Shovels and steely stuff
MacLeod and Messner, Dundee Mountain
Film Festival, 28/29 November 2008
Review: Perkin Warbeck
WHEN I NOTICED that the programme for the Dundee Mountain Film Festival featured Dave MacLeod on Friday and Reinhold Messner on Saturday, there was to be no delay over tickets. As children, my friends Rod and Mhairi Gordon were taken to see the Beatles and the Stones on the same bill at Dundee Caird Hall; this was a similar binary. Dave MacLeod would have to be the Stones, I guess: the young Turk to Messner’s old guard; but this analogy won’t go much further. For starters, MacLeod is now sporting short hair, as I noticed on entering the Bonar Hall. There were Dave and his wife Claire flogging their stuff at a trestle table beside my old French teacher promoting the Rights of Way Society. No traybake on offer from Claire unfortunately — probably because she is now the filmmaker of the family.
MacLeod’s lecture had three legs: “Hell’s Lum” — covered previously in TAC (see TAC73 p20) and by the Beeb; “Don’t Die of Ignorance”, his grade XI mixed route on Ben Nevis, famous for an incident where his partner Joe French nearly lost a hand; and “Echo Wall”, his ungraded long-term summer project, again on the Ben, which required relocation of the MacLeod family to the Fort in order to prepare in the requisite MacLeod manner. The preparation for these projects made up most of the fun. For Echo Wall there was a boulder problem called Sky Pilot where he was never more than a metre above the ground, but which required every sinew to pop out along with various grunts and swear-words. Apparently he also needed to gallop round the CMD arête at an implausible speed.
Echo Wall itself required one of the strangest pieces of preparation yet. Not top-roping and brushing the holds with a toothbrush, but shovelling away an entire snowfield that was dripping onto the route. During the talk MacLeod showed the speeded-up Keystone Cops footage — sometimes joined in the backbreaking endeavour by Claire but mostly him shovelling solo. Scoop after scoop of powder. It looked like the surface area of a tennis court, maybe a metre deep. And he shovelled it all away. I must say I wondered why he didn’t just get a can of petrol and burn it off. Maybe that would have been the equivalent of bolting the route.
The talks describing Don’t Die of Ignorance and Echo Wall, while each standing in their own right, became a love song to the Ben. The nature of MacLeod’s work is such that he spent half the year up there — winter most of the time — and it produced some glorious lingering shots of Britain’s highest hill.
Other glimpses into MacLeod’s life included an interview at home with Jimmy Marshall — obviously a hero to the younger man. Marshall obliged with some scary stories of the Ben in murderous mode and by waggling a long wooden-handled axe.
In an age where debate rages about a Bentley-driving professional athlete called Kris Boyd who allegedly has a limited devotion to the ascetic aspects of his game, one Ford Fiesta-driving athlete called Dave MacLeod almost wordlessly points another way. There is ten-stone Dave — a bloater who could not hope to top-out Echo Wall, and nine-stone Dave (we were shown before-and-after photos of these two Daves — like Kerry Katona on the front of Heat). Frightening to think what 10SD had to do to become 9SD. I don’t think Kerry would have been up to it.
AND SO TO MESSNER. His looming presence hung over the Friday night, even though his talk was 24 hours away. Elvis-like, the landing of his plane was announced. And rightly so. What a coup this was: Messner is surely the Elvis of mountaineering. Oops, sorry, he’s the Beatles. Certainly he ain’t one of the Jameses, Morrison or Blunt. A bear of a man oozing presence. Beard and hair everywhere. Dave MacLeod is quite humble in demeanour, and while Messner is far from arrogant he exudes his status. Most of the topics you would hope for were covered: Everest with Habeler, Everest solo, the tragedy on Nanga Parbat. A pleasant diversionary discourse was his appreciation of Shackleton. Everyone in the room knew the story, but somehow Messner’s simple retelling of it carried new weight. The guy has swanned about the ice caps himself and also traversed South Georgia in modern gear. So his admiration counts.
Messner of course has no toes — or not enough to speak of. His rock climbing was thus limited years ago, but it appears his son now challenges him in that field. He walks across the ice-caps and writes a book a year, but his passion has become museums. Yes, museums. Not strolling round them of course: Reinhold builds them. And not one but five — each with a theme but all devoted to mountains. Worth visiting, it would appear — there’s lots about them on the internet. In my youth Dundee Museum had the Tay Whale’s skeleton and that was about it.
The loss of his brother Günther on Nanga Parbat in 1970 must hang over every talk Messner gives. I have no evidence for this apart from the way it arose in Dundee, the fact that he wrote a book about it 30-odd years on and the persistence of his critics. In short, Messner loses brother descending lethal face, expedition leaders criticise him — accuse him of self-aggrandisement and of lying about the exact circumstances. Messner is eventually vindicated in most people’s eyes by the discovery, in 2005, of his brother’s body in the correct place and by subsequent DNA evidence.
The depth of Messner’s immersion in this plot is clear when the slide-advance button suddenly reveals the corpse; reminiscent of the mummified Mallory image. Messner had trekked up the glacier on hearing of the discovery, taken the photo and, after removing a sample for the DNA, cremated the remains. Steely stuff.
He has moved on — to the European Parliament, to polar treks and to his museums. But they are now finished and his ceaseless exploring is, he said, about to move him in another as yet unspecified direction.
The film-festival people were agog to be hosting a presentation by this colossus and well they might be. One would have thought that Messner was out of their league. It is not known, however, whether during his time in Dundee he made an ascent of the Law without bottled oxygen. (Or of Reres Hill, see page 3 — Ed.)