@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 10 May 2019
The name of Hamish MacInnes is legendary in the field of mountain climbing. At 16, and newly smitten with the dangerous pastime, he scaled Matterhorn, one of Europe’s highest peaks. At 21, he set out on an unauthorised attempt on Everest, only to arrive at base camp and discover a certain Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had got there first. Over an extensive and intrepid career, he invented climbing equipment, wrote around forty books on the subject, and rescued and made innumerable documentaries.
At the age of 84, he was sectioned against his will after suffering a bout of delirium, a not uncommon side-effect of urinary tract infections in the elderly. One morning during his stay he awoke to find his memory completely gone. What could easily have been a fatal blow to a man of his age, was the beginning of a long and arduous journey back to himself. Hamish was able to use the vast archive of photographs, books and film footage he had amassed over nearly seven decades as reference points, and he slowly reassembled his past.
Robbie Fraser’s film is a poignant and fascinating story of inner strength and determination. The metaphors for MacInnes’ condition are obvious. He refers to his recovery as, “clawing his way back to sanity,” his general method of escape from the numerous avalanches under which he found himself during rescue missions. It’s admittedly impossible not to descend into trite dramatic phrases such as MacInnes “facing his greatest challenge yet,” or any others that reduce all human endeavour to a variation of The Little Engine That Could. However, Hamish’s story is more than fascinating enough not to be reduced to a generic ‘inspirational’ story.
Final Ascent benefits hugely from its subject being not just still alive, but with his mental faculties very much restored. MacInnes’ very recent return to health gives his storytelling an immediacy that comes with it being fresh in the mind again. There are both an understated wryness and a lack of hyperbole to his recollections; taciturnity that thankfully never quite tips over into dourness. He describes both his incredible 1953 ascent of Everest and his delirium as merely, “quite interesting,” with the stoicism of a Victorian explorer. There are the usual admiring talking heads, from such luminaries as longterm friends Chris Bonington and Michael Palin, but these are just used to add extra flavour to MacInnes’ tales.
As a documentary, Final Ascent is conventional in its presentation, but this doesn’t detract from the experience when the life and career of its subject are so fascinating. An avenue that could have been explored is whether or not Hamish has assembled false or imprecise memories from the patchwork method of his recovery. That the film has chosen to focus on the human and emotional impact of MacInnes’ story is unsurprising, however, and serves as one more remarkable document of a remarkable life.