Hamish MacInnes, Scotland’s Man of the Mountains, Dies at 90


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Hamish MacInnes, a lanky Scotsman of considerable derring-do who scaled dangerous mountain peaks all over the world, invented lifesaving equipment for climbers and wrote the definitive book on how to conduct mountain rescues, died on Nov. 22 at his home in Glencoe, in the Scottish Highlands. He was 90.

British news reports said the cause was cancer.

Mr. MacInnes led or took part in 20 major expeditions, including four to Mount Everest. He almost lost his life there in an avalanche in 1975, when he was deputy leader of one of the most arduous and spectacular ascents in the history of climbing: a trek up Everest’s southwest face led by the British mountaineer Chris Bonington.

In his many decades on mountains, Mr. MacInnes was believed to be lost or dead on at least six occasions, sometimes during attempts to rescue other people. This is not counting the time he pressed on up the Bonatti pillar of the Dru in the French Alps with a fractured skull from a rockfall.

Mr. MacInnes’s Spider-Man-like ability to scale sheer cliffs and his goatlike skill in negotiating rocky terrain led Clint Eastwood, as well as the Monty Python troupe, to enlist him as a consultant on their films. He worked as a stunt coordinator on “The Eiger Sanction,” a 1975 spy thriller directed by Mr. Eastwood, enabling Mr. Eastwood to film while on the terrifying north face of the Eiger, in Switzerland, and perform his stunts himself. In “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975), Mr. MacInnes helped set up a rope bridge in Glencoe, his hometown, that became the Bridge of Death in the movie.

An accomplished photographer, Mr. MacInnes prized this shot he took of Clint Eastwood at a perilous moment during the filming of “The Eiger Sanction,” on which Mr. MacInnes worked as a stunt coordinator. Credit…Hamish MacInnes collection, via Alpinist Magazine

He also worked with Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons on “The Mission” (1986), about a missionary in South America, and with Sean Connery on “Five Days One Summer” (1982), the story of a love triangle in the Alps in which a climbing guide dies under suspicious circumstances. (During the shoot, the body of a real guide who had been missing for more than 30 years emerged from the ice.)

But for all of his sure-footedness in perilous circumstances, Mr. MacInnes was thrown by an internal challenge.

When he was 84, he was found unconscious in front of his house. He was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where he was deemed demented and held against his will for 15 months. During that time, he was sedated and put in a straitjacket, his weight plummeted, and his memory vanished. He made several attempts to escape; at one point he scaled the outside wall of the hospital, only to end up on the roof with nowhere to go.

Doctors eventually discovered that he had been suffering from a chronic urinary tract infection that produced dementia-like symptoms.

They told him he was lucky to have written several books and appeared in scores of documentaries, because they could help jog his memory. Immersing himself in his library and film archives, he was able to reconstruct his past and eventually restore most of his memory. The episode is recounted in a 2018 documentary, “Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes.”

Mr. MacInnes often said that experience was more traumatizing than anything he had faced on a mountain.


Mr. MacInnes in 1972, using ice tools that he himself had invented and developed. Credit…John Cleare for The New York Times

He was born Hamish McInnes on July 7, 1930, in Gatehouse of Fleet, a town in southwestern Scotland, to Duncan and Katie (MacDonald) McInnes. (He later adopted the more distinctive Scottish spelling of his surname.) His father, who had served with the Chinese police in Shanghai and later in the British Army during World War I, owned a general store.

The family soon moved to Greenock, on the River Clyde in Scotland’s west central Lowlands. There Hamish was introduced to climbing by a neighbor, Bill Hargreaves, who was not only a skilled climber but also rigorous about safety, which made a deep impression on Hamish.

Hamish was the first to make several of Scotland’s most treacherous winter climbs, and at 16 he successfully assaulted the Matterhorn.

In 1953, when he was 23, he and a climbing buddy, John Cunningham, decided more or less on a lark to try to become the first to summit Everest. They had little money, few provisions and no permission from the government of Nepal to venture up the world’s highest peak. Their plan was to live off rations that had been abandoned by a Swiss climbing team the year before.

After dodging police checkpoints, they arrived at the base camp, where they learned that Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, had already reached the summit. The young men turned their attention instead to a nearby peak, Pumori, which no one had yet conquered. But when they were nearly at the top, they decided the danger of avalanches was too great, and they turned back.

As inventive as he was adventurous, Mr. MacInnes built a car from scratch when he was 17. He later used radar to search for bodies in the snow and, in 1961, founded the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team. He also trained dogs to help search for avalanche victims. His friends called him “the fox of Glencoe” for his cunning in finding lost climbers.

Perhaps his most famous invention was the first all-steel ice ax. It was a significant improvement on the wooden-handled ax, which snapped under pressure.

He also developed a foldable lightweight mountain rescue stretcher that is still in use today and an avalanche information service. His “International Mountain Rescue Handbook” (1972) became the go-to manual for rescue teams all over the world.

All told, his inventions and services saved countless lives.

“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,” The Scotsman newspaper wrote after Mr. MacInnes’s death.

He lived alone in Glencoe, in a house he had built by hand, and leaves no immediate survivors. He had been married in 1960 to a woman he had met climbing in the Alps, but the marriage dissolved a decade later.


Mr. MacInnes in 1992 with his St. Bernard, Hamilton. Credit…Bill Fraser/Mirrorpix, via Getty Images

In addition to his many other pursuits, Mr. MacInnes was an accomplished photographer (he prized a shot that he took of Mr. Eastwood in action during the filming of “The Eiger Sanction”) and the author of roughly 40 books. Most were about climbing and rescuing, but he also wrote murder mysteries. He could cram so much into his day, he said, because he slept only four hours a night.

One of his enduring pleasures was the friendship he developed with Michael Palin of Monty Python during the filming of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” His task at one point was to toss dummy bodies into what the movie called the Gorge of Eternal Peril.

As onlookers stared at the bizarre scene of a man throwing what appeared to be bodies into the gorge, Mr. Palin recalled to the BBC, he told them, “Don’t worry, he’s the head of mountain rescue.”