Review – Project Mina & The Last Great Climb (films)

I generally always enjoy British climbing films, and Project Mina and The Last Great Climb are two (relatively) new ones out of old Blighty, directed by Jen Randall and Alastair Lee respectively. Shared nationality aside, that’s all the films have in common, for the two stories concentrate on vastly different subjects within the climbing genre.

Project Mina is a beautifully shot profile of British boulderer Mina Leslie-Wujastyk. Mina’s a very talented climber, who’s climbed numerous V12s around the world as well 8c (33) on a rope (Mecca Extension at Raven Tor). Project Mina has some excellent outdoor footage of Mina climbing, including one of her proudest ascents, the first female ascent of the legendary Stanage highball, Careless Torque (V11), but the main narrative of the film surrounds her ambition to compete and succeed in bouldering World Cups. So it is that we follow her through her training, competing at the British Nationals and then onto the World Cups. However, it’s clear from early on that while Mina has ambitions to compete, it’s not necessarily something that she’s good at (at least by her standards), or that she’s entirely sure that she wants to do – and it’s this tension that provides the central narrative of the film.

In contrast, The Last Great Climb is at the opposite end of the climbing spectrum, it’s about three Englishmen – team leader Leo Houlding, coffee boy Chris Rabone, Britain’s manliest man, Jason Pickles  – and a token American – Sean ‘Stan’ Leary (who passed away last year in a BASE jumping mishap) – attempting to climb a monumental alpine objective in one of the world’s coldest, harshest and most remote regions, Queen Maud Land, Antarctica. The goal is the Northeast Ridge of the awesome looking Ulvetanna (wolf’s tooth), a dramatic shard of steep, crumbling granite that sticks out of the ice like…well, a wolf’s tooth. Whereas Project Mina is a more intimate story of personal ambition set on the modest stage of boulders and indoor gyms, The Last Great Climb is clearly a well-funded alpine expedition set in an epic environment – and it has the cinematography to match, with endless sweeping helicopter shots and time lapses from all angles showing off Ulvetanna and the route.

Both films are enjoyable to watch for different reasons. Mina’s story is interesting as it provides a glimpse into the pressures of being a top athlete, particularly in what is a marginal professional sport like climbing. Such a personal story relies a lot on the individual being profiled, and Mina is a delightful subject who is refreshingly honest about her mixed feelings concerning competing, and at times she allows herself to be very vulnerable in front of the camera (on the rock she’s also a wonderfully tenacious climber). While it’s not a film that will probably appeal to lovers of big, epic objectives (or haters of comp climbing), I found Project Mina eminently enjoyable.

I came to The Last Great Climb with high expectations – it’s been something that I’ve wanted to see since its release – and while I enjoyed the film it didn’t quite meet my expectations in subtle ways that it’s taken me a little while to articulate. There’s no doubting it is both beautifully and dramatically shot – and the landscape is surreal and starkly beautiful – but the story of the climb itself and the way it is pieced together seems to be somewhat formulaic, perhaps striving to make more of the ascent than what it was – with the filmmaker making great efforts to convince us of the epic-ness of the route and the location (which, Norweigan climber Robert Caspersen evocatively describes as ‘the second most remote and difficult place to get to, after the moon’).

Maybe it’s because I am used to rawness of a lot of big-wall/alpine films, but I found that the style and quality of the filming of The Last Great Climb actually created some kind of mild cognitive dissonance that detracted from watching. On the one hand, we are being told how difficult the climb is: how cold, how dangerous, how they are running out of time, how they are physically worn down, but on the other we watch footage of climbers ascending the mountain that is being shot from above, which automatically tells a climber they’re re-climbing sections of the route for the camera – including what is supposed to be the most dangerous pitch, a long run-out slab with no gear for 50m on crumbling granite. It contradicts the narrative that time is running down and they may not get to the top before they have to leave.

In some ways it also feels like the drama of the landscape overwhelms the story of the climb, but in the end that doesn’t matter that much because the drama of the landscape is absolutely incredible. The Last Great Climb is not quite what I hoped, but it’s still excellent alpine porn (for those who like that kind of thing).
Ross Taylor

Project Mina is directed and produced by Jen Randall, you can download or rent the film from STEEPEDGE here.

The Last Great Climb is directed and produced by Alastair Lee, you can download or rent the film from STEEPEDGE here.

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