Final Ascent, a story of mountains and mental health

  • Published on: 8th May 2019
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In this week’s blog, Andrew Eaton-Lewis of the Mental Health Foundation (and An Lanntair) tells the story behind Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes, which we’re screening next Saturday in partnership with the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival.

On Saturday 18 May An Lanntair will screen Final Ascent, a fascinating new documentary about the famous Scottish mountaineer Hamish MacInnes, including a Q&A with its director Robbie Fraser. What you may not know is that the event is part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival (SMHAF), a month-long programme consisting of over 300 events all over the country.

When I’m not working at An Lanntair I work as arts lead for the Mental Health Foundation, supporting new artistic work that explores mental health, which is how this film has ended up as An Lanntair’s first contribution to SMHAF. I’m hoping there can be more next year.

Final Ascent wasn’t originally going to be about mental health. Robbie Fraser had been commissioned to make a one hour TV documentary about MacInnes, telling the story of his life and work. This is a remarkable tale in itself – MacInnes climbed the Matterhorn at the age of 16 and built a car from scratch at the age of 17. He would later use this formidable practical knowledge to create new, life-saving mountaineering inventions such as the all metal axe and the MacInnes Stretcher, now used all over the world to rescue injured climbers from locations that can’t easily be accessed. In 1953 he attempted Everest, and almost made it to the peak before Hillary and Tenzing. He later became the founder of Glencoe Mountain Rescue. Over the course of his life, Robbie Fraser observes, MacInnes must have saved thousands of lives, either personally or through his engineering skills.

When Fraser visited MacInnes at home though, the mountaineer didn’t want to talk about any of this. Instead he wanted to talk about the time he was institutionalised.

This happened when MacInnes was 84. Suffering from delirium, he was taken into psychogeriatric care in the Highlands. This was clearly a traumatic experience for him. Reading his medical notes later, MacInnes didn’t recognise the person being described – to his shock and obvious anger – as a danger to himself and others. During his detention he made numerous escape attempts, on one occasion climbing on to the hospital roof. His carers were concerned that he was going to attempt suicide; as Final Ascent explains, though, MacInnes was just trying to get to somewhere he felt safe. And there’s no place that a mountaineer feels more comfortable than at the summit.

When MacInnes was released from care and returned home, he had lost his memory. Fortunately he was able to look back over his vast archive of film, and the dozens of mountaineering books he has written, and in doing so began to remember who he was. The narrative of Final Ascent ingeniously mirrors this journey – as MacInnes’s extraordinary life story unfolds before us through the archive footage stored in his basement, we watch the man himself rediscovering his own story by watching that same footage.

This week I watched Final Ascent’s first SMHAF screening at the CCA in Glasgow. The event was sold out and the audience’s affection for MacInnes was clear – the scene of his hospital escape attempt was greeted with laughter and applause. The Q&A with Robbie Fraser afterwards was a joy to watch, and I intend to revisit a couple of its anecdotes when Robbie comes to Stornoway next week. If I forget to ask him about the time the ‘cantankerous’ Hamish threatened to walk away from the film because the motorbike Fraser was planning to use in one scene wasn’t exactly the right model, please remind me.

If you’re not on Lewis next weekend, the film will also be screening on Skye, Shetland, Aberfeldy, Dundee and Inverness in the coming weeks as part of its SMHAF-supported Scottish tour; there are dates outside of Scotland too – you’ll find a complete list of screening dates here.