A recollection of Hamish from an article by Gary Latter in "Climber" magazine 10 years ago celebrating his 80th Birthday. It was sent to me to comment on and add to before print having given Gary a few tales of the old fox. Gary was himself a member of the team for a few years mid 1980's when he lived locally.
I have added some personal input and a collage of pictures with some additional text but Gary's article is a good summary of an exceptional life, a legend which some of us had the privilege to be a small part of with GMRT, on film escapades, or knowing him as a neighbour in the village of Glencoe.
Hamish has made his name in many different ways: climber, adventurer, mountain rescuer, designer, film & safety
work, writer and photographer. He climbed both at home and abroad with many of
the great names of the latter half of 20th century
mountaineering, including John Cunningham, Chris Bonington, Ian Clough, Tom Patey, Kenny Spence,
Allen Fyffe, Ian Nicholson, Yvon Chouinard, Dougal Haston, Don Whillans, Joe
Brown, Mo Anthoine, Paul
Nunn and Martin Boysen.
Hitching out to the Alps at the age of 17, he recalls jam coming off the wartime ration book just as he reached Dover. Exploration and adventure have been at the core of most of his exploits over the years. Whether its searching for gold on the remote west coast of South Island New Zealand, or Inca gold in South America; searching for the Yeti in the foothills of the Himalaya, or climbing the vegetated and wildly otherworldly tepui of Roraima deep in the jungle of Guyana, fighting off scorpions, bird-eating spiders and bushmaster snakes en route - he’s been there and lived to tell the tale!
Known by some as “the old fox of Glencoe”, Hamish has lived in the glen for over half a century, first moving to the small whitewashed cottage Allt-na-Ruigh, above the meeting of the Three Waters in 1959. He then moved further down the glen to the National Trust owned Achnacon in 1970, later building his own place, on the back road between the village and the Clachaig in 1998.
|The old fox sporting a Mary Poppins look on some alpine film set|
National Service for 19 months at the age of 17 was “quite a pivotal experience”, as he was posted to Austria. Here, on the steep limestone walls of the Kaisergebirge, he acquired a taste for pegging from the Austrians. His attraction for pegging back home in Scotland later earned him the nickname “MacPiton”, with routes like Porcupine Wall on The Cobbler, Engineer’s Crack on the Buachaille, many routes throughout the Skye Cuillin, including Creag Dhu Grooves, and the long sustained Titan’s Wall on Carn Dearg Buttress, Ben Nevis.
Although particularly known for his long and pioneering involvement in mountain rescue and mountain safety, early on in his climbing career, Hamish was also on the receiving end of rescues. In January 1951, whilst attempting the first winter ascent of Raven’s Gully on the Buachaille with Creagh Dhu members Charlie Vigano and John Cullen, Hamish was leading on a 160’ rope (quite a long rope at the time), when the rope jammed (it was also dark by this point). Unable to free it or descend, he untied and continued, but reached an impasse 10 feet from the top. Bridged across the iced-up chimney, he braced himself for a long night, dressed in just jeans and a thin shirt underneath his anorak. His rucksack with warm clothing was with his mates down below, who fared much better, being dressed in heavy motorcycle jackets. Luckily fellow Creagh Dhu member Bill Smith was driving up the road and spotted their headtorch lights and, along with others, including Jimmy Marshall, eventually dropped a top-rope down to him and extracted him in the early hours. “I thought I’d had it, I was so bloody cold.”
The second instance occurred in the French Alps. The teenage Hamish had an arrangement with the famous French guide Lionel Terray (first ascent of Makalu and author of the wonderful Conquistadors of the Useless). As route finding was difficult, Hamish had an arrangement with Terray, where he would solo a suitable distance behind Terray and his client. On a traverse of the Grande Charmoz, the pair had made a 40’ abseil from a situ nylon sling on a bollard. Hamish threaded his rope and proceeded to follow suit, only for the sling to break as soon as he weighted it. On impacting the small ledge at the base, his knees were driven up into his eye sockets, temporarily blinding him. Luckily he didn’t go any further down the remaining 600’ drop to the glacier. Another famous Swiss guide, Raymond Lambert was nearby, and the pair effected a rescue.
1951: 4 routes on The Cobbler in the company of two of the finest climbers in the
country at the time, Creagh Dhu members John Cunningham and Bill Smith,
including the fine Gladiator’s Groove (HVS) and wildly exposed Whither
1952: Peasants’s Passage, Wappenshaw Wall on the Rannoch Wall, and
Bludger’s Route on Slime Wall with Pat Walsh, later combined into the classic
February 1953: Agag’s Groove (VII, 6), Crowberry Ridge Direct (VII, 7) and
Raven’s Gully (V, 5)
Late fifties instructing work for the Mountaineering Association (the predecessor of the BMC) in the Skye Cuillin saw the opening up of many good rock routes, including such well-trodden modern classics as Vulcan Wall (HVS) and Creagh Dhu Grooves (E3) both with some aid, on Sron na Ciche’s Eastern Buttress, and the fine Grand Diedre (VS), over the back of the ridge in Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda, all climbed with Ian Clough.
February 1957: Zero Gully (V, 4) on Ben Nevis with Aberdonians Tom Patey & Graham Nicol. This was Hamish’s seventh attempt at the much sought-after line, having arrived via the Carn Mor Dearg arete from Steall Hut in Glen Nevis, on learning that other teams were showing an interest.
April 1959: Titan’s Wall on Carn Dearg Buttress, Ben Nevis with Ian Clough, which came in for much criticism at the time due to its extensive use of aid, though it would be two decades and numerous attempts by several of the top climbers of the day before it was finally freed by Mick Fowler in 1977.
February 1965: First winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge, with Davie Crabb,
Tom Patey and Brian Robertson. North Face of Pik Schurouski in the Caucasus was an outstanding route with 2 bivvys, with Paul Nunn and Chris Woodall. (Still unrepeated!) The Glencoe School of Winter Mountaineering, which operated from 1964-74, over the years employed many of the best climbers in the country at the time, including Ian Clough, Jim McCartney, Allan Fyffe, Kenny Spence, Dave Knowles, and Ian Nicholson.
Glencoe-based guide and rescue team member Paul Moores: ‘One of my first impressionable moments of Hamish - he used to keep an immaculate garden at Achnacon. I went round to visit him. He wasn’t in the house, but I eventually found him in his garage, working on the huge V12 engine of his E-type jaguar. Hamish had his finger trapped under the cylinder head, and I managed to rig up a rope on a beam and winch it off. When asked what he would have done had I not shown up: “Well, I knew the postman was coming tomorrow.”’ ‘Hamish used to hold an annual party, usually in the Summer, with loads of folk from all over. He would make these huge trifles – at least 6 washing up bowls. Mike Begg, the producer of BBC Outdoor Broadcasts was there, with his then girlfriend, Margaret Thatcher’s daughter Carol. Hamish, in his fifties, was going out with Betsy Brantley, an American actress in her twenties, whom he met while overseeing the safety on the Hollywood film Five Days One Summer. While the party was in full swing, a police car pulled, up with lights and sirens blaring. “We’ve got a complaint.” The local bobbies soon took of their caps and joined the party. Later on, some of the partygoers got all the empty cans and bottles and loaded them into the back of the police range rover. After the party the bobbies walked back along the road, two of their colleagues returning in the morning to collect the vehicle.'
Paul and another local rescue team member, Hugh McNicol arrived at Achnacon on a blisteringly hot midsummers day and asked if they could swim in his pools (in the adjacent River Coe). Although never really a drinker (usually a half cider at best), Hamish used to make vast quantities of his own Silver Birch sap wine. Hamish set a table and 3 deck chairs up and opened a gallon flagon of his homemade brew, and got “completely and utterly miraculous”, then later made ‘dinner’ which was ‘eventful’ to say the least, including all the peas exploding from the microwave. Later, Paul’s wife Ros drove them all up the glen to the Kingshouse where they continued drinking. Hamish was supposed to be filming the next day, with the helicopter pilot buzzing the house, hovering outside his bedroom in an attempt to rouse him from his slumber. Hamish has never drunk since.
Glencoe local and stalwart rescue team member for many years Davy Gunn: “If I had a camera in my early climbing and rescue years, one picture I wish I had taken was that of Hamish in Glen Etive beside an abandoned min-van. We had gallon cans of beans in our old WW2 rescue truck as sustenance, and lacking a plate and spoon there he was sitting on a rock beside the river with his iconic cap on, eating cold beans out of a mini headlight glass with a big dirty channel peg. That image will always stay locked into my brain as the epitome of a hard man climber picture. Yet behind that picture is a gentleman.” “Hamish is a tough customer. Cold doesn’t seem to bother him and he has always been immensely strong.” “As a young sixteen year old mad keen on climbing, Hamish took me and another local lad Ronnie Rodgers under his wing. As the youngest, as long as I tagged along on rescues not getting in the way and helping a bit, then odd bits of gear would arrive from “Fishers of Keswick” (pre Nevisport) or Typhoo’s (Tiso’s), ordered for me by Hamish to encourage me for my labours.”
|GMRT Founder and Leader. Below Twisting Gully 1983|
|Hamish & Yvonne Chouinard|
Worked as either climbing cameraman or safety consultant on hundreds of documentaries and films, including the live outside broadcast spectaculars of the Old Man of Hoy, Gogarth and Freakout and Spacewalk, in addition to producing several of his own tourist-orientated DVDs, narrated by either Sean Connery (who met on Five Days One Summer), or Michael Palin (met on Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail), both remaining good friends. Film work includes looking after safety on the Clint Eastwood Hollywood blockbuster ‘The Eiger Sanction’, and working with Robert De Niro on ‘The Mission’.
|Having a blether sitting on Tom Patey's old GP surgery chair|