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Hamish MacInnes (1930-2020)- A Life Well Lived

November saw the passing of one of Scotland's and the United Kingdom's true originals, an adventurer, Mountaineer, an Inventor, Rescue Ranger and a thinker and Writer. He was the "Parkour" free runner of his time, his terrain, not the urban landscapes, but the precarious sea stacks, cliff faces and mountain peaks across the the world's continents. A fearless man in the face of natures extremes - he once spent 8 hours in an iced-over vertical gully, his body wedged with his back against one face and his crampons against the other knowing that any slight relaxation or loss of concentration would mean falling to his death. His alpine feats famously included scaling the Matterhorn in Switzerland at the age of 16 and was famously part of the Chris Bonington's successful south west face ascension of Everest in 1975.

A youthful Hamish MacInnes

Asked what attracted him to climbing he once replied "Undoubtedly for the freedom."

Early Life

The Macinnnes Family

Born to Highlander father(Fort William) & mother(Isle of Skye) in Gatehouse of Fleet in lowland Dumfries & Galloway, he was the youngest of 5 children with a brother 18 years his senior and 3 older sisters. His father had been a policeman in Shanghai and had fought in the British & Canadian army in the Great War before returning to Scotland and eventually settling in Greenock where he had a small engineering business which helped introduce his young son to the mechanical world that would inspire his design skills later in his life. He is reported to have built his own car as a sixteen year old.

Learning to Climb

He first cut his teeth on the rock faces of the Cobbler in the Arrochar Alps close to Greenock where his parents lived, under the tutorage of his Tax Inspector neighbour Bill Hargreaves. With Limited equipment back in the 30's he was taught that it was always safety first. Later as an adolescent he began to explore wider afield with cycling trips up to the Glencoe mountains some 80 miles further north. His knowledge of climbing beyond the Scottish highlands was gained during a period of national service in the British Army based in post war Austria, where the Tyrolean mountains along with the nearby Dolomites of Italy were his off duty playgrounds.

Back in Scotland much of the 50s was spent climbing with friends made from his association with the famous Glaswegian climbing group - The Creagh Dhu Club.

Members of the Creagh Dhu Club

Although never a member he teamed up with several of them notably Tom Patey with whom he would make the first winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye and the first winter ascent of Zero Gully on Ben Nevis in 1957.

On Top of the World

But it was in the 1960s & 70s that he established himself as member of the global alpine elite. From the moment in 1958 when he became the first Britain to climb the treacherous "Bonatti Pillar Aiguille du Dru" in the French Alps he proved he was ready for the highest peaks of the Himalayas

Bonatti Pillar Aiguille du Dru

His greatest achievement came in 1975 as 2nd in command and photographer on the Chris Bonington team that successfully conquered Everest via the arduous south west face and during which Hamish famously nearly lost his life in an avalanche.

He was also a key member of the team, again as film recorder and photographer, in the famous 1973 expedition to climb the infamous Prow of Mount Roraima. a high plateau a top of 13,000 feet of sheer cliff on all sides at the triple border point of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana.

He amassed a considerable body of film and photography and mastered the great many new pieces of equipment that became available during this time.

Between expeditions he was based in Glencoe and increasingly interested in mountain safety and rescue. As a founder & member of the Glencoe Mountain recue team he helped & led many unlucky and distressed climbers back down the mountains to safety.

He was a member of 20 major expeditions during his lifetime.

Safety & Invention

MacInnes claimed that during his long life he had lost more than 50 friends and fellow climbers. That he survived can be put down to luck(and he freely admitted that) but he was a man who from a very early age clearly understood the mountain and its dangers and much of his thought was given over to ensuring that he had the right equipment and knew how best to use it.

He was also a talented engineer and he was attributed with the design of the first one piece metal ice axe - the 'Terrordactyll," variations of which were eventually widely manufactured from the early 1960's onwards once the use of aluminium alloy shafts had been perfected.

The 'Terrordactyll' Ice Pick

Hamish MacInnes thrived under pressure conditions and was deeply interested in mountain rescue and the difficulties involved in not only getting to an injured or distressed person but also of getting them safely off the mountain once they were found. One of the major issues was carrying rescue equipment up the mountain and then ensuring its robustness for the trip back down. So Hamish designed his first folding stretcher in the early 1960's - MK7 - built of lightweight aluminium alloy which could collapse in on itself and be carried on a persons back on the way up and was strong enough to be able to immobilise and sufficiently protect the wounded climber on the route down. These stretchers are standard use around the world today with modifications to be able to fix rubber wheels for fast descents, as well as helicopter winch attachment points, for removal of a person by air.

Brush With Hollywood

As his reputation as the knowledgeable Mountaineer and safety expert grew so did his request to join film sets to provide advice and filming techniques always with safety first in mind. His film credits are numerous with The Eiger Sanction - Clint Eastwood - 1975 & The Mission - Robert de Niro & Jeremy Irons - 1987 being his standout contributions. It was during his help in the filming of Monty Python's "The Holy Grail" - - part of which was filmed on location in Glencoe - that he met Michael Palin and became close friends for the remainder of his life.


MacInnes was the author of more than 40 books in his life on subjects ranging from mountain guides. mountaineering techniques, photography and late in his life even crime thrillers. Of course his seminal book was always going to be about mountain rescue and his book " The International Mountain Rescue Handbook" has been translated into most languages and is still considered to be a complete and authoritative work in this domain.


By the end if his long life had acquired many honours and his real title would be - Dr Hamish MacInnes, OBE, BEM. Despite his public life he appears to have been very much his own man and just as happy in his tool shed as on a mountain top. He was briefly married in the 1960's to Catherine a fellow alpinist before divorcing with no children.

Despite being caught up in avalanches and surviving serious head injuries - MacInnes led an "illness free" life until 2014 when at the age of 84 a urinary tract infection effected his mental state and left him with deep memory loss and severe weight loss. He was found distressed and incoherent and was sectioned in a mental hospital having being declared as being a danger to both himself and a wider public - a diagnosis that he insisted was wrong and which angered him enormously. To aid recovery and regain lost memory he made use of his books and his extensive personal photographic and film archive to rebuild his memories and life. This part of his life has been turned into a BBC documentary film "Final Ascent" which also serves nowadays as the definitive film documentary of his life.

Nicknamed the Fox of Glencoe he will be remembered as one of the last great 20th century British adventurers.

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