Sunday, 23 March 2014

ShAFF Review: The Last Great Climb & Heaven's Gate

Dedicated to Sean "Stanley" Leary, the secret star of many Posing Productions movies, including The Last Great Climb, who sadly passed away recently. 

The Last Great Climb

The great snaggletooth of mother earth, Ulvetanna stands at almost 3,000m in the snow covered Queen Maud Land, Antarctica. Only recently found and summated (the first ascent being 1994) one of the Peak's greatest lines remained untouched, the North East ridge, which runs for around 6,000ft with a vertical mile of elevation. 

This frozen wasteland, described as "the second remotest place to get to after the moon", conversely lit a fire under Leo Holding and team. Followed by Alastair Lee, of Posing Productions, and his cameras, Leo assembled the crack team of Britain's "manliest man" Jason Pickles and "the world's nicest psycho" Sean "Stanley" Leary, as well as workhorse and quartermaster Chris Rabone. Their goal, the North East ridge of Ulvetanna. 

As always with Posing Productions' movies, the production values are exceptional in The Last Great Climb. Raising the bar for climbing movies once again, Alastair's documentary style sees numerous interviews with the Peak's first ascentionists, great mountaineers of our time and others to set the scene. We know that climbing a mountain in sub-zero temperatures is going to be hard, but we need to be told just how hard by the likes of Sir Chris Bonnington to understand fully, as well as understand the motivations behind wanting to undertake such a frozen adventure.

Suitably stoked, the fire of ambition carries our mountaineering heroes to the icy planes of Antartica, where they spend more than a month establishing camps and sieging Ulvetanna. There's a suitable amount of drama, with glorious weather quickly turning to -30 temperatures, howling winds, frozen hands… and more than one dribbling nose. 

Breakfast consisting of coffee, prepared by dogsbody Chris, alongside "dehydrated porridge mixed with Mars Bar," as Jason describes, gets the team up in the morning. They then proceed to push their high point ever nearer the spiky summit, clad in the finest luminescent mountaineering gear going, standing out against the backdrop of brown and white.

Yosemite veteran Stanley, who seemingly takes on all the toughest pitches, gets stuck finding a way through the steepest part of the route, which the team christen "the roof of despair". After completing his more than an hour long battle, he returns to base camp, shaky, shattered and frozen, declaring "it was so grim it's actually funny". That's the mentality you need to undertake these missions and succeed.

As Jason describes, life on a mountain is much simpler than "real life", where he struggles to remember to pay bills. Here, among the snow and peaks, he's able to concentrate "on the little things", such as staying alive. "When you're as manly as I am, which is pretty manly, it's good to boil [life] down to its manliest parts," he says.

I won't reveal anymore. I wouldn't want to spoil the ending. But if you want a high-value mountaineering documentary at ShAFF this year, there's no substitute for The Last Great Climb.

Heaven's Gate

As if skydiving wasn't scary enough, they invented base jumping. And as if base jumping wasn't scary enough, they invented wingsuit flying. And as if wingsuit flying wasn't scary enough, they invented what Jeb Corliss does.

Wingsuit flying ensures the base jumper remains airborne for minutes rather than seconds before pulling their parachute. They glide through the sky like birds at speeds well in excess of 100mph. However, after a few hundred jumps it seems the daredevils who undertake such an activity don't get enough of an adrenaline rush, so they began trying to get as close to the downward slopes of the mountains they were leaping from as possible. Taking this one step further, Jeb wants to fly through a hole in a mountain side, which gives this ShAFF film its name, Heaven's Gate.

Jeb's amazing sponsorship deal with Red Bull allows him to travel to such far flung places as Tianmen Mountain, in China's Hunan provence, to attempt such tom-foolery. As you'd expect, this doesn't go quietly. He doesn't just walk up the mountain one day, fling himself over the edge and glide through the hole before going home. Weeks of prep with fellow wingsuit veterans ensues. And being Red Bull, this is all exceptionally well publicised. 

Even the event organiser is blown away when eventually the national Chinese media, as well as international outlets, pick up on the stunt, and before Jeb knows it he's got an audience of half a billion. No, you didn't read that wrong. This 2 minute stunt captures the Chinese media's imagination, and more than 500,000,000 people tune into the live broadcast.

How does someone not buckle under such pressure? Imagine: you're already trying to conduct one of the most death defying stunts going and now you've got more people than you can possibly imagine glued to their TV's waiting for you to either glide through Heaven's Gate at huge speed or squash against the side of the mountain like a fly on a windscreen. It would be enough to make anyone quake in their boots. But Jeb doesn't seem the type to shake with fear, more likely from the excessive amounts of his sponsor's product he seemingly quaffs. He speaks as fast as he flies, bounding from one sentence to the next with hardly a breath. He speaks like a 10-year-old given a coffee and let loose on Christmas day. Enthusiastic is an understatement. 

When the big day comes, does he make it? I'm not going to tell you. You'll have to watch it at ShAFF and see.