Monday, 23 November 2020

Hamish the Legend

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.

Born in Gatehouse of Fleet, in Dumfries and Galloway on 7 July 1930, Hamish was brought up in Greenock, where his father had an engineering business. At age 14 in 1945, Hamish noticed “a bloke lived nearby, chap called Bill Hargreaves” would go off climbing on his motorbike at weekends. Hamish asked if he could join him and  was introduced to the hills.

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.

Climbing Achievements
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
Wether (VS)

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
Bludger’s Revelation.

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

Peter Debbage:

February 1969: ‘I booked onto a Glencoe School of Winter Mountaineering course. Was told that we wouldn’t meet the great man as he was never there. And so it proved. For the first two days we were dragged up various things by Ian Clough and Jim McCartney and no sign of him. On the evening of the second day this tall weather beaten man appears with a ‘presence’. Apparently he did this. He got the others to suss out the better climbers and collared them for the third day. We were leading HVS at the time, which was a respectable grade in those days. Pointing to me and my two mates, he said “You, you and you, come with me tomorrow.” And then he disappeared. Panting up behind him in an open  necked shirt and sports jacket (at between minus 5 and 10). “What are we doing today, Hamish?” “Och I fancy yon wee gully up there” he uttered. “What grade is it Hamish?” “Och how the hell should I know laddie – it’s never been done before” he retorted. For the next 3 days we were dragged up a series of desperate new routes by Hamish. I have never forgotten that and it remains one of the outstanding experiences of my climbing career.’

Chris Bonington:

Recollections of Chris Bonington’s first encounters and climbing exploits with  Hamish are well covered in Bonington’s first autobiography ‘I Choose to Climb”; from their first meeting in on the Buachaille, when 18 year old Chris was staying with members of the Climbers Club at Lagangarbh. “Hamish handed over to us ‘gnomie’ (Gordon McIntosh) who was the slowest climber there ever was, and as a team of three, we climbed behind Hamish and Kerr MacPhail on the first winter ascent of Agag’s Groove (VII, 6) on the Rannoch Wall.” Chris was climbing in Clinker nails, Hamish in Tricounis (another type of nailed boots), with straight picked axes. Chris stayed on, and later that week Hamish and Chris made the first winter ascents of Crowberry Ridge Direct (VII, 7) and Raven’s Gully (V, 5) on consecutive days, the latter in “pretty manky condition”, Hamish having to remove his boots to lead the last two pitches in his socks. 

Both Agag’s and Crowberry were well ahead of their time – the precursor of the modern snowed up rock routes now commonplace – definitely routes in the modern idiom. Chris recalls: “It was an amazing privilege to be climbing with one of the best all round mountaineers in Britain at the time, on my very first ever winter season.” Later, in 1957 Hamish wrote to Chris, asking “how about climbing in the Alps.” They attempted the North Face of the Eiger, which would have been Bonington’s first ever alpine route (talk about being thrown in at the deep end!), but the weather turned on their first day, and they retreated in the dark. Moving to Chamonix, they set off to do the Walker Spur, but got lost on the glacier, and ended up climbing a new route on the Auguille du Tacul instead. Chris also went on to say “Two, no three of my greatest influences in climbing have all been Scots – Hamish, Tom Patey and Dougal Haston.” “ When I think of Hamish, it is with a mixture of respect, friendship and enjoyment – he has an incredibly broad interest and passion, he’s hyper strong, and also a super designer – he is one of the very, very great characters of British mountaineering.”


First all metal ice axe, in 1947– dubbed ‘The Message’ by the Creagh Dhu, later manufactured in the sixties by Massey (of Massey Ferguson tractor manufacturers), hence the early taglines “as strong as tractors”. Pivotal in the advancement of modern technical winter climbing, was a fortuitous meeting with visiting Americans Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tomkins in February 1970 at the Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe, where Chouinard unveiled his curved pick ice axe. The next morning, MacInnes had produced dropped pick axe – the prototype of the ‘terrodactyl’, so called by Ian Clough when he first saw the aggressive looking snout. Although there were informal rescues in the glen, carried out by the local shepherds such as the Elliot’s and any climbers who were around; Hamish started the team in 1959, (the year he moved to Glencoe), primarily in order to raise funds for equipment. The first aluminium MacInnes stretcher was produced in 1961. This innovative design has undergone continuous development and refinements throughout its many incarnations, with the latest Mark 7 version utilising composite materials and titanium. Various versions of these are used by rescue teams, the military and police forces throughout the world.
Hamish & Yvonne Chouinard

Author of 23 books, including the innovative 2 volume Scottish Climbs’
selective guide, which was the first guide to make extensive use of photo diagrams, though the quirky use of alpine grades for rock routes (and adjective grades for Winter routes!) never quite caught on. His ‘International Mountain Rescue Handbook’ has become the definitive textbook on the subject, and been constantly in print since its release in 1972. Several have been translated into numerous languages.


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’.

“I don’t join anything unless I can’t possibly avoid it, not even climbing clubs.” In addition to being founder and team leader of Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, also founded Search and Rescue Dog Association (SARDA), honorary member of Scottish Mountaineering Club and ex President of the Alpine Climbing Group. Mainly in recognition of his great contribution to mountaineering and mountain safety worldwide, Hamish has received many honours from outwith the mountaineering world, including M.B.E and O.B.E., a Doctorate from Glasgow University and honorary degrees from four other Scottish universities. He was awarded the ‘Great Scot Award’ in 2000, inducted into the ‘Scottish Sports Hall of Fame’ in 2003, and awarded the inaugural ‘Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture’ in 2009.

Having a blether sitting on Tom Patey's old GP surgery chair

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