The mountaineer and adventurer Hamish MacInnes, who has died aged 90, took part in more than 20 expeditions, from the Caucasus to the Amazon. He also designed equipment that was to revolutionise both climbing and mountain rescue, was a prolific author, and worked on movies set in the mountains starring Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro and the Monty Python team.
He was, however, probably most revered by his fellow Scottish climbers for the part he played in an audacious expedition to Everest in 1953. There were two expeditions to the mountain that year, which was still awaiting its first ascent: a well-funded official British one, with 14 climbers, 20 Sherpas and 320 porters, and the one by MacInnes, which had two climbers, a porter, a sack of potatoes and a sheep.
MacInnes was only 23 at the time, and he failed to make it to the top of Everest. But the trip was testimony to his ambition and endurance, and perhaps the best-loved of his adventures. With the mountain not yet climbed, he had attended a lecture in 1952 in Edinburgh by a Swiss climber, André Roch, whose expedition had narrowly failed. MacInnes was excited to hear that they had left food stashes almost all the way up, and he came to believe that he could exploit that fact. It was thus that the Creagh Dhu Himalayan expedition was born.
The Creagh Dhu was a Glasgow climbing club whose members were drawn mainly from the shipyards and the unemployed. MacInnes climbed with them regularly, and his plan was for a group of the Creagh Dhu to travel on a £10 assisted immigration passage to New Zealand and then double back to India and Nepal. In the end only MacInnes and John Cunningham made it.
With no permission to climb the mountain or even to be in Nepal, the pair sneaked through Kathmandu in the middle of the night to start the long trek to Everest base camp, each carrying rucksacks weighing about 140lb. To supplement local food and supplies left by earlier expeditions, they took potatoes and the sheep with them to Everest. Beaten to base camp by the official British team, which put Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on top, MacInnes and Cunningham slaughtered the sheep and then switched to one of Everest’s neighbours, the 23,494 ft high Pumori, eating its meat on the way. However, they were forced back high on the mountain by avalanches.
After Pumori they climbed a rock spire called Pingero, but then found themselves only halfway down when night fell. The threadbare nature of their trip became apparent once more: “We now wished we had torches on the expedition,” MacInnes wrote in the Alpine Journal. But they carried on in the dark, making it safely back to the bottom before embarking on a tough journey to Mumbai and then home. Looking back on the trip much later in life, MacInnes said: “It was not as hare-brained as you might think.” He viewed it as a forerunner to modern lightweight expeditions.
MacInnes was born in Gatehouse of Fleet, in Dumfries and Galloway, but his roots were in the Highlands. Both parents were Gaelic speakers; his mother, Katie (nee MacDonald), was from Skye, and his father, Duncan, who served in the police in Shanghai and fought in the first world war, was from Fort William. MacInnes, the youngest of five siblings, had a strict religious upbringing but rebelled as a teenager, becoming an atheist.
When he was 14 the family moved to Greenock, where his father ran a shop. MacInnes began climbing that year. Finding Greenock claustrophobic, he watched a neighbour loading a motorbike with climbing gear and asked to join him. His first climb was on the Cobbler, the jagged peak above Arrochar in the southern Highlands. He did the Matterhorn two years later. At 18 he did his national service with the British army, stationed in Austria, and climbed both there and in Italy.
Among many notable first ascents on his return to Scotland, MacInnes climbed – with Chris Bonington – three stunning winter routes in Glencoe in 1953: Agag’s Groove, Raven’s Gully and Crowberry Ridge Direct. Four years later he made the first ascent of one of the great Ben Nevis ice climbs, Zero Gully, and in 1965 the first winter traverse of Skye’s Cuillin Ridge. He returned to Everest three times, including as deputy leader (under Bonington) of an expedition that made the first ascent of its south west face in 1975.
Nicknamed the Fox of Glencoe, he took up permanent residence in the glen in 1959. He was a companionable host for climbers dropping in to sit by his fireside; modest and courteous, with a self-deprecating sense of humour. Journalists stopped by too, not only for his easy company but as a potential source of stories, for he knew how to dress up planned climbs as a search for Inca gold or the Yeti or – in the case of his climb up Mount Roraima in Guyana – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lost world.
Interested in engineering from his teenage years – he built a car from scratch at 17 – in 1970 he brought onto the market an all-metal ice-axe, the Terrordactyl, to replace the fragile wooden-shafted ones that had been used up until then. He had been experimenting with all-metal axes from his earliest days of climbing, and made the Terrordactyl in the workshop next to his house. It was the first of its kind to become generally available to climbers, but although it was popular the pick was at an angle that left lots of climbers with bruised knuckles. An American climber and friend, Yvon Chouinard, designed a more popular curved axe. The modern ice-climbing tool evolved roughly from a combination of the two of them.
MacInnes also set up the Glencoe rescue team in 1961, which he led for more than three decades, and in 1965 co-founded, with his wife Catherine, the Search and Rescue Dog Association. In addition he designed a lightweight stretcher still used today by rescue teams around the world, and in 1972 wrote International Mountain Rescue Handbook, a standard reference work. He persuaded the UK government to set up the Scottish Avalanche Information Service in 1988.
As a safety adviser, stunt double and cameraman, MacInnes worked on television programmes and movies, among them The Eiger Sanction (1975) with Eastwood, The Mission (1986) with De Niro, and Five Days One Summer (1982) and Highlander (1986) with Connery, as well as on Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). He wrote 26 books, ranging from climbing guides and descriptions of mountain rescues to crime thrillers.
In 2014 he had a lengthy stay in hospital after a deterioration in both his physical and mental health, including memory loss. A BBC documentary about his life, Final Ascent (2018), described how he managed to recreate his memory by looking through his extensive collection of photographs, film and writings.
He was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1962 and an OBE in 1979 for services to mountaineering and mountain rescue. He also received honorary doctorates from several Scottish universities.
His 10-year marriage to Catherine (nee MacLeod), a GP who was also a climber, ended in divorce in 1970.
• Hamish MacInnes, mountaineer, born 7 July 1930; died 22 November 2020