Legendary Scottish Climber Hamish MacInnes Dies

Scotland’s greatest climber, Hamish MacInnes, has died at the age of 90.

Born in Gatehouse of Fleet, Kirkcudbrightshire, MacInnes demonstrated an adventurous streak from the off. At 16, he climbed the Matterhorn. By 17, he had built his own automobile. These early passions, climbing and engineering, would stick with him for life.

His climbing career took him far and wide. Notable climbs include the first British ascent of the Bonatti Pillar (sadly destroyed by a 2005 rockslide) on Aiguille du Dru in the Alps, the first ascent of the imposing prow of Mount Roraima, deep in the Guyana jungle, and four expeditions to Everest.

His first Everest expedition came in 1953 with friend John Cunningham. The pair had no money, no visas and had not secured climbing permission. Their rather eccentric plan relied on discovering abandoned caches of food left by a Swiss expedition the previous year, and no shortage of courage. Somehow, penniless, they made it to Base Camp, only to discover that Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hilary had beaten them to the ultimate prize. However, MacInnes later found success on Everest as deputy leader of Chris Bonnington’s 1975 expedition to climb the Southwest Face. The team completed an incredible first ascent on the route, though MacInnes nearly died in an avalanche.

MacInnes on Everest in 1953 (left) and in the documentary Final Ascent in 2018 (right). Photo: The National

In between climbs, MacInnes wrote numerous books and found his way into the entertainment industry, advising on Clint Eastwood’s film The Eiger Sanction and working with the Pythons on The Holy Grail. He made a lifelong friend in Michael Palin, who described MacInnes’s time filming to the BBC: “He was head of mountain rescue in Glen Coe at the time. He had a great sense of humour and was wonderfully eccentric, which was just what we wanted and he helped us on the film. 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’.”

But the majority of MacInnes’s time was spent actually working to make climbers safer. MacInnes used his prodigious engineering skills to revolutionize climbing gear and pioneer modern mountain rescue. He built the first all-metal ice axe in his garden shed in the 1960s and designed his first folding stretcher around the same time. Both inventions have become essential pieces of mountain kit.

MacInnes with his first folding stretcher, the mark one. Photo: Hamishmacinnes.com

In his twilight years, MacInnes battled ill health. Wrongly diagnosed with dementia while suffering from an acute urinary infection that likely brought on delirium, he spent some time in a psychiatric hospital. Miraculously, he not only survived several escape attempts, including free climbing the outside of the building and emerging onto the roof, but he later made a full recovery. His ordeal left him with no memory of his former life. True to form, he fought back from this too, rebuilding himself through books and photographs.

MacInnes died on November 22 at his home in Glen Coe. A former colleague and head of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team, John Allen, paid tribute in The National: “The Scottish hills are darker and emptier today following the passing of the iconic and universally respected Hamish MacInnes.”