used to be omnipresent in books, magazines and comics aimed at children (or at least at boys). With the space age on hold, there's little to inspire those who might once have dared to do incredible things. Hamish MacInnes is one of the last of the great adventurers. His story is wild, thrilling, poignant and true.

We know it's true because he kept amazing records, often in the form of film. Robbie Fraser has done a tremendous job of editing together this material around interviews with Hamish, giving the ebullient old man the chance to tell his story to a new generation. indeed, Hamish spent a long time telling it to himself, using his films to help restore his memory following a period of devastating mental illness that saw him institutionalised. The way he survived that experience is every bit as impressive as his mountaineering stories.

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Like many mountain enthusiasts, Hamish started early. He was himself inspired by tales of adventure and strange lands, which he read avidly whilst his sisters wondered what the fuss was about. Having got in some practice on rock faces in the West of Scotland, he climbed the Matterhorn when he was just 16. A few years later he made an attempt on Everest, partly because he had heard that a store of delicious Swedish food had been abandoned in a camp near the summit, but arrived just after Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, not only missing out on the record but discovering that they'd eaten all the food. Still, those were early days, and he would go on to do a great deal more.

Alongside the mountain stories we are invited to appreciate Hamish as an engineer. He built his first car from scratch when still in his teens and his metal ice axe has undoubtedly saved a great many lives. in his workshop he pulls one out of a box of tools, explaining how everything works with plenty of detail for newcomers to the subject. He's careful to make all his stories accessible to the uninitiated but never comes across as patronising - simply as a man who is full of joy about what he does and wants to invite others to share it.

There's more. Hamish founded Glencoe Mountain Rescue and delivers thrilling accounts of venturing up into the Scottish mountains in appalling conditions to help those who had found themselves in trouble. In a clip from an old television interview he makes it clear that he doesn't respect these smaller mountains any less than the Himalayan giants. They're still quite capable of killing and he attributes his own survival into old age to nothing more than luck.

Michael Palin, an old friend of Hamish's, is also on hand to enthuse about his friend. Both have the kind of self-effacing charm that enables them to talk about practically anything without ever coming across as smug. Hamish talks casually about his 40 or so successful books and his time working in Hollywood, producing an anecdote about Clint Eastwood calling on him to resolve safety issues on a shoot. He also reflects on friends who died along the way. Robbie captures everything in the same intimate, warm hearted style. Sadly no footage exists of the titular final ascent itself but when it comes, it's one hell of a story.

Adventure may have fallen out of fashion but back in the days of Hamish's youth such stories saw cinemas packed full every night. If every film today were as delightful as this one, they would be again.

Reviewed on: 02 May 2019
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A documentary about legendary mountaineer Hamish MacInnes and his struggle to recover from mental illness and reconnect with his past.
Amazon link

Director: Robbie Fraser

Starring: Hamish MacInnes, Michael Palin

Year: 2018

Runtime: 83 minutes

Country: UK


Glasgow 2019

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