Climbing star steps down

Jimmy Ness climbing

The fifth Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival took place in October 2007 giving one veteran climber a belated chance in the spotlight. 78-year-old Jimmy Ness first climbed near Fort William as a teenager. He returned recently to repeat the climb - this time with a camera crew in tow.

BBC Scotland arts correspondent Pauline McLean went to meet the unlikely film star.

Jimmy Ness lifts one of five hefty photo albums onto his lap.

“This,” he says, pointing at a sepia photograph of a young man in a knitted jumper, sunglasses and sunshades, “was taken in 1954. We didn't have the equipment climbers have nowadays. Just a hemp rope, and nail boots. No helmets, no crampons, no harnesses. You just took extra care because if you fell, it would be fatal.”

Jimmy Ness

It was Jimmy's experience of a bygone mountaineering age which inspired film-makers Joe French and John Sutherland to approach him with an unusual challenge.

“We wanted five climbers to repeat some of their most famous climbs,” says Joe, who's based in Fort William.

“Jimmy is a bit of a legend locally and we didn't think anyone had gone back to Poll Dubh (an outcrop of sheer rock at the foot of Ben Nevis) at least not after 60 years.”

Having got over the initial shock of realising they wanted him to climb again – “I thought they just wanted to talk about my memories in the film” – Jimmy's biggest problem was getting the right gear.

“So much has changed since I first climbed. Most people walking round Fort William today are better prepared for the weather than we were. But there were fewer people on the mountains, now you have to queue up to climb them.”

Jimmy Ness close up

On the day, Jimmy chose to climb in his own walking shoes and any last minute nerves about the climb, or being on camera, were soon gone.

“We were a bit anxious about it,” says Joe French, “but in the end he outpaced us. I had to keep taking my harness off and racing ahead so I could get the shot. And before we knew it, he was up and over the top.”

“It was more polished than I remembered. Obviously a lot of climbers have worn it down since the 1940s,” says Jimmy.

“I enjoyed it but I was relieved when it was over, not to have pulled any muscles.”

Jimmy Ness walking away

The film, 'Polldubh, a mountain climbers' playground', was shown but Jimmy decided not to attend. He had already had his moment of big screen glory, when running down the mountainside as an extra in the 1948 film, Bonnie Prince Charlie! He felt it was time to hang up his climbing boots.

“It was a different time, different days. I was happy to help the film-makers out but I'm 79 next birthday. I think that's probably time to call it a day.”

Page first published on Friday 19th October 2007
Page last updated on Monday 18th August 2008

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