Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Iron in the Soul..The Pinnacle...Review

Readers of Footless Crow will have enjoyed...I trust... a couple of recent articles related to the legendary Scottish climber Robin Smith. Steve Dean's excellent 'Adventures of Wheech' followed by 'Wheech' himself- Robin Smith's- best known essay first published in the SMC journal of 1960...'The Bat and the Wicked'.
Steve's comprehensive piece includes a section detailing events in one remarkable week in February 1960 when the young pretender,accompanied by 'The Old Man' - the legend that is Jimmy Marshall- launched a series of impressive first ascents from their lair under the Ben..As Steve explained...... It was to be a week that re-defined the art of Scottish winter climbing and the pressure was on as Jimmy was to be married the following month!

They started with the first ascent of Great Chimney on Tower Ridge (a tough Grade IV.)  The following day (Sunday) saw the first ascent of Minus Three Gully (IV) followed by a moonlight descent to the hut. The next day they climbed the excellent Gardyloo Buttress (V) sharing one axe! This brilliant route was not repeated for eleven years. On the Tuesday they made the first winter ascent of Raeburn's Route on Observatory Buttress (IV) a particularly steep ice route, but even better was to follow. The following day, after a late start, they stormed up Point Five Gully to make the second ascent in only seven hours. After the contentious first ascent, Scottish pride was restored. This was followed by a day off; a walk over the Grey Corries in a blizzard, Spean Bridge, the pub and near arrest! They returned to the CIC by midnight. On the Friday they made the first winter ascent of Pigott’s Route on Comb Buttress (hard IV), but had saved the best for last. On the Saturday they made the first winter ascent of Orion Face Direct (V) one of the great Scottish winter routes. Hard climbing, difficult route finding, poor stances and belays combined with an Alpine scale made this a tour de force by two brilliant climbers. Winter climbing in Britain was never the same again; their efforts that week represented perhaps the highest level of step cutting technique.

The following year,the ancient craft of step cutting was consigned to the dustbin of history. Front pointed crampons and new fangled drop picked ice axes pointed the way forward. The Marshall/Smith tour de force was indeed a remarkable swansong by two iron willed climbers strong of limb and ruthless in ambition. For Scottish outdoor writer Ken Crockett writing on the history of climbing on Ben Nevis, it was 'The Pinnacle' of achievement.

Now Paul Diffley's Hot Aches team have brought 'The Pinnacle' to life on film. A film which will receive it's first public showing at this year's Kendal Mountaineering Festival. The ubiquitous Dave Macleod...who is having quite a year in the moving pictures business...and Andy Turner take on the Marshall/Smith roles although in film they employ a strictly modernistic approach to re-climbing their routes. This is not Lakeland Rock circa 1980's with Chris Bonington attempting classic climbs- classic style. Expecting Dave Mac and Andy T to spend a week step cutting and sharing an axe at times would have been a big ask too far!  This is tribute to Marshall and Smith not an experiment.

Having just watched The Pinnacle I am pleased to say that for me the film works perfectly on so many levels. Of course,as you would expect from a Hot Aches production,it's beautifully shot, creatively edited and produced. However, beyond the cinematic texture, it works as a unique documentary of an era in Scottish climbing from which we are looking back from our cosseted perspective half century on. With many of the activists inevitably no longer with us or of an age- Jimmy Marshall for example is now 82- that it is important that their experiences are recorded and put into context before it's too late. Thankfully, these recollections are brought vividly to life and seamlessly woven into the action footage so that the images of Dave and Andy clawing their way up The Orion Face for example, never appears detached from the historical context of the ascent.

Of course Jimmy Marshall's presence is, as to be expected, the glue which binds the whole film together.In the absence of Robin Smith it falls to the architect to bring that magical week back to life . Despite recently describing himself in a letter to me as 'an old curmudgeon these days' his on screen persona is very much of a modest, self effacing and warm man for whom climbing friends and partners-both dead and living- mean everything to him. His memories of Wheech are of a unique man of rare intellect,supernatural skill on rock and ice but with the air of someone somewhat emotionally detached from others. Given his driven nature,detachment from deep relationships and his cutting edge exploits then many would see Wheech as having the Mark of Cain on him. However,for a week in February 1960, in Jimmy Marshall, Smith had found his perfect foil.

I'm not sure what Marshall/Smith circa 1960 would make of the 2010 climber in the shape of Macleod/Turner in their expensive,high tech mountain clothing bristling with corporate sponsors logos and their sophisticated climbing equipment ? When Jimmy Marshall describes climbing with RS in his " lovely ex army 'Kagooly with Wolverine collar and cuffs' could he ever have imagined Gore-Tex 'kagoolies',
Titanium screws,plastic boots,five hundred pound ice axes, camming devices etc? For the SMC's Robin Campbell commenting in the film on the hi-tech over kill employed by modern climbers..'watching them approach the crag these days is pitiful !'

Thankfully, given his high profile these days 'The Pinnacle' never becomes the Dave Mac show.His on screen time is more or less equally shared with Andy Turner and the actual climbing  footage is always sensitively edited without resorting to cutting room trickery or atmospheric background music ratcheting up the tension. The individual climbs undertaken by Mac and Turner are concisely filmed....they had to be given the whole package was edited into a sixty minute film... but nevertheless, still capture the essence of each route.These action sections are overlaid with narrative from Jimmy Marshall and broken up with interviews with activists like Ken Crockett, Mick Tigue, Hamish MacInnes and Robin Campbell .
Robin Campbell in particular is a delightful participant with his humorous anecdotes delivered with shoulder shaking laughter and delight at the absurdity of this crazy game climbers play. I defy you to listen to RC without a smile on your face!

As alluded to above.The incidental music is very much appropriate for a film set in that era. Thankfully we don't get Dave or Andy picking their way up Smith's Route to the not so gentle refrains of Hip-Hop! More soothingly, a gentle acoustic folky vibe soundtracks the climbing sequences....phew!

The DVD of The Pinnacle also contains extras which include Paul Diffley's award winning short 'The Architect' which is basically a stripped down Jimmy Marshall feature edited out of the main film... A spine tingling short film of Dave Mac and Joe French climbing a ludicrously difficult route on the Ben 'Don't die of ignorance'..Pinnacle chapters...Interview and Q and A session with The Old Man and trailers from other Hot Aches films.

In a nutshell, The Pinnacle is perfectly pitched. The elements of the film seamlessly dovetailing into something which both entertains and stands as a moving tribute to two legends of Scottish Climbing. What more could you ask of a climbing film ?

John Appleby

Images courtesy of.... Hot Aches. 

first published on To Hatch a Crow: 6/11/2010