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An interview with mountain-rescue legend Hamish MacInnes

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

‘On an exacting rescue each moment is remembered with amazing clarity, for one lives at a higher pitch than usual when risks must be taken which wouldn’t normally be contemplated.’ – Hamish MacInnes

Hamish MacInnes is a renowned Scottish mountaineer with a leading climbing record. He was deputy leader on Chris Bonington’s 1975 Everest South-West Face expedition, when Dougal Haston and Doug Scott became the first Britons to summit the world’s highest mountain.

He is founder – and was for many years leader – of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue team and has saved hundreds of lives in astonishing conditions all over the Scottish Highlands.

We were delighted when Hamish granted us some of his time to talk about his classic book Call-out, a collection of exceptional mountain rescue tales now published as an ebook for the very first time by Vertebrate.


How did you select the tales to include in Call-out?

The Glencoe team has had almost 10,000 call-outs over the past fifty years. The rescues I selected for inclusion in Call-out were chosen for their significance to the team, and their impressive, eyebrow-twisting story elements.

Did you find it difficult to ‘switch off’ from the inevitable sadnesses associated with some of the rescue attempts? How did you keep work and play separate?

What is always particularly difficult is the death of young people – cut off in the prime of their lives. This last half century, I’ve lost more than fifty of my friends in the mountains, I duly understand the utter grief and loss one feels. That said, on a call-out team members must separate their personal feelings from the difficult demands of the task at hand whatever the rescue may require. After hundreds of rescues one gets used to seeing dead bodies/corpses. To the casual observer team members may appear callous and uncaring, but the banter is nothing but a cover – camouflage for the sadness one feels acutely.

What do you think are the qualities needed in order to be a successful mountain rescue team member?

In four simple words: teamwork, dedication, complete selflessness.

How did you cope with the enormous sleep deprivation from night-time call outs and twenty-four-hour rescues? Were you concerned it would hinder your ability to make crucial decisions?

I can easily get by on four hours’ sleep a night … but after five days without sleep – such as on the Skye rescue – one becomes exceptionally tired. You are functioning on pure adrenaline, and one’s reactions and judgement are severely compromised – it is very easy to make mistakes.

Do you have a ‘proudest moment’ that stands out from your extensive mountain rescue career?

Speaking on a purely personal level, my proudest moment was during my National Service duties in Austria just after the war. It must’ve been right around 1946. I was climbing on the Zugspitze with my close friend Hans Spielman and his lovely, young wife Marga.

Just below the top a rock dislodged from above fell and hit Marga directly on the top of her head causing massive trauma. We didn’t wear helmets in those days! It all happened so fast. Marga was hanging on the rope unconscious and bleeding profusely. Hans, seeing his wife in that state, immediately fell to pieces and was in deep shock.

I roped down to Margo, tied on to her and immediately descended to the ground with her strapped to my back. I then quickly climbed back up, and collected Hans who was in a terrible state. I knew very well it was now a race against time for her, life or death.

As luck would have it, at that very moment the Zugspitze téléphérique was departing the top station – they had had a front-row view of the accident. They stopped the télécabine just above us, and shouted down; there were two neurosurgeons on board. I immediately slung Marga on my back, climbed up the massive pylon up to the waiting télécabine. The doctors immediately went to work on Marga on the télécabine floor. No question, the fast action and more than a little luck saved Marga’s life that day. Marga made a total recovery and seventy years later they remain two of my dearest friends.

Call-out is now available to buy on Amazon Kindle. Other ebook formats will be available very soon.

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