The Long Hope (film)
By Paul Diffley (Hot Aches, 2011, www.hotaches.com, HD download ₤14.99)
From the first voice over and the brilliant opening credits you get a good feeling about the Long Hope film, and what follows doesn’t disappoint: a powerful climbing story that has been beautifully crafted by Hot Aches’ Paul Diffley.
The Long Hope focuses on Scottish all-rounder Dave MacLeod’s efforts to free Britain’s hardest and longest sea cliff route, the Long Hope Route on St Johns Head, Hoy, Orkney. The route was first climbed in 1970 by the talented climber and poet Ed Drummond and his less experienced partner, Oliver Hill. They ascended the route using a mixture of freeclimbing and aid at the grade of HXS/A2 (over multiple days). Then in 1997, the pairing of John Arran and Dave Turnbull tried to free the route. Impressively, they climbed most of it free at E7 6c, but were forced to do a detour around the hardest section of the top headwall crux pitch.
Enter MacLeod, probably the finest all-round British climber of his generation. The challenges are many: the island is remote, the cliff is difficult to access, the weather is horrendous, partners are hard to come by, while by Australian standards the cliff looks like a massive pile of crumbly choss covered in hairy lichen (the crux pitch alone takes MacLeod eight days to clean). You also can’t forget the fulmars, sea birds that nest on the cliff and when threatened defend themselves by vomiting up the contents of their stomachs – essentially foetid-smelling fish oil. Finally, the route itself is 500m long, with many difficult, scary pitches culminating in the crux pitch, grade around 31/32, and all on trad gear.
The film mainly concentrates on MacLeod’s efforts, but what makes it so effective is that the filmmakers had access to all the previous ascentionists. Ed Drummond, in particular, has a powerful presence. These days the softly-spoken poet suffers from Parkinson’s disease and walks with a cane, but for the film he makes what is now a difficult journey out to revisit St John’s Head, often stopping to reflect on the original ascent. The film also includes an article he wrote at the time of the first ascent, using his prose to good effect in voice overs in particular in conjunction with old black and white images.
Arran and Turnbull also make an appearance, describing their ascent and all the difficulties of climbing such a route. I particularly liked Arran’s contributions, he has done some of the world’s hardest trad routes in truly remote areas, but his tombstone-like teeth seem almost too big for his mouth, leaving him with a slight disarming lisp. MacLeod’s climbing partner, Andy Turner, is also a nice presence in the film, adding more humour and giving a bit of an everyman perspective to the venture. The narrative is really bolstered by these multiple perspectives, which help build a vivid picture both of the difficulties and the levels of commitment and desire required to climb a route like this – something that is not always evident from MacLeod’s calm demeanour and descriptions.
The film is beautifully shot, despite the enormous difficulties of filming on such a massive cliff in sometimes terrible conditions. And there are some lovely, clever touches, like one shot where the camera, obviously on a tripod, is blown over in the wind – giving you some clue as to how windy St John’s Head gets. While one of the longest trundles I have seen gives you some sense of the size of the cliff; you watch the rock plummet, and plummet, then hit, then bounce, bounce, then hit the ocean. I also liked some of the simpler elements, like the way on the crux pitch you can hear MacLeod’s ragged breathing.
All up, I thought this one of the best pieces of climbing storytelling I have seen for some time.