Hamish MacInnes

In the engineer’s workshop in Interlaken, Switzerland, Hamish MacInnes couldn’t get the proprietor to understand what he wanted.  An umbrella?  He couldn’t help with that.  There was a shop in Berne that supplied umbrellas.  But no, MacInnes explained, he didn’t want an umbrella.   He drew a quick sketch.  The man smiled in understanding.  ‘A canopy for your fire!’ 

MacInnes was making progress.  Yes, he wanted a steel canopy, but it wasn’t for conducting smoke.  It was to protect against rockfalls on the North Face of the Eiger.  The man stared at him in disbelief and then burst out laughing.  He went to share the joke with a colleague.  A climber who wanted a steel umbrella!  Now he’d heard everything.  MacInnes didn’t tell him that it was for Clint Eastwood.  It probably wasn’t the best time.


The Eiger’s North Face

In August 1974, a team of Hollywood film-makers had come to Switzerland to make ‘The Eiger Sanction’, a movie that involved Eastwood as both actor and director.  The plot involved climbers in high-tension scenes on the Eiger’s North Face, which had a reputation, even among experienced mountaineers, as a mile-high wall of death.  Eastwood had clear views about what was going to happen:  the film would be shot on location, and he would do the stunts himself.

Hamish MacInnes was at home in Glen Coe, recuperating from an operation on his leg, when he was shocked to hear that one of his climbing friends, Dave Knowles, had been killed on the Eiger while assisting with the film.  A couple of days later, Hamish was called by another friend who was out there too.  The film was still going ahead.  Would Hamish, with his years of experience in mountain rescue and his brilliantly practical mind, come to Switzerland take over the safety arrangements? 

Hamish agreed, and before he could say ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ he was shaking hands with the star himself and being thanked for his trouble in a slow Californian drawl.  Quickly, he learned what was required.  The climactic sequence required Eastwood to be suspended on a rope over the North Face.  The main rope, in the screenplay, gets snagged on an obstacle and Eastwood’s character needs to cut himself free by sawing through it.  He then plummets down the mountain until his fall is arrested by a safety rope.  Somehow, this scene had to be engineered safely while being filmed at close range for maximum tension.  

Working with his friend and fellow climber Dougal Haston, MacInnes took a ride on the Jungfraujoch railway, whose tunnel pierces deep into the interior of the Eiger.  A disused waste chute from the tunnel opens directly, via a door, onto the North Face itself, and it was decided that this door offered ideal access:  Eastwood could get out and dangle over the Face without going to the trouble of climbing up it.  But there was a major problem.  The Eiger’s near-continuous showers of rock, loosened by thawing, could be lethal to climbers;  it was one of these rockfalls that had killed Dave Knowles.  With a steel canopy, hoisted high above Eastwood’s head and out of camera shot, MacInnes hoped to protect the actor from a similar fate.  

The Eiger seemed to have different ideas.  During preparation work on the ledge outside the door, MacInnes and Haston had to shelter from the kind of rock deluge that no steel canopy could possibly survive.  An alternative location was needed, somewhere that was relatively free from rockfall.  MacInnes suggested a point high on the West Flank, where an overhanging lip fell away abruptly into dizzying space.  Airlifted up there, MacInnes lay flat on his stomach and peered over the edge.   He summed up what he saw:  ’The initial drop was over 2,500 feet, with another 2,000 feet of less steep stuff tagged on before it ran out on to the meadows.’  This seemed like an ideal place for Clint’s death-defying fall.  They started to plan how it could be done.


Looking up the Eiger’s West Flank


MacInnes decided that two ladders would do the trick.  One would be bolted vertically to the rock face, and from its lower end another ladder would be set at right angles, sticking out far enough for Eastwood to fall clear of the rock wall.  The outer ends of the ladders would be connected with ropes, working on a cantilever principle to give stability.  Two safety ropes, belayed by MacInnes and Haston, would catch Eastwood when he fell.

A day or so later, Eastwood and his cameraman were airlifted onto the West Flank and saw the resulting structure.  They learned that they had to go to the end of the horizontal ladder, and applied themselves heroically to the job.  While knowing that they were safely roped up, MacInnes still watched apprehensively as the ladder bent like a ruler under their weight.  Eastwood allowed himself to be lowered about 30 feet from the end of the ladder, and then calmly tied himself onto another rope, which was the one he had to cut. 


A climber on the infamous Hinterstoisser Traverse

MacInnes reflected that, in Clint’s position, ‘most people would have mental kittens.’  But Eastwood was thinking ahead.  He was concerned about what would happen to the knife as he fell:  he didn’t want to cut himself.  It was decided that he would have to drop it.  Then they considered the effect on the ladder when Eastwood’s weight was suddenly removed:  it would recoil upwards, carrying the cameraman with it.  The cameraman, who (luckily) had extensive experience in the mountains, was warned to brace himself.

With everyone prepared, the moment came.  Clint shouted up for last-minute reassurance:  ‘Hey, guys, is this safe?’  ‘It’s safe enough,’ called MacInnes.  Then he added, with devastating honesty:  ‘But I wouldn’t do it.’

The army knife sliced through the rope and Eastwood plummeted downwards.  A couple of seconds later the safety ropes caught him and he swung ‘like a yo-yo’, as MacInnes put it, beneath the overhang.  MacInnes called out:  ‘You OK, Clint?’   ‘Yeah, sure,’ came the reply.   ‘I’ll come up now.’



‘The Eiger Sanction’ was released in 1975.  While critics had misgivings about the plot, there was no doubting the realism of the action.  The sight of Clint Eastwood dangling over the Eiger’s North Face had viewers riveted in their seats.  Long before the advent of CGI, he was praised for creating scenes that were truly compelling.

The following year, Hamish MacInnes was appointed deputy leader of Sir Chris Bonington’s successful expedition to climb the South-west Face of Everest.  In 1973, the year before the filming of ‘The Eiger Sanction’, he and a team of climbers had made a first ascent of the notorious ‘Prow’ of Roraima in South America.  When not in the mountains himself, he devoted his life to the safety of others, setting up the Glen Coe Mountain Rescue team, writing an International Mountain Rescue Handbook, and inventing a panoply of equipment that would assist both climbers and rescuers.  He was awarded Honorary Fellowship of RSGS in 2007.



Quotes and reference:


Hamish MacInnes, ‘Look Behind the Ranges’ (1979)

Hamish MacInnes, ‘Call-Out’ (1973)