Mountaineer Hamish MacInnes Saved Hundreds of Climbers—And His Own Mind

Hamish MacInnes chased Hillary to Everest on a shoestring and made pioneering climbs from the Amazon to the Alps and his native Scotland, befriending movie stars along the way. Yet despite a prodigious climbing resume, he’s known less for the routes he put up around the world than for the hundreds of climbers he brought safely down from the hills of Scotland’s central highlands.

He founded the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Association in 1961 and led the turnout team for more than 30 years, becoming known as the Father of Scottish Mountain Rescue, or simply the Fox of Glencoe for his cunning way of finding victims and the creative tools and techniques he developed to get them safely home. MacInnes designed the first all-metal ice axe and a folding alloy stretcher still used by mountain rescue teams, and wrote the International Mountain Rescue Handbook. First published in 1972, it has never been out of print.

MacInnes started climbing at 14, when he spotted a neighbor loading a motorbike with ropes and strange gear, and asked to come along. The neighbor was Bill Hargreaves and he took MacInnes to climb the Cobbler, a jagged peak in the southern Highlands. Hargreaves was a skilled and careful climber, and MacInnes learned quickly under his tutelage. At 16, he climbed the Matterhorn in Switzerland. At 18, his compulsory military service took him to Austria, where he continued to climb and got his first taste of mountain rescue.

MacInnes climbed in many styles and all seasons, and was especially fond of Scottish ice. Photo: Rob Taylor

MacInnes was nearing the top of the Zugspitze with Hans and Marga Spielman when a rock dislodged from above struck Marga directly on the top of her head, causing massive trauma. With Marga hanging unconscious on the rope and her husband temporarily paralyzed with shock, MacInnes roped down to Marga, strapped her to his back, and descended to a patch of level ground. Then he went back up for Hans.

“I knew very well it was now a race against time for her, life or death,” MacInnes recalled decades later. As luck would have it, the Zugspitze cable car was departing the top station when the accident took place, and the people on board had seen everything. The gondola lurched to a stop and someone shouted down; there were two neurosurgeons on board. MacInnes slung Marga onto his back and scaled the massive pylon to the waiting cable car.

Marga Spielman made a full recovery, and MacInnes had tapped into a feeling more intoxicating than climbing alone. “On an exacting rescue each moment is remembered with amazing clarity, for one lives at a higher pitch than usual when risks must be taken which wouldn’t normally be contemplated,” he wrote years later. “Only too often it is a fight for life: there is nothing more satisfying than the successful evacuation of a critically injured person on a highly technical rescue, where a single mistake could result in death for the casualty.

“It is, on a grand scale, a game of chance in which nature holds most of the cards.”

MacInnes continued to push himself as a climber, often with members of the Creagh Dhu climbing club, a group of tough young men from the shipyards of Glasgow who found freedom in the hills. In the winter of 1953, when MacInnes was 23, he and Chris Bonington made the first ascents of Agag’s Groove, Crowberry Ridge Direct, and Raven’s Gully, all on Buachaille Etive Mor in Glencoe, the highland valley MacInnes would call home for the rest of his life. In later years MacInnes would make the first winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge on Skye and the first winter ascent of Zero Gully on Ben Nevis, but the rest of 1953 was consumed in a spirited attempt to beat Hillary and company to the top of Mt. Everest.

It started with a lecture in Edinburgh by a member of the 1952 Swiss expedition, who mentioned offhandedly that his team had left food caches a good way up the mountain. That scrap of information formed the nucleus of MacInnes’s bold plan to get to the top of the world on the cheap. He scored a £10 assisted immigration passage to New Zealand, where he met up with 26-year-old Creigh Dhu hardman Johnnie Cunningham, continuing with him to Bombay and thence to Nepal. They reached Everest base camp in late July 1953, with a borrowed tent, 150 pounds of potatoes, and a sheep.

Hillary and Norgay had reached the summit seven weeks before, and MacInnes and Cunningham cheerfully changed their focus to a first ascent of nearby Pumori (23,494 ft), climbing to about 22,000 feet before blizzards and avalanche risk forced a retreat. The duo stayed in Nepal for a few more weeks, living on mutton soup and fried potatoes and bagging Pingero, a 20,000-foot peak MacInnes described in his account of the expedition as “a wonderful spire of rock.”

A training exercise with a MacInnes Mark-3 stretcher.

MacInnes would return six times to the Himalaya, joining Bonington’s expedition to the South Face of Annapurna in 1970, and climbing to more than 27,200 feet on the Southwest Face of Everest in 1972. Three years later he served as Bonington’s deputy leader on the first successful ascent by that route, a groundbreaking campaign that’s been called “the apotheosis of the big, military-style expeditions” that characterized high-altitude mountaineering up to that time.

Also on that expedition MacInnes was caught in an avalanche and nearly swept to his death. It was hardly his first close call. According to his New York Times obituary, “In his many decades on mountains, Mr. MacInnes was believed to be lost or dead on at least six occasions, sometimes during attempts to rescue other people.”

The mishaps didn’t stop MacInnes, or even slow him much. In the French Alps in 1958, he’d finished the first British ascent of the Bonatti pillar of the Petit Dru after a falling rock fractured his skull on the first evening of the climb. “I ducked my head and threw myself forward. But it was only to place my head on the spot chosen by the falling stone,” he later wrote in his Alpine Journal account of the climb. MacInnes spent three more days on the technical face, climbing “on a tight rope” so that if he were to pass out his companions could hold him, and descending in an untimely blizzard.

MacInnes was well-versed in the calculus of risk, and an inveterate tinkerer who brought an engineer’s approach to climbing safety. He founded the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team in 1961 and led it for 30 years, participating in hundreds of rescues. He trained avalanche rescue dogs and co-founded the Scottish Avalanche Information Service with Eric Langmuir. His two most lasting innovations grew out of this long experience. The folding MacInnes Stretcher he designed in the 1960s became the standard throughout the world and, thanks to continuous improvements by MacInnes and others, remains so today. He designed an all-metal ice axe in the late 1940s, but his decision to bring it to market was spurred nearly two decades later by a rescue call-out to Zero Gully, where he found three bodies and two splintered wooden axes. The design evolved into the Terrordactyl, the first drooped-pick ice tool. Introduced in 1970, it opened new worlds of possibility in vertical ice climbing.

MacInnes, left, with Paul Ross on the Bonatti Pillar. Screen shot from “Final Ascent.”

MacInnes’s climbing prowess and innovative mind also opened doors in the film industry, where he frequently found work as a safety adviser, stunt double and cameraman. For the climactic rope-cutting scene in The Eiger Sanction (1975), MacInnes rigged a pair of borrowed hotel ladders into a structure strong enough to cantilever Clint Eastwood and a camera operator 20 feet out from a sheer Alpine face. He then climbed out onto the contraption to snap a photograph of Eastwood that landed on the cover of Alpinist more than four decades later. MacInnes, a fine writer who penned 35 books ranging from climbing guides to crime thrillers, sent the image with a 750-word note. It starts with a recollection:

“Hey guys, is this safe?” Eastwood had asked.

“It’s safe enough,” MacInnes yelled down. “But I wouldn’t do it.”

The scene was filmed on the North Face of the Eiger, but MacInnes also worked closer to home. For Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), he rigged the Bridge of Death across a side-canyon in his beloved Glencoe. The shoot resulted in one of the film’s most iconic scenes, and a lasting friendship between MacInnis and Python star Michael Palin.

In 2014, when he was 84, a neighbor found MacInnes unconscious at the back door of his home. He was diagnosed with dementia and institutionalized for 15 months against his will. The confinement of a psychiatric hospital was unbearable for MacInnes, who had spent his life seeking freedom in the hills. He did his best to escape, once climbing out an open window and onto the roof.

Hamish MacInnes. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

MacInnes’s illness was finally revealed to be a chronic urinary tract infection, and with treatment he regained his freedom and razor wit, but not his memories. Those he would have to reconstruct through painstaking effort and the study of books, photographs and films from his many expeditions. “One of the ways I clawed my way back to sanity was to watch all my own films. It’s quite an interesting thing. You feel as if you are a spectator looking in,” MacInnes recounted in a 2018 BBC documentary about his extraordinary recovery, “Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes.”

“When he came out of care, all memory of his previous life had gone,” said filmmaker Robbie Fraser. “What he did next seems extraordinary. As well as undergoing physical and psychological rehabilitation with the help of his friends, he seems to have rebooted his mind.”

In the last chapter of his life, the canny Fox of Glencoe, author of so many mountain rescues, ultimately had to rescue himself. In characteristic fashion, using persistence and creativity and the tools available to him, Hamish MacInnes re-collected his mind, pulling back from a seemingly bottomless void the memories of an extraordinary life. They were with him when he died in November 2020, aged 90 years.

Top Image: MacInnes and Mt. Everest, summer 1953



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