The Fox of Glencoe

Hamish MacInnes

Scottish Mountaineering Press, £30

Review by Cameron McNeish

The late 1940s and early 1950s were boom years for Scottish mountaineering. The Second World War brought a new awareness of physical fitness, survival skills and mountain warfare and the corresponding legacy of innovation provided great benefits to climbing and mountaineering equipment. After the darkness of the war years nothing seemed impossible – it was a time of opportunity, and a young man from Gatehouse of Fleet epitomised that period more than anyone else.

The immediate post-war years gave Hamish MacInnes a robust platform from which to launch a unique career that would see him become a world-class mountaineer, a successful equipment designer and manufacturer, a film-maker, a prolific author and a world-acknowledged mountain rescue pioneer.

Written and compiled before his death at the age of 90 last year, MacInnes: The Fox of Glencoe chronicles many of Hamish’s epic and far-flung adventures, offering the reader a portal into the mind of one of the great Scots of our time. A solo ascent of the Matterhorn in Switzerland at the age of 16 and epic mountaineering exploits in the Alps, the Dolomites and further afield in the Himalaya, South America, New Zealand and the US, all starkly portray the uncompromising nature of MacInnes the mountaineer, but it’s the chapters on his ice axe and mountain rescue designs and inventions, his love of fast cars and motorbikes, his film-making successes and friendships with celebrities like Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Robert de Niro and Michael Palin and the building of a log cabin, without planning permission, on a roadless stretch of Torridon coastline, that fill in some of the crevasses in this incredible story of a well known, but very private individual.

Born in 1930, Hamish was introduced to climbing at the age of 14 when his family moved to Greenock and he noticed one of his neighbours heading off on his motorbike every weekend. On discovering the neighbour was a climber Hamish went along as a pillion passenger and rapidly became one of the most prolific mountaineers in Scotland.

HeraldScotland: Hamish MacInnes relaxing on top of Ben Nevis. (Photo: Hamish MacInnes Archive)Hamish MacInnes relaxing on top of Ben Nevis. (Photo: Hamish MacInnes Archive)

A meeting with an inexperienced and precocious 16-year old Chris Bonington, resulted in the pair climbing Agag’s Groove, Raven’s Gully and Crowberry Ridge Direct on the Buachaille Etive Mor, all in full winter conditions, an experience that laid the foundations for Sir Chris Bonington’s own brilliant mountaineering career.

Bonington recalls that first meeting with the 21-year-old MacInnes in his autobiography, I Chose to Climb: “Hamish MacInnes, already a legendary figure in Scottish circles …was only in his early 20s. He had started climbing as a lad, hitch-hiked to the Alps just after the war with only £5 in his pocket and had spent his National Service in Austria. There he had earned the nickname ‘MacPiton’, having acquired a taste for pegging (metal spikes hammered into cracks in the rock) from the Austrians, on the steep limestone walls of the Kaisergebirge.

“In the early 1950s the use of any artificial aids was still frowned on, but Hamish hammered his pegs into Scottish crags with gay abandon, much to the disgust of the staider members of the Scottish Mountaineering Club. This never worried him, however, for he had a complete disregard for public opinion and was in every respect an individualist.”

It was that individuality that set MacInnes apart. He always did his own thing, ploughed his own furrow, although he did accept an invitation to become a member of the Clydebank-based Creagh Dhu Mountaineering Club. “Although I had to dig deep into my memory of over four-score years,” he wrote, “the time I spent with the Creagh Dhu Club was probably the most memorable of my life, and I was lucky to have such excellent teachers to show me the ropes.”

Many of Hamish’s first ascents were with either Bill Smith or John Cunningham, shipyard workers who were amongst the leading climbers of that generation, but, “as a rule we never bagged summits after climbing, for fear that we would be classed as Munroists. That was for jessies!”

The meeting with Bonington was an auspicious one. In the years that followed the pair climbed successfully together in the Alps and ultimately in the Himalaya when MacInnes became Bonington’s depute leader on the successful 1975 Everest South-West Face expedition. On that expedition Dougal Haston and Doug Scott became the first Brits to climb the world’s highest mountain, but by then MacInnes was an Everest veteran. He had attempted to climb Everest in the early 1950s with John Cunningham. In complete contrast to Bonington’s mammoth military-style expedition, MacInnes’s attempt had a team of two, a bag of tatties and a sheep. The pair had emigrated to New Zealand on a £10 assisted immigration passage and then travelled home overland via India and Nepal, with a frustrated ultra-lightweight attempt at Everest en route.

HeraldScotland: Hamish MacInnes at the age of 90, inspecting a modern MacInnes Stretcher (Photo: Hamish MacInnes Archive)Hamish MacInnes at the age of 90, inspecting a modern MacInnes Stretcher (Photo: Hamish MacInnes Archive)

Hamish MacInnes went on to found both the Search and Rescue Dog Association and the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team. His revolutionary MacInnes Stretcher is still used by rescue teams throughout the world, and his original all-metal ice axe changed the face and nature of winter mountaineering. He was also a prolific author, publishing 26 books, including the seminal International Mountain Rescue Handbook (1972) and the classic Call Out (1973), in which he recalled his experiences with the Glencoe Mountain Rescue team.

Other publications included a set of walking guidebooks, a book about his Alsatian rescue dogs, and a handful of novels.

MacInnes: The Fox of Glencoe is a wonderful portrait of a genuine Scottish legend, an Indiana Jones-type character who lived life to the full, a product of an earlier age when optimism and possibility reigned supreme. Praise must be given to editor Desiree Wilson and the Scottish Mountaineering Press for a superbly produced book about an unorthodox character whose pragmatic approach to risk and loss can be applied to any aspect of contemporary life. As his great friend Michael Palin suggests: “Time spent with Hamish was never wasted … to be with him was to experience and be seduced by the infinite potential of life.”