Hamish MacInnes: Legendary Mountaineer

Posted by Jonny Dry on 24/11/2020
Hamish MacInnes has died at the age of 90. Photo: John Cleare

To honour the passing of Hamish MacInnes, legendary mountaineer, founder of Mountain Rescue Teams and inventor of pioneering mountaineering equipment, we would like to share this illuminative interview with him from Summit 93, written by Jonny Dry who was working for the Mountain Heritage Trust at the time.

There’s a gentleman I recently read about, Sion Jair, who at the age of 68 climbs the Old Man of Coniston every day. Indeed he’s been doing this for years, twice a day up and back. After being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the visceral pull of the Coniston fells is clearly strong enough to ground his ailing memory. Mountains provide a welcome familiarity. Such was the experience for Hamish MacInnes. After being admitted to hospital in Glasgow there was a general consensus that Hamish had little conscious memory left. Diagnosed with delirium and subjected to scans, internal examinations and endless bureaucracy, he admits himself that he was, at that stage, dying. Down to eight-and-a-half stone, the life and climbs that he had undertaken had been entirely forgotten and it looked unlikely he would ever improve. Certainly many in the mountaineering community had low expectations of a recovery.

Under the direction of his consultant, Hamish was transferred back home to Glencoe, requiring regular nursing support to undertake the most basic of tasks and still unable to recall much of his life’s achievements. Caught in a white clinical setting, Hamish had received little stimulation. Yet once back amidst the Glencoe mountains that had framed much of his life, Hamish began to piece things together. Although the physical feats and achievements of his life had been forgotten, he was still all too aware that he was inherently a climber. “You don’t lose that. When you’re cooped up in a hospital for years you’re certainly very conscious of it.” Perhaps climbers have an underlying essence; no matter what they are subjected to, that identity is innate.

“Diagnosed with delirium and subjected to scans, internal examinations and endless bureaucracy, he admits himself that he was, at that stage, dying.”

Speaking to him now in January 2019, with the promise of winter snow dusting the mountain tops, the sharpness and clarity of his mind is all too apparent and he states proudly that he’s back to almost 100% capacity. It has not been easy. The process of rediscovery has been long and at times painful, and Hamish’s dogged determination is clearly what has got him through. There’s little reason it shouldn’t have worked with recalling his memory; it’s worked on hard climbs across the world.

Making the first British ascent of the Dru’s Bonatti Pillar in 1958 with Don Whillans, Paul Ross and Chris Bonington, Hamish suffered a serious skull fracture following rockfall at the end of their first day. Bandaged and stuffed in one corner of their bivouac ledge, Hamish was determined to continue. Aided by Don, Chris and Paul, Hamish doggedly persisted. With Don continually growling that they were almost there, cloud began expectantly gathering over the surrounding aiguilles. Day three, summit day, saw the weather deteriorate and by day four all four climbers were on their knees. Hamish’s hands were dangerously cold, his gloves mislaid somewhere behind them. An Austrian party ahead of them was also tiring and a wrong turn during the descent had put them on the wrong side of the Flamme des Pierres. The group returned to the Charpoua hut, battered, cold but happy, Hamish clearly requiring treatment.

Hamish is visibly proud of such ascents, and I’m struck by how that perseverance is most definitely still there. Curiosity and tenacity has been a potent mix upon returning from Glasgow, and it’s not been enough for Hamish to simply to drag his mind back from the brink. He’s done it in a way that maintains the utmost accuracy of his memories. He cracks and laughs at the detail he can still recall. “It’s very embarrassing, I can remember back away to 1946. I remember this chap and think, he’s dead now, but I can remember how many sugars he had in his tea.”

Writing in Call-Out, Hamish has said himself how some of his “most memorable recollections have been of rescues”. Mountains and disaster are clearly vivid in his mind, and it’s imperative as we talk that the facts are adhered to. I wondered, though, whether his relationship with danger and rescue had changed after piecing his memory back together? “That’s an interesting point,” he muses before falling silent. I’m aware suddenly of the clock ticking over the mantelpiece. He thinks hard before answering. “See, I started reading my books again, and a lot of these are about rescue. I had a fantastic library.”

Hamish has been a prolific writer in his time, often publishing books that have set a benchmark in the mountaineering community. His International Mountain Rescue Handbook – distilling expertise from around the globe and published in 1971 – has never been out of print and is now in its fourth edition. His guidebooks date back to 1969, covering rock and winter climbing, as well as a guide to West Highland walks which extends to four volumes. His writing in the Alpine Journal on climbs with John Cunningham, Yeti hunting in the Kulu, and hard ascents in the Caucasus on Pic Shchurovsky’s North Face and the Shkhelda traverse is vividly candid, and captures his often intentional approach to climbing.

“He went to answer suddenly, but caught himself. It was clear that the memory wasn’t fully formed in his mind.”

These are the threads that Hamish used to stitch himself back together, meticulously reading and re-reading his personal archive to make sense of it all. “I was curious,” he says, “I wanted to find out”. No-one told him to undertake such an exercise, it was merely something of the drive within him to never settle and to constantly want to know more. Yet how strange must that have been? Seeing yourself on the wildest of faces yet not remembering being there. Watching Hamish now recall the books he read to return his mind to where it is today, it is clear that his relationship with danger and rescue is still as pragmatic as ever.

I ask whether rescues were some of the first and most arresting memories to come back. Here Hamish pauses again. “There’s one on the Buachaille,” he says, before pausing to reflect. “I’m trying to sort this in my mind.” He goes to answer suddenly, but catches himself. It was clear that the memory isn't fully formed in his mind and he has little interest in recounting false information to me. The room falls silent. Hamish’s eyes fix on Meall Mòr framed outside his window. He is thinking hard.

Maintaining such ordered thinking is well documented in Hamish. His engineering background has pushed many innovations that have revolutionised safety. The Terror – the first all-metal ice axe, designed in 1970 – was founded on the principle of precisely chosen angles and materials. At every turn was the possibility of re-inventing what an ice axe could be, and the precision with which Hamish produced and refined his designs drove 70s winter climbing standards higher. Even now, at the age of 88, his Mk8 MacInnes stretcher – first designed in the early 1960s – is due to be delivered directly to his house for him to review and approve the final model ahead of field testing.


Hamish MacInnes at the foot of the Eiger in 1957. Photo: Chris Bonington Picture Library

Hamish took a step away from the direct design years ago, but the Mk8 is exemplary of modern-day innovation, utilising the highgrade composites found in the aeronautical sector. Hamish is clearly proud. The fact that his original designs still hold up to modern-day standards, even as materials have become positively space-age, is a marker of how his meticulous mind has produced lasting designs.

Sat across from him now I could see that mind at work. Older, worn and worse for wear, but still unwilling to compromise. It was clear he would not be rushed. I thought at first I might have found a gap in his memory, and I began to wonder how far might I let this silence extend out before I changed the subject. Hamish needed nothing of the sort though. His mind began to fire as he isolated the memory he was after; “ah yes, I’ve got it now.” True to form, perhaps from sheer force of will, he dragged the memories to the surface and forced them to form a coherent memory. It was certainly impressive.

It was January 1961, Buchaille Etive Mor and three climbers had fallen from Crowberry Gully. Conditions at the time were less than ideal, a previous frost left a hard under-layer that the subsequent snowfall had failed to properly bond to. The lead climber, Robert Gow, was avalanched and swept off-route, pulling his partners David Tod and Neil Keith from their stance. The three climbers fell more than 1,000 feet. Robert Gow was dead, while Neil and David managed to self-evacuate and raise the alarm. Hamish recounts such events with a quiet assurance, even dark humor. Death is something that is all-too familiar, and he had his fair share of close encounters.

In 1951, just 21 at the time, Hamish decided to solo the Charmoz-Grépon Traverse. Whilst all too aware he was pushing the envelope, the exuberance of youth could not be held back. He’d already soloed the Matterhorn’s Hörnli Ridge at 18, and made a repeat ascent of Herman Buhl’s winter route on the Predigstuhl in the Kaiser mountains. A chance meeting with French guide Lionel Terray in Snell’s Field gave Hamish the opportunity to follow Terray and his client up the route. It was clearly too good an opportunity to miss. Hamish remembers well the “sheer magic of the great face, walls and towers”. Even 68 years later the experience is as vividly recalled as ever.

The climb progressed without fault, on the Mummery Crack Terray watched with interest as the exuberant youth tackled the bold moves. Fear and self-doubt figures little in Hamish's recollections, yet looking back to the day he is all too aware of the real reason Terray perhaps wanted him close at hand. Maybe it is “preferable to be able to keep an eye on someone who you know is determined on a course of rash action than to pick up the bits”.

Hamish was lucky. Content with the day, he began the abseil behind Terray. Yet suddenly Hamish found himself falling through space, out and away from the slung rock bollard. He hit the ledge 40 feet below; the sling had failed, corroded by UV light. His legs were doubled up beneath him, crumpling upon impact. His head was bleeding and he could barely see from the pain. The 600 feet down to the glacier lay to one side. Terray was indeed there to pick up the bits, along with aspirant Raymond Lambert who was climbing nearby on the Grepon. Hamish walked away with, in his words, “the gait of an ungainly ballet dancer”.

Hamish shrugs at such events. What more is there to say? One makes their decision and lives with the consequences. He’s used to identifying and fixing problems and used to having agency. Or at the very least living with the consequences of that agency. “Accidents occur in the mountains just as they do anywhere else,” he suggests in his 1973 publication Call-Out. “Even if the casualty is guilty of negligence, the experience of an accident is generally chastisement enough.” Things  balance out in the mountains, and Hamish has been around long enough to be comfortable with taking the rough with the smooth.

“Death is something that is all too familiar and he had a fair share of his own close encounters.”

For a man used to this darker side of mountain rescue, it was affecting to see the change in him as our talk turns to his time in hospital in Glasgow. The memories are still fresh, arguably fresher than the lifetime’s worth of mountaineering that has recently come back to him. Hamish is guarded as he talks of life in hospital; his experiences were clearly harrowing. Screaming patients, confusion and an imposed routine that was not his. Now he’s back to the familiarity of operating on just a few hours’ sleep a day; he runs, walks, lifts weights and this return to his natural rhythm has seen him not only increase his physical strength but mental fortitude as well.

He talks briefly about his future plans. A film – Final Ascent – is on the horizon. An even deeper exploration of the recent journey he’s been on and a delve in to his own mountain history. It’s been well received at screenings in New Zealand and at the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival, as well as previewing at Kendal in 2018. The UK premiere is coming up at Glasgow Film Festival. Hamish, though, won’t be there. “I don’t want to go back there,” he says. Dragging up his memories of hospital has been difficult and feels out of place with where he is now. It’s obvious that the film hit very close to home.

He’s back to living independently and relishes being amongst Glencoe’s current cutting-edge developments again. He needs that stimulation. The likes of Dave MacLeod and Glencoe Mountain Rescue Leader Andy Nelson are still regular visitors. With the former, Hamish is consulting on a comparison climb of Raven’s Gully in which Dave re-climbs the route using the gear that Hamish and Chris Bonington would have had to hand back in 1953. He smiles at this: “These modern climbers are so strong, I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

There’s an interest as well in re-visiting many of his life’s accomplishments. Unpublished memoirs are being written which often take him back to the late 1940s to revisit his early climbs in Austria and Italy as an 18-year-old. Forgotten memories have also been unearthed again, and he talks of remembering a self-rescue off Waterpipe Gully on Sgùrr an Fheadain in the late 1950s. The trigger was a painting of the gully shown to him by Graham Hunter.

Memory is incredibly fragile, certainly more fragile than the mountains with which he is so familiar. Walking away down the garden path however, I can’t help but think there’s something else that is just as immoveable as the mountains. Looking back over his films and photography it’s apparent Hamish was never surprised at seeing himself on these huge faces, even if he couldn’t initially remember it. Memory it seems is fallible, yet Hamish’s character has remained as fundamental as ever.

Words: Jonny Dry, filmmaker and BMC nominated director

WATCH: Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes on BBC iPlayer


We want to say a big thanks to every BMC member who continues to support us through the Coronavirus crisis.

From weekly Facebook Lives and GB Climbing home training videos, to our access team working to re-open the crags and fight for your mountain access, we couldn’t do it without you.

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28/03/2021
Great article :-)

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