Final Ascent – a film reviewMay 7, 2019
A frail-looking man in his 80s is found unconscious in a remote area of Scotland. He doesn’t know who he is or how he got there. He’s taken to hospital, where he is diagnosed with dementia and eventually sectioned against his will.
As it turns out, not only does this man not have dementia – he has an unusually sharp mind, and with time and effort, he regains 98% of his memory. Can NHS staff really be blamed for initially failing to realise this? No, according to film director Robbie Fraser.
Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish McInnes documents the life of a great climber, mountaineer, filmmaker, writer, engineer and inventor.
Old and written off
But Fraser’s film is not just about the life of a great man. It also shows how easy it is for all of us to overlook a person’s true character, abilities and achievements, simply because they appear to be old and frail.
The incredible life of this extraordinary climber and engineering genius is described through the words, photographs and films of the man himself.
“I was left for dead many times,” McInnes tells us, referring to his mountaineering adventures – and he was left for dead once again, in the hospital ward – “written off”.
Born in 1930, Hamish McInnes was brought up in Greenock, near Glasgow, Scotland. He had no college education – yet at age 16, he built himself a car. This feat of amateur engineering got him into the local newspapers. Shortly afterwards, a neighbour introduced him to climbing, taking him by motorbike to the nearby “Arrochar Alps”, where they scaled the rocks of The Cobbler, using manilla-hemp ropes. In the film, McInnes wrily comments that the ropes were fine – as long as you didn’t fall!
In 1953, MacInnes and a friend made an attempt on Mount Everest, with no official permission and a budget of just £40. They thought they’d be able to survive on food left behind by previous expeditions. Arriving at base camp, they found that they had been beaten to the summit by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing.
In 1975, MacInnes was deputy leader for Chris Bonington’s ascent of the south west face of Everest, and he was nearly killed in an avalanche.
Hamish MacInnes took part in mountaineering expeditions all round the world, and worked as a filmmaker on several mountaineering documentaries, including one about the ascent of Roraima in Venezuela, where he spoke of being assaulted by bird-eating tarantulas at every pitch. He advised the crew of Monty Python on Scottish mountain locations, becoming a lifelong friend of Michael Palin.
MacInnes also worked as an adviser and safety climber on several Hollywood movies, including The Eiger Sanction with Clint Eastwood, The Mission, with Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons, and Five Days One Summer and The Living Daylights with Sean Connery.
And he has written 40 books, including guidebooks, real-life mountaineering accounts and novels. I have one of his hillwalking guides on my bookshelf, but until I saw Final Ascent, I had no idea about the man who wrote it.
These achievements pale in comparison to the work MacInnes has done to improve safety for climbers at all levels. He invented the first all-metal ice axe, which he speaks about and demonstrates in the film. I only started doing winter hillwalks about three years ago, and I suppose I take my lightweight metal ice axe for granted. It’s never had to support my entire weight. In the film, Hamish talks about a terrible accident in the 1960s, where three climbers fell to their deaths as their wooden ice axe handles broke away from the heads. This tragedy inspired him to develop the all-metal ice axe. He never patented the design.
I wonder how many modern climbers are even aware of this.
MacInnes went to live Glencoe in 1959, the sparsely-populated but densely mountainous region of Scotland that draws climbers, mountaineers and hillwalkers in their thousands. Initially he rented Allt-na-Ruigh cottage (now infamous as the cottage once owned by the late sex beast Jimmy Saville). MacInnes later built his own home at the northern end of the glen, complete with workshop for his engineering inventions.
In the early days, the police used to call on MacInnes when climbers were lost in the mountains, asking for his assistance in their rescue. In 1961, he founded the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, and led it for 30 years. He also founded SARDA, the Search and Rescue Dog Association, and he co-founded the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS), as well as the Glencoe School of Winter Climbing.
In the film, Hamish discusses the International Mountain Rescue Handbook, which he wrote in 1974, and which is still considered the standard reference work. He says that back in those days, the death toll in the mountains was considerable. His actions and inventions have clearly had a direct effect on saving the lives of thousands of mountaineers.
MacInnes’ other inventions include lightweight collapsible tents for use in the Himalayan mountains, and lightweight folding stretchers. His stretcher designs have been used not just in mountain rescue situations, but in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, and in mountain areas overseas. The film shows clips of the stretchers being used on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro.
That final ascent
When I first heard about Final Ascent, I thought the name of the film seemed a bit depressing, as I imagined that it referred to the final struggle of Hamish’s life. In fact, it has a more specific meaning, referring to a particular solo climbing “first” achieved by MacInnes.
If you want to find out what that achievement is, you’ll have to watch the film 😊
And next time you meet an elderly person, have a good think about what adventures, achievements and life experiences might lie behind the wrinkles!