Why Climb Mountains?
There is good rock climbing at the Clints of Dromore in Gatehouse of Fleet, Dumfries and Galloway, where Hamish MacInnes was born in 1930, son of a father from Fort William and a mother from Skye. But it wasn't until just after the Second World War and he had moved with his parents to Greenock on the lower reaches of the river Clyde that he was introduced to the sport of climbing. A neighbour, Bill Hargreaves, a tax inspector during the week, went off at weekends with his motorcycle laden with ropes and climbing gear. Hamish asked if he could join him and they drove to the 'Arrochar Alps' to climb The Cobbler, a small, jagged peak which offered a variety of challenges. Later Hamish remarked:“I was very fortunate to team up with Bill Hargreaves, because he was a very good climber and he showed me the basic safety measures: what to do and what not to do. There were no Outward Bound schools in those days and no way of getting climbing tuition. It was basically a DIY situation and that could be very dangerous.”
Hamish found his way from Arrochar and the Cobbler to Glencoe (that's Aonach Eagach, Glencoe on the left), cycling there and back at weekends. He did his National Service with the British army in Austria - and spent his leave climbing there and in the Dolomites in Italy. Later, Hamish founded the Greenock Climbing Club and encouraged other young climbers to get out of the cities and into the hills. Much of his early climbing was with the Creagh Dhu Club:'They were a bunch of pretty tough blokes from the shipyards and all very good climbers. Through them I was catapulted to quite a high standard at a fairly young age.'
When Hamish started climbing there was still a perception that climbing was a hobby of the well-to-do. When the Creagh Dhu Club was founded in the 1930s it allowed ordinary working class men from Glasgow to enjoy the sport too. They were strong and fit and they did some quite serious climbing. By the end of the Second World War these working class climbers were leading the field in Scottish mountaineering. Asked why he took to climbing so enthusiastically, Hamish says:'Undoubtedly for the freedom. There weren’t so many climbers around as there are now, so you had the most wonderful feeling of isolation, as if you had all the wild places entirely to yourself. Climbing started for me, as with most people, as the pursuit of pleasure, and that kind of developed into a way of life. I certainly have very fond memories of my climbing experiences, all over the world, but one of my lasting 'hobbies' if you like, is mountain rescue, and developing rescue equipment. It gives me a lot of satisfaction because it's something a lot of people will get a direct benefit from. I've been lucky to have this inclination for design work.'
Hamish is the first to acknowledge that climbing can be a challenging and at times hazardous business, but that, he says, is part of its essential allure. It requires strength and judgement and self-reliance, but it also involves tremendous camaraderie.
He still climbs regularly in Scotland, which he loves. 'I know the weather's grim, but it's a great place to climb' he says.
He still survives on just four hours sleep a night, retiring at midnight and rising at 4am. He comments: 'I seem to work quite well on that.'
Glencoe Mountain Rescue
Hamish moved to the splendid isolation of Glencoe in 1959. Initially he moved to an old, small cottage, Altt na Ruigh, at the gorge, but later he designed and built a much more substantial home, a lovely white-washed cottage 'Tigh A’Voulin' at the northern end of the glen beside three lochans (small lochs). There, he is surrounded by some of the most forbidding peaks in Scotland – ideal, he says for someone passionately interested in climbing and photography.
Hamish pioneered many new routes in Glencoe with the Glencoe School of Winter Climbing for winter training. In 1961, he founded, and for many years led, the Mountain Rescue team in the area. Hamish is sometimes known as the 'Fox of Glencoe' for his cunning as a mountaineer.
He is recognised as having developed modern mountain rescue not just in Glencoe but in other countries too. He is often referred to as the Father of Scottish Mountain Rescue. He founded the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team in 1961 (leading it for many years until retiring in 1991 at the age of 61), SARDA, the Search and Rescue Dog Association (in 1965), and with Eric Langmuir, co-founder of SAIS, the Scottish Avalanche Information Service. He is the author of many books on mountains and climbing, including the standard reference work, the International Mountain Rescue Handbook - which has been constantly in print since 1974.
Hamish MacInnes has a long list of "firsts" to his name, having made the first winter ascent of Crowberry Ridge Direct and of Raven's Gully on Buachaille Etive Mòr (see graphic on the left) with Chris Bonington in 1953. He joined Tom Patey to make the first winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge on Skye and the first winter ascent of Zero Gully on Ben Nevis in 1957, a climb that had previously claimed the lives of several mountaineers.
Hamish has taken part in around 20 expeditions to various parts of the world, including the first British ascent of the Bonatti Pillar of the Dru in the French Alps. He has climbed not only in the European Alps, Caucasus, New Zealand, South America (including in 1973, the infamous Prow of Mount Roraima, defended by 1,300 feet cliffs on all sides at the triple border point of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana).'Searching for Inca gold and yeti hunting was part of the attraction.'
In the Himalayas, he has been on four expeditions to Mount Everest. The first trip in 1953, attempting to be the first to conquer the world's highest mountain, was an audacious two-man affair that took place without permission, visas or money, and whose strategy depended on living off food abandoned by a Swiss expedition the previous year. However, when MacInnes and his friend John Cunningham arrived at base camp they found that a young New Zealander, Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa companion, Tenzing Norgay, had beaten them to it. Undaunted, they embarked upon an ascent of previously unclimbed Pumori nearby, but that proved unsuccessful.
In 1975, Hamish was deputy leader in Bonington's Everest expedition, which included Dougal Haston and Doug Scott. The expedition conquered the south-west face, but MacInnes was nearly killed in an avalanche (not for the first or last time). Asked what it was like to be caught in a situation like that he commented:'It certainly concentrates the mind. Sometimes it happens quite suddenly and without warning while on other occasions I’ve felt as if the whole mountainside was slowly slipping away beneath me. There’s nothing you can do but go with the flow. I’ve developed a technique in falling. I quite deliberately bring my hand up to cover my mouth so that when I eventually come to a halt under the snow I will at least have a little space in which to breathe before the snow sets like concrete.'
On many occasions he’s been buried, but he’s somehow managed to claw his own way out.
Hamish MacInnes clearly has an inventive mind with a leaning towards engineering - he built his own motor car at the age of 16 and his father had a business in Greenock. So it was perhaps inevitable that he would see shortcomings in the equipment used by climbers and come up with improvements. He designed the first all-metal ice axe in the late 1940's. But it was not manufactured by him until the early 1960's, using aluminium alloy shafts. The decision to make these all metal ice axes available to the public was taken after Hamish found two wooden axes broken after a fall on Ben Nevis in Zero Gully, where a party of three mountaineers were killed. All metal ice axes are now made internationallyand have had a major impact on climbing throughout the world. His later invention, the 'Terrordactyll' has had a global impact on the course of difficult winter climbing. These inventions should have made him a rich man, but big firms copied and exploited his design, making it more cheaply than he could. Hamish says he is not upset by that:'I was primarily interested in safety for climbers, not profit.'
Inexperienced people often go climbing in Scotland without even the most basic planning or checking the weather forecast. These days, they rely very much on their mobile phones to dial up the Mountain Rescue Service and wait for a helicopter to winch them out of trouble - forgetting that there are blind spots where a mobile phone signal cannot reach. In earlier times, however, mountain rescue relied mainly on local gamekeepers and shepherds. Thanks to the efforts of people like Hamish MacInnes, these days there are properly trained and equipped mountain rescue teams. But carrying a stretcher to an injured climber, far less carrying it back, is always a daunting task so to make it easier and save lives Hamish designed his first folding stretcher in the early 1960's. This is now used for rescues worldwide, not just on mountains but in other rough terrain such as by the military in Afghanistan and other regions of conflict as well as for land mine clearance by various charities. For more on the MacInnes Stretchers, see MK6 Stretcher and MK7 Stretcher (pictured here).
Hamish has lost over 30 of his friends in mountaineering accidents over the years. “You get used to death,” he says nonchalantly. 'It happens all the time.' As noted earlier, he has personally survived a number of potentially fatal avalanches and some "near misses", quite a few of them when he has been trying to rescue someone else.
Book Writing and Photography
Even someone like Hamish MacInnes can't climb mountains all the time and although he continued spending time developing and improving the design of his modern stretcher, he has also become an accomplished writer. He was one of the authors of "Ben Nevis and Glencoe : Guide To Winter Climbs" and his first major published work was the International Mountain Rescue Handbook (1972), regarded as the standard manual worldwide. "Callout" (1973), is his classic account of his experiences leading the Glencoe Rescue team. He has published many guide books on mountains and mountaineering, illustrated with his own great photographs. Several of his books have been translated into foreign languages, in particular the International Mountain Rescue Handbook. In addition to all those books on mountaineering, Hamish has branched out and written and published murder mystery fiction books as well. They are set in territory he is so familiar with - the mountains of Scotland with his fictional glen sounding a bit like Glencoe. Hamish commented about "Murder in the Glen":'Mountains are the ideal place for foul play. If you want to bump someone off, gravity will do the rest.'
For more on all the books written by Hamish MacInnes, see the Books page on this site.
Hamish MacInnes has worked on several hundred documentaries, starting with expedition and climbing films, often for the BBC and other commercial companies. As an advisor to the BBC on live outside broadcasts he did pioneering work on the award winning "The Old man of Hoy" as well as "The Matterhorn Centenary Climb." and many others. He also produced mountain rescue documentaries and filmed (and took part in) expedition films such as "Climb to the Lost World."
Hamish's knowledge of Scotland's mountainous regions and his photographic skills were used to the full by the BBC when he was asked to produce, film and narrate the TV series 'Where Eagles Fly'. Hamish's objective with these videos, as well as achieving a commercial success, was to make people aware of this unique country.'Scotland is one of the most scenic places on earth and it's vital that this heritage is not spoiled for future generations.'
His knowledge and abilities have been in demand also by the movie industry not only as an adviser on safety in films involving mountain climbing and locations but also as a stunt double. He became an adviser on several major movies including The Eiger Sanction (as an advisor and safety officer for Clint Eastwood in 1975) and The Mission (as a climber, with Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons in 1987) as well as 'Rob Roy'. His input on the shooting of Clint Eastwood's 'Eiger Sanction' is regarded as some of the most dangerous and difficult location work ever done. Hamish organised Clint Eastwood and a camera crew to actually work on the dangerous north face of the Eiger, creating amazing second unit footage. Hamish and Clint developed a mutual respect for one another, with Clint prepared to take on many of the stunts himself but depending on the experience that Hamish brought to bear. He has been involved in some of the James Bond adventures such as the 1987 film The Living Daylights (as a safety climber with Sean Connery). Hamish has also been an advisor and safety expert with film producers such as Fred Zimmermann ('Five Days One Summer') and David Putnam. Hamish was responsible for many of the dangerous scenes in "The Highlander," including the sword fight on the Cioch Pinnacle in the Cuillin of Skye.
Having earlier advised on locations, safety, camera positions and scripts for the Monty Python series, in 2001 Hamish participated (as himself as leader of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team) in a video documentary with Michael Palin and Terry Jones entitled 'The Quest for the Holy Grail Locations'.
Hamish is modest about receiving honours for his many accomplishment and accepts them with some reluctance. His achievements have merited awards from the Queen in the form of the British Empire Medal (BEM) in 1965 and then an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1980 for services to mountaineering and mountain rescue. He was inducted into the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame in 2003. (Picture of Hamish receiving that award is by Steve Lindridge - Ideal Images)
In 2008, for his contribution to mountaineering and to mountain culture, he was the very first winner of the Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture, part of the Fort William Mountain Festival. The citation refers to inspiring and influencing others at a national and international level -'We are making this inaugural award to Hamish because for so many years he has contributed a massive amount in so many different fields. He invented modern climbing, along with several others, in the late sixties and early seventies and is still contributing today.'
A number of universities in Scotland have conferred honorary doctorates, including the University of Aberdeen, Heriot-Watt University, University of Glasgow, University of Dundee and the University of Stirling. So in addition to being 'Fox of Glencoe' and 'Father of Scottish Mountain Rescue', Hamish's full title these days is Dr Hamish MacInnes, OBE, BEM.