Mountain Rescue Magazine Winter 2021

How fragile is the human mind? Whilst not as enduring as mountain rock, perhaps they are more resilient than we think. Hamish MacInnes lost the ability to remember his life’s adventures, but returning to the mountains and sifting his way through the stories of his life helped rebuild his memories and his mind. Jonny Dry from the Mountain Heritage Trust headed north to Glencoe to find out more.

There’s a gentleman I read about recently, Sion Jair, who at the age of 68 climbs the Old Man of Coniston every day. Indeed he’s been doing this for years, twice a day up and back. After being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the visceral pull of the Coniston fells is clearly strong enough to ground his ailing memory. Mountains provide a welcome familiarity. Such was the experience for Hamish MacInnes. After being admitted to hospital in Glasgow there was a general consensus that Hamish had little conscious memory left. Diagnosed with delirium and subjected to scans, internal examinations and endless

too apparent and he states proudly that he’s back to almost 100% capacity. It has not been easy. The process of rediscovery has been long and at times painful and Hamish’s dogged determination is clearly what has got him through. There’s little reason it shouldn’t have worked with recalling his memory, it’s worked on hard climbs across the world. Making the first British ascent of the Dru’s Bonatti Pillar in 1958 with Don Whillans, Paul Ross and Chris Bonington, Hamish suffered a serious skull fracture following rock fall at the end of their first day. Bandaged and

way that maintains the utmost accuracy of his memories. He cracks and laughs at the detail he can still recall. ‘It’s very embarrassing, I can remember back away to 1946. I remember this chap and think, he’s dead now, but I can remember how many sugars he had in his tea.” Writing in Call Out , Hamish has said himself how some of his ‘most memorable recollections have been of rescues’. Mountains and disaster are clearly vivid in his mind and it’s imperative as we talk that the facts are adhered to. I wondered, though, whether his relationship with danger and rescue had changed after piecing his memory back together. ‘That’s an interesting point,’ he muses before falling silent. I’m aware suddenly of the clock ticking over the mantelpiece. He thinks hard before answering. ‘See, I started reading my books again, and a lot of these are about rescue. I had a fantastic library.’ Hamish has been a prolific writer in his time, often publishing books that set a benchmark in the mountaineering community. His International Mountain Rescue Handbook — distilling expertise from around the globe and published in 1971 — has never been out of print and is now in its fourth edition. His guidebooks date back to 1969, covering rock and winter climbing as well as a guide to West Highland walks which extends to four volumes. His writing in the Alpine Journal on climbs with John Cunningham, Yeti hunting in the Kulu, and hard ascents in the Caucasus on Pic Shchurovsky’s North Face and the Shkhelda traverse is vividly candid, and captures his often intentional approach to climbing. These are the threads that Hamish used to stitch himself back together. Meticulously re-reading and re-reading his personal archive to make sense of it all. ‘I was curious,’ he says, ‘I wanted to find out’. No-one told him to undertake such an exercise, it was merely something of the drive within him to never settle and to constantly want to know more. Yet how strange must that have been? Seeing yourself

Opposite: Hamish underneath the Eiger North Face in 1957 © Chris Bonington Picture Library.

bureaucracy, he admits himself that he was, at that stage, dying. Down to eight-and-a-half stone, the life and climbs that he had undertaken had been entirely forgotten and it looked unlikely he would ever improve.

Diagnosed with delirium and subjected to scans, internal examinations and endless bureaucracy, he admits himself that he was, at that stage, dying.

Article first published in Summit #93, Spring 2019. Words and images reproduced here with kind permission of the BMC, Jonny and the Chris Bonington Picture Library.

Certainly many in the mountaineering community had low expectations of a recovery. Under the direction of his consultant, Hamish was transferred back home to Glencoe, requiring regular nursing support to undertake the most basic of tasks and still unable to recall much of his life’s achievements. Caught in a white clinical setting, Hamish had received little stimulation. Yet once back amidst Glencoe’s mountains that framed much of his life, Hamish began to piece things together. Although the physical feats and achievements of his life had been forgotten, he was still all too aware that he was inherently a climber. ‘You don’t lose that. When you’re cooped up in a hospital for years you’re certainly very conscious of it.’ Perhaps climbers have an underlying essence; no matter what they are subjected to, that identity is innate. Speaking to him now in January 2019, with the promise of winter snow dusting the mountain tops, the sharpness and clarity of his mind is all

stuffed in one corner of their bivouac ledge, Hamish was determined to continue. Aided by Don, Chris and Paul, Hamish doggedly persisted. With Don continually growling that they were almost there, cloud began expectantly gathering over the surrounding aiguilles. Day three, summit day, saw the weather deteriorate and by day four all four climbers were on their knees. Hamish’s hands were dangerously cold, his gloves mislaid somewhere behind them. An Austrian party ahead of them was also tiring and a wrong turn during the descent had put them on the wrong side of the Flamme des Pierres. The group returned to the Charpoua hut, battered, cold but happy, Hamish clearly requiring treatment. Hamish is visibly proud of such ascents, and I’m struck by how that perseverance is most definitely still there. Curiosity and tenacity has been a potent mix upon returning from Glasgow, and it’s not been enough for Hamish to simply to drag his mind back from the brink. He’s done it in a



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