The Ice Axe I bought from Hamish MacInnes

Hamish MacInnes, RIP

Last April founding chairperson Chris Barber paid his personal tribute to Joe Brown when it was announced that Joe had died. Now here he does the same for Hamish MacInnes, the world famous mountaineer who passed away aged 90 at his home in Glencoe on 22 November 2020.

The BBC recently showed a documentary of his life, which some of you may have watched. Made in 2018 and titled ‘Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes’ it was introduced by his friend Michael Palin and related to his final years, suffering with ill health and the problems of overcoming dementia.

The Aonach Eagach ridge

It is always rewarding to meet and talk to famous people and I well remember the day in July 1968 when I spent an hour talking to Hamish at his cottage in Glencoe. During a solo visit to Scotland, I camped in Glencoe and decided to traverse the Aonach Eagach ridge, which is one of the most exciting ridge walks in Britain. It is about 6 miles in length and rated a Grade 2 scramble, requiring a good head for heights, for it is very exposed on both sides. It also takes in two Munros called Meall Dearg and Sgorr nam Fiannaidh. I decided to tackle it from the eastern end.

Allt na Reigh is situated besided the A82

Leaving my car near the Clachaig Hotel, I road walked along the A82, which was no real chore for there was very little traffic in those days and the scenery was very impressive. Opposite the Three Sisters of Glencoe and the entrance to the ‘Lost Valley’ is a little cottage known as Allt na Reigh and this is where a path gives access to the Aonach Eagach ridge. I knew that this cottage was the home of Hamish MacInnes and I was delighted when I saw him standing outside. He warmly greeted me and commented that it was a grand day for doing the ridge, with the weather set fine for several days that week. His voice was softer than I expected and he was obviously pleased to talk and give advice to any mountaineer who came past his little cottage. It was originally a road man’s house, like many that were built along the A82, providing homes for road men who carried out maintenance, such as filling in potholes and keeping culverts clear.

The two bedroom cottage and workshop

Hamish told me that he had lived there for many years and always preferred the winter when Glencoe was covered in snow. The weather was generally better then and to do the Aonach Eagach ridge in good snow conditions was a very special experience. I then mentioned that I had read in a climbing magazine that three years previously he had completed the first winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge with Tom Patey. He said ‘Yes, it had been my ambition to do that for a long time and after several attempts we finally cracked it.’

I then asked him about the new ice axe that he had designed, which was very special because it was the first in the world with a metal shaft. He told me that he had decided to make it because the conventional wooden axes sometimes snapped under pressure and this often resulted in fatal accidents. He then said, ‘Would you like to see my workshop, where I make them?’

We walked across to a long low outbuilding and inside he showed me the equipment that he used and some axes that were ready for delivery to customers. I then asked if I could buy one. ‘Och aye, you certainly can, but I am afraid it will cost you seven pounds ten shillings.‘ This would make a dent in my holiday money, but I seized the opportunity, for at that time it was quite hard to get hold of one of these axes and it would be very special to have actually bought it from Hamish himself.

He had also designed a lightweight folding stretcher made of aluminium which was to become widely use in mountain and helicopter rescue throughout the world. I told him that I was very familiar with it for I was a member of the Longtown Rescue team in South Wales and we had purchased one only the previous year. It was very light and could be folded into two parts with a hinge in the middle and carried on a special pack frame to the accident scene by just one person.

The next design

In due course Hamish designed another ice axe which was known as the ‘Terrodactyl’ and had an inclined pick, which was ideal for tackling hard ice climbs. These inventions made Hamish quite wealthy and in due course he built a new house for himself in Glencoe Village. At one time he was even the proud owner of an E-type Jaguar!

Known by many as ‘The Fox of Glencoe’ and ‘MacPiton’, due to his cunning as a mountaineer, Hamish set up the Search and Rescue Dog Association and spent his life dedicated to Mountain Rescue in Scotland. He received an OBE and also an Honorary Doctorate, from Heriot-Watt University in 1992 and from the University of Stirling in 1997. His full title was thus Dr Hamish MacInnes OBE FRGS.

Anyway, after strapping my new ice axe on to my rucksack, I thanked Hamish for his kindness and such an interesting conversation and then set off up the track leading up to the crest of the ridge. Life was certainly very different in those days with less people on the hills and I had the ridge to myself for quite some time. But then I started meeting a few people coming from the other direction. It was now a very hot day and there was no sign of any snow anywhere so not surprisingly, humorous comments were made, and questions asked about why I was carrying an ice axe? I was constantly told that I would have no use for it anywhere on the ridge.

Well, the first time I used that axe was the following year, when I took a holiday, with my Abergavenny climbing friend Tom Dodd, in the Zillertal Alps, Austria. I must admit that I could not help being smugly conscious of the fact that he only had a wooden axe!

Walking through Mayrhofen, I became surrounded by some local guides who had spotted my all-metal ice axe and asked me if they could hold it and where they could buy one. They even offered me considerably more than I had paid for it, but this was Hamish’s ice axe and there was no way that I would sell it to them.

Chris Barber MBE FRGS