Written by Jo Woolf, RSGS Writer-in-Residence

Remembering the pioneer of Scottish mountain rescue, who died on 22nd November, aged 90

Hamish MacInnes was 15 years old when he had his first taste of mountain climbing. A friend took him to Arrochar on Loch Long, where they climbed the Cobbler together. For MacInnes it was an adventure that shaped the rest of his life. “Some people are natural climbers,” he reflected. “I was lucky – I didn’t find it hard at all.”

MacInnes was born in Gatehouse of Fleet in 1930; his father was from Fort William, and his mother hailed from Skye. After the Second World War they moved to Greenock, and from then onwards MacInnes made regular trips into the Arrochar Alps and Glen Coe. For decades, mountain climbing had largely been the preserve of the wealthy, but MacInnes climbed with the Creagh Dubh Club, which attracted working-class climbers from Glasgow. Their skills and fitness levels placed them among the best mountaineers in Scotland at that time.

Hamish MacInnes (1930 - 2020)

It didn’t take MacInnes long to move on to bigger challenges. At 16 he climbed the Matterhorn, and he did his National Service in Austria, using his leave to explore the Alps and the Dolomites. In 1952 he attended an RSGS lecture in Edinburgh by the Swiss climber André Roche, who had just come back from an unsuccessful bid on Everest. MacInnes chatted to Roche afterwards, and discovered that he had left a stash of food and equipment at the bottom of the South Col. Seeing the potential, he persuaded a climbing friend, John Cunningham, to join him in an attempt on the world’s highest mountain. 

The pair lacked neither courage nor optimism, but they were out of luck. They reached the Himalayas only to find that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had beaten them to Everest, and had used up Roche’s abandoned supplies. Philosophically, they switched their attention to other peaks. Their flimsy tent was shredded in a blizzard, and MacInnes shivered in a thin sleeping bag that gaped at the bottom. On meagre rations, they managed a first ascent of Pingero (20,000 feet), amid low cloud that MacInnes complained was “as bad as a Clydebank fog.”

Buachaille Etive Mòr

Among MacInnes’ other ‘firsts’ was the winter ascent of Crowberry Ridge Direct and Raven’s Gully on Buachaille Etive Mòr, with Sir Chris Bonington; and the first winter traverse of the Cuillin ridge with Tom Patey. In 1973, together with Joe Brown, Mo Anthoine and Don Whillans, he travelled to South America and climbed the 1,300-foot wall of Mount Roraima. This flat-topped mountain inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Lost World’, and it was certainly teeming with wildlife: MacInnes recalled that, even on the most inaccessible ledges, they were “assaulted every day by spiders, centipedes and everything else that bites!”    

MacInnes returned to the Himalayas several times, and in 1975 he was deputy leader of Sir Chris Bonington’s successful expedition up the South-West Face of Everest. Not for the first time, he was nearly killed in an avalanche. Over the years he had developed a sixth sense about avalanches, and learned to “go with the flow,” automatically covering his mouth with his hand so that he would have a space to breathe. Always, he managed to dig himself out. In later years, he was a co-founder of the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, and he developed the use of trained dogs to locate people buried in the snow, establishing the Search and Rescue Dog Association in 1965.

MacInnes grew up in a time when mountain rescue teams did not exist, and as climbing became more popular he drew on his own skills to save lives. From his home in Glen Coe, he established and led the Glen Coe Mountain Rescue Team: its early members comprised shepherds, gillies, gamekeepers and farmers who knew the terrain like the backs of their hands. His ‘International Mountain Rescue Handbook’ was a best-seller, exported to every country in the world that has mountains. With brilliant inventiveness, he designed and modified all kinds of climbing equipment for increased safety, including an all-metal ice axe and the ‘MacInnes stretcher’ for bringing casualties off a mountain.

MacInnes Beloved Glencoe

The producers of several blockbuster movies asked MacInnes to act as an advisor and guide. For ‘The Eiger Sanction’, he supervised Clint Eastwood dangling over the North Face of the Eiger; he also helped with the filming of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. His good friend, Sir Michael Palin, remembers him with great affection: ”He threw ‘bodies’ into the Gorge of Eternal Peril. I just remember the irony of it. People were looking at this man throwing ‘bodies’ and we said, ‘Don't worry, he's the head of mountain rescue.’”

MacInnes will be fondly remembered for his independent spirit, altruism, courage, modesty, and not least for his sense of humour. Thousands of people owe their lives to him, either directly via rescue missions, or through safety equipment and training. While he loved all mountains, his heart was in Scotland, where he said the climbs were just as hard as anything in the Himalayas. He was keen to see Scotland’s wilderness areas preserved, remembering that in his early years he had enjoyed “the most wonderful feeling of isolation, as if you had all the wild places entirely to yourself.” 

Hamish MacInnes OBE BEM was awarded Honorary Fellowship of RSGS in 2007.

References:  ‘Final Ascent - The Legend of Hamish MacInnes’ (2019);  ‘Look Behind the Ranges’ (1979);  BBC News.