Dr. Hamish MacInnes was one of Scotland’s most legendary climbers and equipment developers. He died at age 90 at his home in Glencoe.
MacInnes, born in Dumfries and Galloway in 1930, was nicknamed ‘the Fox of Glencoe’ and ‘MacPiton.’ He spent decades exploring the highest mountains of the world, contributed to climbing safety and equipment design, and helped usher in a new age of ice and alpine climbing.
In the 1940s, he designed the first all-metal ice axe. His passion for improving equipment started when he was 16, after his first climb of the Matterhorn and having built his own car.
His early ice axes and ice hammers had a straight, slightly declined pick that were not sufficiently “dropped” for direct aid on vertical ice. His aluminium-alloy-shaft ice tools were manufactured for the public in the 1960’s, after three climbers died on Ben Nevis in Zero Gully when their wooden ice tools broke.
In 1970, he invented the Terrordactyll or “Terror,” which had a global impact on hard winter climbing, and helped lead to an ice climbing revolution in the 1970s and ’80s. Around the same time, Yvon Chouinard developed a short, wooden shafted ice hammer with a curved pick serrated on its bottom edge known as the Climax.
Mountaineers had been seeking a better way of remaining in contact with steep and overhanging ice. The technique at the time was to hang on to ice pitons, driven into the ice above the leaders head, which was both dangerous and insecure.
The Terrordactyl was a short, all metal ice tool with an aluminium alloy shaft and a high-quality pressed steel head in two sections with an adze and steeply inclined serrated pick.
For several years, the Chouinard ice hammer and the Maclnnes Terror dominated the forefront of international ice climbing. Eventually the accepted worldwide design for modern ice tools evolved as a combination with the pick steeply dropped like the Terror but curved upwards at the tip like a reversed Chouinard Climax hammer, which was known as the Banana pick
The Terrordactyl came to Canada with climbers in the 1970s, such as Jack Firth, Bugs McKeith, Rob Wood, Al and Adrian Burgess and other U.K. climbers. Dozens of first ascents were made with them, including Weeping Wall WI4, Nemesis WI6 and Takakkaw Falls WI4. Read more about the early ice climbing days in Canada here.
Another of his designs was the MacInnes Stretcher, which went on to be used globally by mountain rescue teams, along with his book International Mountain Rescue Handbook.
MacInnes cofounded the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, the Search and Rescue Dog Association, and the Scottish Avalanche Information Service. He supervised in dozens of outdoor film productions over the years.
His father was from Fort William and his mother was from Skye. After the Second World War, they moved to Greenock on the lower reaches of the river Clyde and that’s where he was introduced to the sport of climbing.
Bill Hargreaves, a neighbour to MacInnes, was a tax inspector during the week, but a climber on the weekends. MacInnes asked if he could join him one day, and they drove to the Arrochar Alps to climb The Cobbler; a small, jagged peak which offered a variety of challenges.
MacInnes later said: “I was very fortunate to team up with Bill Hargreaves, because he was a very good climber and he showed me the basic safety measures: what to do and what not to do. There were no Outward Bound schools in those days and no way of getting climbing tuition. It was basically a DIY situation and that could be very dangerous.”
MacInnes then founded a climbing club, which encouraged others to get out to climb. “They were a bunch of pretty tough blokes from the shipyards and all very good climbers,” he said. “Through them I was catapulted to quite a high standard at a fairly young age.”
Asked why he took to climbing so enthusiastically, MacInnes said: ‘Undoubtedly for the freedom. There weren’t so many climbers around as there are now, so you had the most wonderful feeling of isolation, as if you had all the wild places entirely to yourself. Climbing started for me, as with most people, as the pursuit of pleasure, and that kind of developed into a way of life.
“I certainly have very fond memories of my climbing experiences, all over the world, but one of my lasting ‘hobbies’ if you like, is mountain rescue, and developing rescue equipment. It gives me a lot of satisfaction because it’s something a lot of people will get a direct benefit from. I’ve been lucky to have this inclination for design work.”
MacInnes went on to make the first British ascent of the Bonatti Pillar of the Dru in the French Alps, and in 1973 made the first ascent of the infamous Prow of Mount Roraima at the triple border point of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana.
His first trip to the Himalayas was in 1953 for an attempt on the first ascent of Mount Everest with John Cunningham. When they arrived at base camp, they found that a young New Zealander, Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa companion, Tenzing Norgay, had beaten them to it.
In 1975, MacInnes was deputy leader in Bonington’s Everest expedition, which included Dougal Haston and Doug Scott. They climbed the southwest face, and MacInnes was nearly killed in an avalanche, which wasn’t the first or last time.
“It certainly concentrates the mind,” he said about being caught in an avalanche. “Sometimes it happens quite suddenly and without warning while on other occasions I’ve felt as if the whole mountainside was slowly slipping away beneath me. There’s nothing you can do but go with the flow.
“I’ve developed a technique in falling. I quite deliberately bring my hand up to cover my mouth so that when I eventually come to a halt under the snow I will at least have a little space in which to breathe before the snow sets like concrete.”
MacInnes was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to mountaineering and mountain rescue in Scotland in the 1979 New Year Honours. He also received an Honorary Doctorate from Heriot-Watt University in 1992, and Stirling University in 1997.
In 2008, he was the first recipient of the Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture.
Later in life, MacInnes battled ill-health and suffered from delirium, which was caused by an acute urinary infection that was misdiagnosed as dementia. His struggle with health and recovery were told in the 2018 film, Final Ascent.