The Scottish mountaineer and explorer, Hamish MacInnes, has died at the age of 90. In 1989, Kenneth Roy interviewed him for a collection entitled 'Conversations in a Small Country'. The following is an abridged version of their encounter.
'Meeting you in Glencoe could be tricky,' said Hamish MacInnes on the telephone. 'There's no guarantee I'll be there when you arrive.' After a puzzled silence at my end, he added helpfully: 'If there's a rescue on…'
Ah, yes. Stupid of me. In the end, I met the leader of the Glencoe mountain rescue team in a lounge of the Central Hotel in Glasgow − not quite the evocative setting I had intended. The only people who looked as if they might have needed rescuing were a party of OAPs in search of an Age Concern meeting.
Six years short of being an OAP himself, Mr MacInnes is still admirably fit and lithe. He was in Glasgow to do a spot of post-production work for a film he is making for the BBC. He says he is fed up writing books, and intends to spend the next two years exploring and filming in lonely places. He has formed an independent production company for this purpose.
'Are you a solitary individual?'
'To some extent, I suppose I am. Some of my work − photography, for example − is essentially a lonely business.'
'Do you like lonely places?'
'Probably my favourite place in the world is the upper Amazon. The rainforest is fascinating. Been in and out of it quite a few times.'
'Tell me about your first visit.'
'It was quite frightening. So many spiders, scorpions and snakes… an abundance of everything that creeps and crawls such as I'd never found anywhere else. Unbelievable. I needed a lot of persuasion to go back.'
'So why did you?'
'Because the exploration side is so interesting. Going to places no-one's been before. It's very hard to make progress, and it's only climbers who can get down through those gorges.'
'There can't be many places left where no-one's been before.'
'That's about the only place, actually. There are quite large tracts which are still unxplored. They are very, very inhospitable. Nobody could probably live in them.'
It is hard to say where Hamish MacInnes picked up his venturesome spirit. There appears to have been nothing in his background or upbringing to suggest that he would become one of Scotland's most celebrated explorers and climbers. His father was a small shopkeeper; he could have ended up doing nothing more exciting with his life than running the family stationers.
'I was born in Gatehouse-of-Fleet. My parents were from the Highlands − my mother from Skye, my father from Lochaber − so that's where my roots are. I don't really know why they settled in Gatehouse.'
'Were they Gaelic speakers?'
'Yes. Especially when they were saying something I wasn't supposed to hear.'
'Did you like your father?'
'I can't say I did. He was a slightly hard man, though very fair. He spent a long time in the trenches at Passchendale during the First World War and saw virtually everybody around him die. After that, he became very religious. I rebelled, as children of religious fathers often do.'
'How did you rebel?'
'Well, perhaps rebel is too strong a word. But when you have religion for breakfast, lunch and tea, there's a natural rejection of it. I rejected it.'
At the age of 14, the family moved to Greenock. He found that claustrophobic, particularly as he was beginning to acquire an interest in the outdoors. An income tax inspector called Bill Hargreaves, who was also a fine mountaineer, taught him to climb. 'Bill was a good tutor,' he remembers. 'He put some sense into me.'
'How far did you have to travel?'
'The first climbing I did was on the Cobbler, then I went to Glencoe. That was quite energetic. I cycled from Greenock to Glencoe for the weekend, climbed all weekend, then cycled back again. Pretty strenuous if there was a head wind on the Rannoch Moor. Which there invariably was.'
'What did you like about climbing?'
He said he found that difficult to explain. You either took to it or you didn't. He thought it might have something to do with the freedom it allowed.
'Were you escaping from something?'
'Perhaps. It's interesting that most of the best climbers are from cities.'
His first big expedition was illegal. In 1953, he and John Cunningham, another notable Scottish climber, decided to make an attempt on Everest despite being refused permission by the Nepal Government. 'The rule was you weren't allowed in unless you had Himalayan experience, but of course you couldn't get experience unless you went to the Himalayas… an absolutely ridiculous set-up. But we'd heard that a previous, Swiss-led expedition had left a large cache of food on camp two and being Scots, we thought we'd go in search of the food.' They trained hard in New Zealand for six weeks, then made their unauthorised entry into the Himalayas − only to discover that John Hunt's expedition had got there before them.
'The food was gone?'
'They'd used the lot. Bit of a disaster in that respect.'
Twenty-two years later, on another Everest climb, he almost died when he was caught in an avalanche 26,000 feet up. The rope held, otherwise he surely would have perished, but the after-effects of powder in the lungs badly damaged the cartilages of his rib cage. Another climber died in the expedition.
'This element of danger. Could it be part of the attraction?'
'Difficult situations certainly get the adrenalin flowing. In retrospect, maybe you find that satisfying − pushing yourself a bit beyond what you thought you were capable of.'
'And yet you've seen many colleagues killed…'
'It's amazing. I was speaking to Chris Bonington about this just the other day. Between the two of us, we've lost over 30 close friends. In fact, of all the people I started climbing with seriously, Chris is the only one left. Everybody else is dead.'
'Are you afraid of dying on a mountain?'
'Not in the least.'
'I don't know. Probably because I'm fairly close to it most of the time.'
'Close to death?'
'Well, to fairly dangerous situations. In rescue work, for instance. But it never bothers me in the least. If you go, you go. That's it.'
When he went to live in Glencoe in 1959, he found that mountain rescues were organised ad hoc, that the rescuers were poorly equipped, and that in the absence of telephones the alarm was raised by bicycle. Ernest Marples, Postmaster General of the day and a keen hillwalker, was prevailed upon to give Glencoe the telephone. Hamish MacInnes did most of the rest.
'We operated a radio call-out system. Very efficient. We each carry a small set with us − especially if we're on the mountains.'
'How do you go about rescuing a climber?'
'Modern technology is important. Initially we relied on getting people down in a fairly antiquated way. The stretchers were too clumsy and heavy, so I made a folding, portable stretcher which is now used all over the world. That was a big step forward. Then the helicopters came. They're an essential feature of rescue work.'
'Are weekend climbers still doing daft things on mountains?'
'Not so much. But the essence of winter climbing, especially at this latitude, is speed. People don't realise that the winter day is so short, and they tend to go over-equipped − they carry the most enormous rucksacks. That slows them down.'
'But otherwise they're fairly responsible?'
'Well, one quality we're losing is dedication to one's companies. Quite frequently now, we rescue climbers who've been… well, not exactly abandoned by their friends. But let's say their friends didn't show great charity in helping them. That's very off-putting.'
'You mean people are just left up there?'
'I've come across cases where a member of the party has fallen, and the others haven't even looked for him. Particularly if the conditions are bad, they'll just come back to fetch help. This is one of the unfortunate things about sophisticated rescue work − people tend to leave it to the rescuers. Which is all very well, but there's a certain responsibility to one's companions. When I started climbing and something happened, we did our damnest to get the person down the mountain. We were brought up to help one another.'
Even in the high mountains, it seems there is no escape from the selfishness of the human race.
A group of men in business suits had arrived at the next table. They were laughing so loudly that I had to strain to hear Hamish MacInnes describe in his soft voice the more hair-raising details of his hazardous existence. It was the hour of morning coffee, a far cry from the rainforest of the upper Amazon, and Mr MacInnes had an odd ability to express the realities of danger and death in a flat, almost detached conversational style. It did not feel like the time or the place to discuss the nature of heroism in the modern world. But I decided to raise the subject anyway.
'Mountaineering at its best is regarded as a heroic activity. Do you agree?'
'Heroism is difficult to define. It's often something that happens in the heat of the moment, something one does instinctively. Look at it from the rescue point of view. Basically, the reason one goes rescuing is because one likes doing it. There's no real heroism in that.'
'Well, yes. If we're involved in a difficult rescue it's reported in newspapers all over the country. The real heroes are people who look after the terminally ill but get no thanks at all.'
'What about achieving a summit? That's surely a symbol of great heroism, isn't it?'
'Heroism doesn't come into it. That's all about personal ambition, endurance, fitness.'
'I certainly agree with that.'
'And you've had more than your fair share of it?'
'I've been involved in five avalanches. To survive one avalanche, you have to be very lucky. Another thing − I've had all sorts of accidents. For example, a few years ago I had an impact injury on my legs which turned out to be gas gangrene. It was something like 50 hours before it was diagnosed. I shouldn't be alive today after that. But six months later, I was climbing Everest with a big aluminium plate over the wound. So, yes, a lot of luck. And when your time's up, it's up. There's no worrying about it.'
'So you haven't discovered God on top of a mountain?'
'No, I'm an atheist. I'm interested in all sorts of religions, I even lived in a Himalayan monastery for a short period, but I've never followed any of them up. My father wasn't particularly religious until his war experience. Well, I've been close to death too, in a slightly different way of course, but it's had the opposite effect on me. I've gone to the other extreme.'
'I wonder why?'
'Religion's a kind of weakness, perhaps. I feel I can set my own standard of values of how I want to conduct my life − and I don't need the crutch of religion to make me stay on that path. So I just haven't felt the need to believe in a God.'
If I were Hamish MacInnes, I would be thinking that somebody up there must like me.