Hamish MacInnes, Who Revolutionized Scottish Winter Climbing, Dies At 90

Hamish MacInnes continually pushed the standards of Scottish winter climbing  in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and invented gear—including the Terrordactyl ice axe—that changed the game in terms of what was possible.

By Rusty Baillie | December 1st, 2020

Hamish MacInnes. Photo: John Cleare.

Hamish MacInnes did it all—free rock climbing on the summer cliffs of Glencoe, aid climbing on the towering aiguilles of Chamonix,  ice climbing in the rugged gullies of Ben Nevis—but he did it with the vision of a mountaineer. Scotland is like that: most of it is Big Country, especially in winter, and Hamish treated it as such. In his career, Hamish changed the sport, from the types of routes that were climbed to the types of routes that could be climbed safely with his technical innovations (like the Terrordactyl ice axe—more on that below) and vision for the future of mountain rescue.

Hamish died on November 22 at 90 years old. He passed away peacefully in his sleep. Most of his climbing friends and contemporaries perished more dramatically, in mountain accidents, but Hamish was a canny old fox and survived his many adventures—and misadventures.

Born in 1930, Hamish came to climbing as many other young Brits did: After World War II, all of Britain was in a severe economic depression and Hamish and many others were laid off from their jobs. Some of them left the squalid and silent shipyards along Glasgow’s Clyde River and went to live in the mountain caves of nearby Arrochar, an excellent base for exploring the surrounding schistose cliffs. Against this backdrop, Hamish began climbing with the Creagh Dhu club, an apprenticeship which gave him the technical know-how to realize his own plans that were far too wild and unruly even for even the wild and unruly Creagh Dhu. He honed himself into a stoic, fiercely independent adventurer.

The successes came quickly: he established a spate of hard and daring new routes that signaled a new technical level of difficulty for Scottish winter climbing. In 1953, at just 23 years old, he did the first winter ascents of Raven’s Gully (V,6) and Crowberry Ridge Direct on the Buichaille in Glencoe, both with the legendary Chris Bonington. He then did the first ascent of Zero Gully (V,4) on Ben Nevis with Tom Patey in 1957, chopping steps up the steep snow and ice, an ascent ahead of its time in difficulty. Later, he ventured over to France and was one of the first British climbers to do the Bonatti Pillar of the Dru, in Chamonix. In 1965, he completed the first winter traverse of the Cuillan Ridge on Skye in a two-day period.

 

[Also Read Andy Brown, British Expat And Climber-Lifer, Dies At 66]

 

Those achievements should be known to all climbers—he was a Grand Master among Scottish climbers. But to me, Hamish MacInnes became a lot more than just a famous climber. His outrageous and daring example inspired me to try and make a mountain life and career work for myself, too. As a boss and mentor to me when I followed his path and became an instructor, he was a role model of discipline and professionalism. And as a friend, he was someone you could Ride the River with. The below recollections speak to this.

***

1961: The Mountain Club Of South Africa library in Cape Town. I was reading The Alpine Journal, devouring a set of articles about some rebel climber named Hamish 7,000 miles away in Scotland. He wielded a homemade NorthWall hammer called “The Message” and was criticized by the senior climbers for placing pitons (“pegs”) where he shouldn’t, the articles said. He lived in a tarpaulin shack, illegally, deep in the mountains.

Hamish MacInnes. Photo: John Cleare.

Since I had dropped out of University I had shown promising signs of rebelliousness. I had already begun placing “unwelcome” pitons myself in the local rock and I too found that it was cheaper to live in caves than waste my meager savings on rent.

But in 1961 young people did not travel overseas, and Scotland seemed  a world away. My father and brother left home to fight wars for the Motherland, but I knew of no one else who had traveled so far afield. Then I read of Hamish and Johnnie Cuningham, laid off from their shipyard jobs on the Clyde, “hitch hiking” to Nepal in an effort to steal the first ascent of Mount Everest from under the noses of the Upper Crust gentry who were on an official expedition to produce a special 1953 First-Ascent coronation present for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second.

I figured Nepal must be about 10,000 miles from Glasgow, Scotland. If they could get to Everest, I could surely get to Scotland!

I knew what I needed to do: I had to go check out this Zero Gully I’d been reading about

***

1962. I made it to Wales in the late Autumn, after a fine alpine season with John Cleare. I needed a job and applied to the Scottish Youth Hostel Association (SYHA) for a post as a snow- and ice-climbing instructor in Glencoe. The courses were run by Hamish MacInnes himself.

Coming from tropical Africa, I had seen very little ice…. But I’m a fast learner! I reasoned

In response to my job application, SYHA wrote back: “Maybe. You’ll need to be approved by Mr. MacInnes.”

Turned out Hamish had no phone in his Glencoe cottage, Alt na Reigh. But I decided to go up there and check out the Scottish hills for myself.

Hamish MacInnes. Photo: John Cleare.

In Edinburgh the SYHA had me polishing floors while we tried to contact Mr. MacInnes. I was going stir crazy and my spirit of adventure was wavering. Finally we got through to him.

“How many Scottish winter seasons do you have?” Hamish asked me.

“Well,” I said, “I’ve climbed some of the ice faces on Mount Kenya.” Silence on the other end of the line…

What I did not know is that Hamish went on from Everest in 1953 to New Zealand, where he pottered around on Mount Cook and learned to respect the wild places that produced Ed Hillary.

Finally he spoke: “Och then,” he said, “Ye’d better come on over. They’ve probably got you polishing floors.”

***

The winter of 1962-1963 brought record-breaking cold to Scotland. There was water ice everywhere, often in places it had never been before.

One day we were up behind Hamish’s cottage with a class of students, working a short mixed cliff. The students were relaxing and eating lunch, while Hamish and I continued climbing (he never stopped once he set off in the morning).

I had been trying to make my way up a steep groove to a hanging icicle. There will probably never be ice like this here for another hundred years or more, we thought, and we were determined not to waste such a bounty. I got part way up but couldn’t hang on and cut good handholds (modern ice tools like the game-changing MacInnes Terrordactyl were a long way off in the dim and distant future; in that day we had to chop out places for both hands and feet to make upward progress).

Finally, Hamish, the Grand Master himself, wandered over. He was wearing SYHA crampons, WWII contraptions meant to help ski troops with the occasional icy patch. He tiptoed up to my high point, and then the crampon point underfoot that he was perched on squished flat.

We all held our breath; there was no protection.

Hamish paused for a brief moment, then just kept tiptoeing up to the right. He moved so lightly—like a big lanky cat stalking an unsuspecting bird—that he seemed to drift over the rock.

Up at the icicle he scraped a few scratches into the flow and drifted on to the top to set up a toprope for us.

Everyone exhaled at once. We were all relieved and equally in awe at his skill.

***

Years later, when I was deputy director at Glenmore Lodge, the Scottish National Leadership Center, Hamish was our guest, conducting a rescue seminar on zipline rope evacuations.

In those years, he had branched out with amazing diversity, becoming an international leader in mountain rescue, manufacturing ultra-modern litters and training avalanche-rescue dogs. He had manufactured the first all-metal ice axes and invented the Terrordactyl, the first drooped-pick ice tool, in 1970. That latter tool in particular changed the game and opened up whole new worlds of what was possible in vertical ice climbing.

He had also become a successful filmmaker and author and started to collect a whole mess of honors and awards. He worked on as a safety coordinator on films with high-angle stunts and action, contributing to titles such as The Eiger Sanction.

Not neglecting his climbing, he had joined Chris Bonington’s expedition to the South Face of Annapurna in 1970, and served as deputy leader on Bonington’s 1975 expedition to the Southwest Face of Everest. Both were epochal climbs that took American big-wall techniques above 8,000 meters.

Over a single malt I mentioned  to Hamish that I was battling the government: they didn’t like me writing about them and wanted to fire me.

Hamish smiled. “Same Old Basterds,” he said, “they can’t take a joke.” He picked up his glass and went off to make “a wee phone call.” When he came back he was smiling even more broadly. “A fair bonnie malt that,” he said, and I filled the tumblers again.

I don’t know exactly who he called or what he said, but I had no more problems after that.

So Hamish, fair and canny lad—rest peacefully! You were one of the Good Guys. I salute you. Iechyd da!


 

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