Obituary: Hugh McNicholl
Born: 13 October, 1945, in Glasgow. Died: 31 August, 2012, in Mount Beauty, Australia, aged 66.
AS A member of the famous Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team for more than 20 years, Hugh McNicholl helped save many lives. But he was perhaps best-known for developing the award-winning Vertige ice axe range used by mountaineers around the world, including on Everest, as well as by British troops, the Royal Air Force and Special Forces. As an aero-engineer who moved from Glasgow to the Highlands, he also built and repaired the world-renowned MacInnes rescue stretchers designed by the Everest mountaineer Dr Hamish MacInnes of Glencoe, who founded the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team in 1961.
Widely known as Hughie, Hugh Stewart McNicholl was born in Hyndland, Glasgow, the son of a local butcher, and went to Hyndland Primary School. When he was 13, his parents moved to Bearsden, outside Glasgow, and he attended Bearsden Academy, becoming a keen amateur racing cyclist with the Glasgow Nightingale Cycling Club. To his family, he was known as Hugh 2 since his father had the same name.
After a four-year engineering apprenticeship in the Aero Engine Division of Rolls Royce in Glasgow, during which he also studied at the city’s Stow College, he worked as a production engineer at Rolls-Royce from 1968-72, involved in the mass production of aircraft engine compressor blades. From 1972-80, he was a research technician in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Glasgow’s Strathclyde University.
Keen to start his own business, he produced “deadmen” (metal devices to secure a rope to a cliff) for the Nevisport outdoor equipment chain founded in 1970 in Fort William. A keen rock and ice climber himself, he decided to be closer to the mountains and in 1981 moved to North Ballachullish, Glencoe, where he set up his own company, Mountain Technology (Glencoe) Ltd, with financial backing from the Highlands and Islands Development Board. The company would soon become an internationally-known name among mountaineers.
It was natural that he join the legendary MacInnes in the rescue team, based in Glencoe village, from where he set out on many life-saving sorties. MacInnes had designed his first folding rescue stretcher in the early 1960s – later models are now used all over the world – and McNicholl used his engineering skills to build a stronger aluminium frame that make the stretcher easier to handle or load on to helicopters.
In North Ballachullish, Mountain Technology produced the now-famous Vertige ice axe and hammer, with an aluminium shaft and a pick crafted from nickel chrome, widely used by multi-terrain climbers. McNicholl and his team also designed and produced pitons, crampons, adzes and other metal equipment needed by mountaineers, as well as the stretcher frames and other rescue gear.
In his spare time, he climbed mountains as a hobby, including in the French Alps and on three expeditions to the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan. On one trip to the western Himalayas with other members of Glencoe Mountain Rescue, rockfall risks prevented them from reaching the summit of the 6,756 metre Choricho above the Baltoro Glacier.
Rarely inactive, McNicholl also loved mountain biking in Glen Coe, ran no less than 29 marathons, including in London, New York and Paris, and enjoyed owning fast cars, such as a Subaru Impreza WRX.
In 1992, McNicholl married Australian Mary Rosengren, now a well-known artist in her homeland.
After 23 years in business, Mountain Technology ran into financial difficulties and McNicholl shut his factory down in 2004. For the sake of his wife’s family and artwork, he moved to Australia, where he broke his neck in 2006 but made a remarkable recovery and became an Australian resident in 2007.
He settled with Mary in the town of Mount Beauty, Victoria, a launching point for trips to the Falls Creek ski resort, where he continued his mountain biking and took up wood-turning.
With an eclectic taste in music, he also built his own hi-fi system and continued where he had left off in Scotland – cooking, entertaining and serving up “mean” cocktails. “He taught me to always throw away the cork of a whisky bottle once opened,” one blogger said. “Good advice, which I know he adhered to as much as possible. Slainte, Hugh!”
Hughie McNicholl died suddenly in Mount Beauty to the shock of his friends and family, provoking blogs worldwide.
“Fond memories of Hugh being talked off the Buachaille one night after a rescue, left alone up high in not perfect weather,” wrote former Glencoe rescuer Peter White, now in Newfoundland. Another former Glencoe team member, Davie Gunn, wrote: “I think we saw the best times for climbing, craic and laughs pre-mobile phone days. Hughie was quite a character.”
According to former RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team leader David “Heavy” Whalley of Moray, who led the Lockerbie disaster rescue team: “Having married an Australian girl, Hugh emigrated to Australia and Scotland lost the ‘all Scottish ice axe’ and a great Scottish character in one go. He took lots of young climbers under his wing and was always good with giving them new kit to test.
“The Vertige axe and hammer was a great piece of kit and well-used by thousands of climbers all over the world.”
Hugh McNicholl is survived by his wife, Dr Mary Rosengren, a lecturer in visual arts and design in Australia, and by his brother Donald and sister-in-law Liz, of Tain, Ross-shire.
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Tuesday 21 May 2013
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