By Nick Drainey
As Hamish MacInnes looks out from his house, below the conical summit of the Pap of Glencoe, he can still remember the days when volunteers wore Wellington boots and carried storm lanterns as they risked their lives helping the lost or injured in the mountains.
That was 55 years ago when he founded the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team after realising the brave group of shepherds, fishermen, landlords and climbers needed better equipment.
MacInnes, now 85, says: “We started off the team to try to get funds because the shepherds were going up the hill in their Wellington boots … and they only had the old storm lanterns, it was really primitive. These people went out on to the hill with no motive but to help people, they used to have to go round on a bicycle to call people out when people were lying injured on the hill.
“These shepherds and people in the team weren’t climbers – initially there was only one other person in the 15 strong team other than me who was a climber. It was vital that we got some money so we could get them climbing boots, anoraks and headlamps. We also had to get walkie talkies for communication.”
The mountaineer says equipment available to rescue teams has improved but the nature of the call outs is basically the same. Recalling a rescue in the early days of the Glencoe team, he says: “We often had to work out where people had gone. We came across a car and there was a lot of good technical climbing gear in it. By doing some Sherlock Holmes work we thought back to the day before which was misty and drizzly – a climber doesn’t go soloing on a hard route in these conditions.
“We realised he must have gone somewhere that was relatively easier but could get progressively harder if he went off the route a little bit. That is exactly what happened because we found his body down at the side of the scree on the west face of Aonach Dubh. He had been on a climbing course with me and we did quite a few routes together – he was a talented climber, a Chinese climber.
“It shows you that back then people wandered off.”
Coping with death is something MacInnes has lived with all his life, in mountain rescue as well as expeditions to the Himalayas, the Alps, New Zealand and South America.
He says: “Chris Bonington and I have both got over 50 friends each killed, that is a lot of friends. It reminds me of my father who was in Passchendaele and his whole platoon was wiped out – he was the only person left alive and was posted as being killed. It runs in the family.”
The confrontation with tragedy in the mountains also led MacInnes to develop cutting edge equipment used by mountaineers and rescuers across the world. It began after he invented the first all-metal ice axe in the late 1940s. He developed this until a version was created in the 1960s using aluminium alloy shafts.
MacInnes recalls: “The reason I invented it was that I was climbing in Ben Nevis one day. I had a police radio because of doing rescues and the police radioed to say they had three people missing up in the region of Zero Gully. We went off at night with torches and we came across these bodies – all three were killed and their wooden ice axes were broken. I realised then that I had an all metal ice axe which was pretty much indestructible and these people were getting killed because their ice axes were not up to standard. I made a resolution then to manufacture them.”
After finding a drop forger in Manchester they went into production and their use was to revolutionise the climbing world, not only improving safety but providing lighter equipment. MacInnes said: “We were making 1,000s of them and they were going all over the world, the RAF, for example, decided to buy them.”
For MacInnes the invention and manufacture of stretchers suitable for use on difficult terrain such as mountains was also a key factor in improving rescues.
He got the idea when using a “Thomas” stretcher with the newly formed Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team on the Aonach Eagach ridge. After a night of searching they found a young woman who had fallen and was lying in a very precarious spot, suffering a fractured spine and head injuries.
MacInnes says: “We had got to this girl and she was in a very dangerous situation, in fact her legs were dangling over the edge of quite a big drop, it was a kind of Charlie Chaplin situation. We had to get her off and we only had the Thomas stretcher which was good for its day but you couldn’t get it in to difficult places and the team agreed something had to be done.”
MacInnes went on to design the first stretcher which came apart and had wooden skis attached. Further modifications were made and the first folding stretcher was invented – quicker to carry out to an injured climber as well as being easier to lift back, meaning there was a better chance of saving lives. Since those early days the MacInnes Stretcher has been used for rescues across the world as well as in conflict zones such as Afghanistan. An MK7 version is the latest and MacInnes, although now retired from the rescue team, shows no sign of stopping work. He has teamed up with Richard Glanville, who makes carbon fibre yacht masts in Inverness who has created a material which is not only lightweight but also strong.
He says: “I am working on a new stretcher. It has now developed to a stage where it is an incredible work of art and is incredibly strong.”
Despite the inventions, MacInnes has always said they didn’t make him a rich man. Rather, his income came from the world of film where his expertise was used in productions ranging from The Mission with Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons to the James Bond film The Living Daylights with Sean Connery.
Work on the Eiger Sanction in 1975 is credited as some of the most dangerous location shooting ever done. MacInnes enabled a camera crew to work on the north face of the Eiger and he developed a mutual respect with the director and star, Clint Eastwood.
MacInnes says: “Clint was a great bloke. He did all his stunts, he wasn’t a climber but he was very fit and had no fear whatsoever.”
However, the Eiger Sanction project was placed in jeopardy when MacInnes himself suffered a rare injury while climbing in Scotland.
He says: “Just prior to the Eiger Sanction I was climbing on the coast south of Edinburgh on a pinnacle called The Souter.
“It was quite a hard route and I was using a peg (to hold the rope) to reach down to get round a corner for a hold and it came out. I fell and bashed the side of my leg.”
He managed to get off the sea stack and went to the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh because of the pain. “I must have passed out because the next thing I remember was a circle of white coats around me.” He was told there was an infection in the small wound on his leg and there had only ever been three cases of it in the history of the hospital – two of which had resulted in a leg being amputated.
An operation ensued, followed by painful washings of the wound with antiseptic. Back home, he was cleaning the wound himself when Don Whillans, a rock climber and mountaineer, paid a visit. MacInnes remembers: “Don came, very concerned. He looked in and said ‘I came to get some lunch but I’ve changed my mind’.”
Looking back to the start of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, MacInnes says the motivation to go out was always to help those in trouble. But working in a small team, often in the dark during atrocious weather, created a “terrific bond”.
MacInnes says: “Denis Barclay (a founder member of the team) said we did it because we enjoy it. But he didn’t mean enjoying the injuries people had it was the fact that it created a satisfaction in what we were doing.”