Hamish MacInnes, celebrated Scottish mountaineer, mountain rescue leader and developer of mountain equipment, is seen in action using his own design “Terrordactyl” ice tools in 1972.
Hamish MacInnes, celebrated Scottish mountaineer, mountain rescue leader and developer of mountain equipment, is seen in action using his own design “Terrordactyl” ice tools in 1972. (John Cleare/Mountain Camera Picture Library)

By Phil DavisonDec. 8, 2020 at 12:54 p.m. MSTAdd to list

In May 1953, two young, penniless, poorly equipped Scottish mountaineers hiked to the Everest base camp in the Himalayas hoping to become the first men to reach the summit of the highest mountain on Earth.

Hamish MacInnes was only 22, John Cunningham was 25, all their equipment was in the rucksacks on their backs, they had no authorization from the Nepalese authorities and they couldn’t afford a Sherpa, a local mountain guide.

But they had been climbing in the Scottish Highlands since childhood, and Mr. MacInnes had climbed the Matterhorn on the Swiss-Italian border when he was only 16. So they were hoping the first flag atop Everest would be the Saltire, the blue-and-white Scottish flag.

Their dream was shattered when an exhausted but elated New Zealander, Edmund Hillary, and his Sherpa, Nepalese mountain guide Tenzing Norgay, trekked down to the base camp on May 29 with proof they had become the first men to climb the more than 29,000 feet to the top.

Hamish MacInnes.
Hamish MacInnes. (John Cleare/Mountain Camera Picture Library)

From the Everest base camp, Mr. MacInnes and his pal decided instead to tackle Pumori, a mountain just five miles west of Everest and still a daunting 23,500-foot ascent. They hoped be the first men to scale it (true climbers do not use the word “conquered,” knowing the mountain will still be there when they’re long gone). They got to within 1,000 feet before extreme weather forced them down. (It was finally climbed in 1962 by a German-Swiss team.)

In 1975, Mr. MacInnes was part of a group led by fellow Briton Chris Bonington that reached the summit of Everest for the first time via its icy-rock southwest face — although Mr. MacInnes himself did not reach the top. He said an avalanche had forced him back when he began choking on powder snow and felt like he was drowning.

“The snow is like a liquid that surges around you,” he told the London Daily Telegraph. “The powder gets in your lungs. And when it stops it freezes and sets like reinforced concrete. You feel helpless. There is nothing you can do, but go with the flow.”

He went on, however, to acclaim as an inventor of game-changing climbing gear, including the first all-steel ice ax. His foldable mountain rescue stretcher — now known as the MacInnes stretcher — is used in rescues around the world, including by American and allied forces in Afghanistan. His “International Mountain Rescue Handbook,” written in 1972, remains a definitive guide.

He dedicated the rest of his career to mountain rescue, notably in the Glencoe area of the Scottish Highlands, where he made his home for the last 60 years and where he died of cancer on Nov. 23, age 90, according to the London-based Alpine Club. He had a 10-year marriage in the 1960s but no children.

His climbing prowess — he was said to have climbed in plimsolls like a mountain goat but later won the nickname “The Fox of Glencoe” for his cunning rescue strategy — brought him a side career in the movies.

He was a stunt coordinator and adviser on the 1975 film “The Eiger Sanction,” directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. The close-ups were shot in Zion National Park in Utah, while the action on the Eiger mountain in Switzerland — featuring Mr. MacInnes — could be seen in the long shots. Mr. MacInnes was also a fine photographer, and one of his proudest photos showed Eastwood climbing toward him during the filming.

He was an adviser on the 1986 movie “The Mission,” in which Mr. MacInnes clung to the ankles of Jeremy Irons to prevent him falling to his death in one scene. He was also chief safety officer on the thriller “Five Days One Summer” (1982), set in the Alps and starring Sean Connery.

What gave Mr. MacInnes most delight, however, was working on the 1975 comedy “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” during which he set up a rope bridge near his home in Glencoe that was called the Bridge of Death in the film.

Local Scots were shocked to see a man some of them recognized as Mr. MacInnes toss bodies into “the Gorge of Eternal Peril.” Monty Python star Michael Palin, who became a lifelong friend of Mr. MacInnes, had to reassure them they were just dummies. “Don’t worry, he’s the head of mountain rescue,” Palin told them, according to a BBC-TV interview.

In 2014, Mr. MacInnes was found unconscious outside his home, suffering from apparent delirium or dementia. He was sent to a psychiatric clinic, during which time he tried several times to escape, once climbing onto its roof. He was often straitjacketed and considered a threat to other patients. But after a year in the clinic, a re-diagnosis found that a urinary tract infection had caused his illness, it was treated and he returned home.

A moving 2018 documentary, “Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes,”told his story, including his own extraordinary contributions.

Hamish McInnes — he later added an “a” to his surname — was born in Gatehouse of Fleet, Scotland, on July 7, 1930, the youngest of five children. His father had served with the police in Shanghai as well as in both the British and Canadian armies during World War I before settling in Gatehouse to run a general store.

The family moved to Greenock, Scotland, where a neighbor (a mountain-loving tax inspector) would take young Hamish on his motorbike on climbing excursions.

In 1965, along with his wife, Catherine MacLeod — a doctor who practiced family medicine — he set up the Search and Rescue Dog Association and the Scottish Avalanche Information Service.

Fellow mountaineers credit Mr. MacInnes with saving countless lives, although he always remembered the ones he was too late to help. He reckoned he had seen 50 dead bodies in the mountains, some of them his fellow climbers, others strangers whom he had set out to rescue.

On Dec. 4, his hearse, with two crossed ice-axes on its roof, passed through Glencoe village in his honor before he was cremated in a private ceremony in Glasgow. “No, I don’t particularly want to be remembered for anything,” he once told the newspaper Scotland on Sunday. “I’d really rather be forgotten.”

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