For him, climbing was a pursuit of self-reliance, a test of mental acuity as much as physical agility, where the next peak was met by the raising of eyes and the lifting of hearts.
He never embarked on a single ascent which did not have an objective risk, but each one was meticulously assessed and measured. “You have to consider what you want to get out of the sport,” he once observed. “And just how far you are prepared to go.” Very few people were better climbers than MacInnes, but no one so perfectly distilled the philosophy of his calling.
He was always appreciative of the beauty which surrounded him while climbing, and the almost transcendental experience of conquering seemingly insurmountable obstacles thrown down by nature. But at heart, he knew such places revealed something even deeper. Only when confronted with jeopardy could the truth reveal itself. MacInnes found his truth, and helped others find theirs.
Matterhorn scaled at 16
The many tributes and obituaries already written, and those still to come, will rightfully attest to his remarkable exploits. In exploring his own limits, he travelled far and wide, blazing a trail for climbers across Scotland and the world.
He was aged just 16 when he successfully scaled the Matterhorn, and was deputy leader of the first all-British team to scale the south-west face of Everest. He was also part of the British group which tamed the Bonatti Pillar of the Dru, one of the great rock faces of the Alps. In ordinary circumstances, the feat would have been remarkable – the fact MacInnes did so with a fractured skull, suffered after a rockfall, made it doubly so.
One of his most exotic pursuits took place in the mountainous borderlands spanning Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana, an outcrop which inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World. There, MacInnes ascended the overhanging prow of Mount Roraima, part of a plateaux flanked by 1,300-foot-high cliffs on all sides, with its few nooks home to scorpions, vipers, and tarantulas. He had been alerted to the route thanks to a letter from his good friend, John Streetly. “Dear Hamish,” he wrote, “I feel that we have just the thing for you down here.” How right he was.
But it was his homeland where MacInnes loved to climb more than anywhere else, ever since he moved with his family from Gatehouse of Fleet to Greenock, and began his lifelong love with mountains. He first climbed The Cobbler alongside Bill Hargreaves, a neighbour who worked as a tax inspector during the week, but yearned for the great outdoors come the weekends. MacInnes could wish for no better companion, as Hargreaves adopted the same fastidious approach to his hobby as he did his career, ensuring that a system of safety checks was in place.
From the modest peaks of Arrochar, MacInnes went on to test himself on some of the country’s most challenging routes. Climbing with Chris Bonnington, he completed the first ascents of Agag’s Groove, Crowberry Ridge Direct, and Raven’s Gully, all on Buachaille Etive Mor in Glencoe. He also made the first ascent of Zero Gully on Ben Nevis and the first winter crossing of Skye’s indomitable Cuillin Ridge.
Through all these climbs and countless more, MacInnes ensured his place in the history of mountaineering. And yet in decades, if not centuries to come, he will be remembered for something else: not the peaks he overcame, but the lives he saved.
A man of boundless energy and vision, MacInnes learned much from the example of Hargreaves, and spent his lifetime conceiving of new ways to keep climbers safe. He designed the first all-metal ice axe, invented a specialised folding alloy stretcher which is used by mountain rescue teams to this day, and in 1972, published the International Mountain Rescue Handbook, a tome which served as the discipline’s manual for generations.
Striving for what is out of reach
MacInnes also founded the Glencoe Mountain Rescue team in 1961, leading it for many years until his eventual retirement some three decades later. A visit to Switzerland in the early 1960s also led to him conceiving the Search and Rescue Dog Association in Scotland, and, together with Eric Langmuir, founding the Scottish Avalanche Information Service.
No one man has done more to help put in place the network of emergency response efforts designed to keep climbers from harm’s way, and it seems that MacInnes took just as much pleasure in helping to rescue people as he did in making record-breaking ascents.
In ‘Call Out’, his peerless account of the early mountain rescue efforts in the Highlands, MacInnes recalled in exacting detail many of the rescues he and others embarked on, but there is one particular passage which reveals something of the man himself, and the unshakeable sense that life is best lived when striving for what is out of reach.
“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. “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.”
Hamish MacInnes tested nature at that game for more than half a century, but more importantly, he tested himself. He was asked countless times why he returned to the mountains, despite losing dozens of friends and suffering numerous serious injuries along the way. It was, he replied, the kind of question for which there is no answer.