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The Fox of Glencoe tells the final chapter in story of legendary Scottish climber Hamish MacInnes


By Mike Merritt

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Hamish MacInnes's story was told in the 2018 film, Final Ascent.
Hamish MacInnes's story was told in the 2018 film, Final Ascent.

He explored his local mountains with such passion and daring he earned the nickname of 'The Fox of Glencoe'.

But now fellow intrepid adventurers have recounted untold daring of Scottish climbing legend Hamish MacInnes.

Dr MacInnes died at his home in Glencoe on November 22 after a long battle with cancer, aged 90. Poignantly an ice axe – which he invented – was placed on top of his coffin with figures from the world of mountaineering there to say goodbye.

Now, in a new book, written and compiled before his death, The Fox of Glencoe chronicles the epic adventures of "one of the greatest mountaineers of our time".

Out of the blue, Dr MacInnes contacted the publishers, Scottish Mountaineering Press, a year before his death saying he wanted to write a book about his life before he reached 100!

He worked on it almost up until his death and in it writes: "I have lived in better times, but I am thankful to have been here before the advent of the digital age, when life seemed simpler and somehow more tangible. I am grateful for fast cars before speed limits and untrodden parts of the world with good friends to accompany me.

"At the lowest point in my life, I was told by the doctors that I would never type again, yet here I am, adding the final touches to my magnum opus. Throughout these tales of knife-edge precipices, avalanches, the purgatory of high altitude, bug-ridden rain forests and hazardous movies is what might be called the ‘character-building stuff’ of life."

Writing a foreword is legendary climber Sir Chris Bonnington, who briefly became the oldest known person to summit Mount Everest in April 1985, at the age of 50.

"‘The Fox of Glencoe’, an affectionate reference to Hamish’s cunning as a mountaineer and rescuer, was a very appropriate nickname. He was such an original, a complete individualist, steering his own course through life, never bothering about what others might think of him. Multi-talented and at times eccentric, he was a truly amazing man who contributed so much to our sport in so many ways," he writes.

Fellow adventurer Sir Michael Palin, in his foreword, adds: "Hamish and I bonded not so much over ice axes or expeditions, but as fellow appreciators of the unorthodox and eccentric.

Hamish's friend Michael Palin, director Robbie Fraser and Hamish MacInnes.
Hamish's friend Michael Palin, director Robbie Fraser and Hamish MacInnes.

"Here was a man who would take infinite care inching a wounded climber down a mountainside one minute, and the next drive a high-performance car at Formula One speeds along public roads.

"Not long before his death, I was commiserating with Hamish over the passing of the days when he had sped through Glencoe in an E-Type Jaguar when he gave me one of his quick and mischievous half-smiles and admitted that he had recently acquired a Ford Mustang of enormous power.

"Seeing my startled reaction, he quickly added, ‘But I only drive it at night.’ My eyes widened. ‘At night?’ I queried. ‘Why at night?’ ‘No police around.’

"He liked danger but never for its own sake; it had to be part of a constructive experience. Risk was assumed and evaluated but never allowed to stand in the way of a challenge. It was an essential part of life.

"The most hazardous, frightening and unforgettable climb I ever did was not in the Andes or the Himalayas but on the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glencoe. Hamish, knowing that my son was a keen climber, arranged and filmed it all and called in the helicopter to take us off the ridge just ahead of a rapidly approaching blizzard."

Dr MacInnes, who was born in Gatehouse of Fleet, climbed the Matterhorn in the Alps when he was just 18.

He went on to found mountain rescue teams, invented the MacInnes stretcher – which is used for rescues worldwide – and also designed the first all-metal ice axe.

In the 1970s, he was an adviser on Clint Eastwood's film The Eiger Sanction and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and also The Mission starring Robert De Niro in the 1980s. He also worked with Sir Sean Connery.

He was involved in setting up the Search and Rescue Dog Association and the Scottish Avalanche Information Service.

Dr MacInnes took part in more than 20 climbing expeditions abroad, including four to Mount Everest and was almost killed in an avalanche on the peak in 1975.

For a period in later life Dr MacInnes battled ill-health. He suffered delirium, apparently caused by an acute urinary infection, but it was misdiagnosed as dementia.

Dr MacInnes spent time in psychogeriatric detainment in the Belford Hospital in Fort William and made attempts to escape from the building, including scaling up the outside of the hospital to stand on its roof.

His struggle with his health and recovery were told in the 2018 film, Final Ascent.

He was also a prolific author, publishing 26 books, including the seminal International Mountain Rescue Handbook (1972) and the classic Call Out (1973), in which he recalled his experiences with the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team.

Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team leader, Andy Nelson, who knew Dr MacInnes for over 30 years, said: "He was known as the Fox of Glencoe because of his cunning but I think he should have been known as the cat of Glencoe, because he had more lives than a cat – he avalanched more times than he could remember, was benighted (stuck on a climb overnight) and suffered illnesses from expeditions in jungles etc.

"In these difficult times, he would still encourage us to seize the day because 'life is for living'."

The Fox of Glencoe book cover.
The Fox of Glencoe book cover.

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