Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges —
Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!
Rudyard Kipling, The Explorer
The occupation mountaineer or even explorer doesn’t begin to describe the life of Hamish MacInnes, who in his 90 years pioneered the art of mountain rescue, invented an ice axe, a tent and a stretcher, made many first ascents all over the world, engaged as a cameraman in umpteen films and documentaries, and somehow managed to write nearly 40 books on a range of subjects in his spare time.
I’ve just finished reading one of those books Look Behind the Ranges, a collection of essays describing his adventures in various parts of the world. It was written in 1979, barely halfway through his life, and neatly captures just how extraordinary that life had been. Its 12 chapters cover exploits as diverse as a shoestring attempt on Mount Everest, panning for gold in New Zealand, yeti hunting in the Himalayas, traversing frosty mountaintops in the Caucasus, and assisting Hollywood movie stars with their climbing stunts.
This selection of stories from Hamish MacInnes’s life provides some good examples of how rapidly things can progress from exploration to civilisation. In fact, for me this was the book’s main theme, though I’m not sure that Hamish MacInnes intended it to be.
This theme is best illustrated by the book’s title. ‘Look behind the ranges’ is a quotation from Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Explorer that provides the epigraph to the book’s first chapter (and this blog post). Written in 1898, the poem is about a man who is living a cosy life in a ‘comfortable little border station tucked away below foothills’. One day he hears an inner voice urging him to abandon this life and go and look for ‘something lost behind the ranges’.
He steals away from his friends and crosses a high pass where a north wind freezes and kills his ponies. He thinks about turning back for safety, but the voice urges him on across the pass. He descends into a land of shrubs, flowers and streams, and continues into a desert, where he spends many lonely nights building campfires and talking to imaginary voices.
Eventually he crosses the desert and reaches an uninhabited land of lush grass, forests and rushing water that he describes as ‘white man’s country’ – he knows that this is a land that humans can build on and exploit. He foresees the civilisation (and destruction) that will follow his discovery: sites of future cities… unharnessed rapids wasting fifty thousand head an hour… plant to feed a people– up and waiting for the power… ores you’ll find there; wood and cattle; water—transit sure and steady.
He also believes that others will take the credit for what he discovered, and name land and rivers after themselves, without experiencing the joy, the pain, the fears and the hardships that he did. Foreseeing all this, he has regrets. ‘God forgive me!’ he cries, but he reconciles this with the thought that it was a higher voice that brought him here, and if not he then others would have found it anyway. The modern version of Kipling’s poem and its logical sequel is the Dire Straits song Telegraph Road.
The first chapter of Look Behind the Ranges, Impecunious Peregrinations (or penniless journeys in plain English), describes a futile plan to climb Everest in the 1950s. Hamish was living in New Zealand when he learned of a cache of food left in the Western Cwm by the 1952 Swiss expedition team. His friend John Cunningham from the Creagh Dhu Club, a Glasgow climbing club, was also living in New Zealand, and the two of them decided to launch a shoestring and illegal attempt on Everest that would take advantage of the cache. They switched their objective to Pumori when they learned that Everest had just been climbed by Tenzing and Hillary.
This may sound like a pioneering adventure, but in terms of Kipling’s timeline, this is somewhere midway along. The land has been discovered and the white man is moving in. The British have already named Everest after their Surveyor General and the Khumbu region of Nepal is firmly inhabited. Hamish treats the ‘natives’ (as he calls them) with disdain. He mocks the monks who give him shelter in Tengboche Monastery as grasping, steals turnips from a villager, and insensitively butchers a sheep in front of his Buddhist guide despite his protestations. He has little empathy with any of the people who help him, sneering patronisingly at them and turning them into the butt of his cruel jokes. It’s very much a book of its time whose language may cause the modern reader to wince.
Sixty years later, the Khumbu region of Nepal has changed beyond recognition thanks to the success of the trekking industry and commercial mountaineering on Everest. If they could see Everest now, the early pioneers may also be crying ‘God forgive me!’ But even in the 2020s Everest and the Khumbu region is only about three verses into Telegraph Road. There is still a long way to go.
The next two chapters, Callery Gold and The Prospect of Christmas, describe Hamish’s fortune hunting in New Zealand. In the first he pans for gold in a valley that has already been mined of all riches by previous generations of prospectors. In the second, he hunts for precious shells on the beaches of Fiordland. This area remains a little more pristine and the adventure is more fruitful. He is unable to reach his rendezvous with an aircraft beside a lake because the jungle is too dense to find a way through.
But it’s not that pristine. Afterwards, he goes to attempt an unclimbed peak called West Twin, and is surprised to be recognised by a stranger in a remote hut in Fiordland’s Darran Mountains.
‘You’re Hamish MacInnes?’ the man says. ‘We did some climbing together in Glencoe. Remember Raven’s Gully with Chris Bonington?’
New Zealand had already reached the end of Kipling’s timeline by the time Hamish lived there. But Kipling’s explorer couldn’t possibly have predicted the changes in mountaineering that Hamish helped to drive. Five chapters of the book (Man o’Hoy, The Matterhorn Live, St Kilda, Stop-Go on the Eiger and The Eiger Sanction) describe his forays into adventure filming. In the first three he was working for the BBC’s Outside Broadcast unit. It was a time when – would you believe it – people tuned in to watch live rock climbing on TV. Hamish worked as a cameraman, climbing alongside more famous contemporaries such as Joe Brown and Chris Bonington, filming them as they described their climbing moves. His talent as an inventor meant that he also found himself rigging up elaborate rope and pulley systems to film otherwise inaccessible rock faces.
These activities reached their zenith when he received a personal invitation from Clint Eastwood to act as the main safety consultant for the Hollywood blockbuster The Eiger Sanction. There was a scene where he had to hang a horizontal ladder like a diving board from a ledge hundreds of metres up the North Face of the Eiger. A vertical ladder rested on the ledge on top of the horizontal one. Its top was connected to the tip of the diving board by ropes. Clint the movie legend performed all his own stunts. He had to dangle into space below the end of the ladder and cut one of two ropes holding him in place with a knife while three dummies were thrown past him to simulate falling climbers.
What Kipling and his fictional explorer would have made of all this we can only guess. Likewise Hamish MacInnes died in 2020, when drone photography was already firmly established. I don’t know if anyone ever asked him what he thought of that, but it would certainly have saved him a spot of bother.
Kipling died in 1936, which means all of his works are out of copyright. So, in a first for the Footsteps on the Mountain blog, here is a poem.
The Explorer by Rudyard Kipling
“There’s no sense in going further —it’s the edge of cultivation,”
So they said, and I believed it– broke my land and sowed my crop –
Built my barns and strung my fences in the little border station
Tucked away below the foothills where the trails run out and stop:
Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated —so:
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges —
”Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”
So I went, worn out of patience; never told my nearest neighbours—
Stole away with pack and ponies– left ’em drinking in the town;
And the faith that moveth mountains didn’t seem to help my labours
As I faced the sheer main—ranges, whipping up and leading down.
March by march I puzzled through ’em, turning flanks and dodging shoulders,
Hurried on in hope of water, headed back for lack of grass;
Till I camped above the tree—line– drifted snow and naked boulders –
Felt free air astir to windward —knew I’d stumbled on the Pass.
‘Thought to name it for the finder: but that night the Norther found me —
Froze and killed the plains—bred ponies; so I called the camp Despair
(It’s the Railway Gap to—day, though). Then my Whisper waked to hound me: —
“Something lost behind the Ranges. Over yonder! Go you there!”
Then I knew, the while I doubted —knew His Hand was certain o’er me.
Still —it might be self—delusion– scores of better men had died –
I could reach the township living, but … He knows what terror tore me…
But I didn’t… but I didn’t. I went down the other side.
Till the snow ran out in flowers, and the flowers turned to aloes,
And the aloes sprung to thickets and a brimming stream ran by;
But the thickets dwined to thorn—scrub, and the water drained to shallows,
And I dropped again on desert —blasted earth, and blasting sky….
I remember lighting fires; I remember sitting by ‘em;
I remember seeing faces, hearing voices, through the smoke;
I remember they were fancy —for I threw a stone to try ’em.
“Something lost behind the Ranges” was the only word they spoke.
I remember going crazy. I remember that I knew it
When I heard myself hallooing to the funny folk I saw.
‘Very full of dreams that desert, but my two legs took me through it…
And I used to watch ’em moving with the toes all black and raw.
But at last the country altered —White Man’s country past disputing –
Rolling grass and open timber, with a hint of hills behind—
There I found me food and water, and I lay a week recruiting.
Got my strength and lost my nightmares. Then I entered on my find.
Thence I ran my first rough survey —chose my trees and blazed and ringed ‘em –
Week by week I pried and sampled– week by week my findings grew.
Saul he went to look for donkeys, and by God he found a kingdom!
But by God, who sent His Whisper, I had struck the worth of two!
Up along the hostile mountains, where the hair—poised snowslide shivers —
Down and through the big fat marshes that the virgin ore—bed stains,
Till I heard the mile—wide mutterings of unimagined rivers,
And beyond the nameless timber saw illimitable plains!
’Plotted sites of future cities, traced the easy grades between ‘em;
Watched unharnessed rapids wasting fifty thousand head an hour;
Counted leagues of water—frontage through the axe—ripe woods that screen ’em –
Saw the plant to feed a people– up and waiting for the power!
Well, I know who’ll take the credit– all the clever chaps that followed –
Came, a dozen men together —never knew my desert—fears;
Tracked me by the camps I’d quitted, used the water—holes I hollowed.
They’ll go back and do the talking. They’ll be called the Pioneers!
They will find my sites of townships– not the cities that I set there.
They will rediscover rivers– not my rivers heard at night.
By my own old marks and bearings they will show me how to get there,
By the lonely cairns I builded they will guide my feet aright.
Have I named one single river? Have I claimed one single acre?
Have I kept one single nugget —(barring samples)? No, not I!
Because my price was paid me ten times over by my Maker.
But you wouldn’t understand it. You go up and occupy.
Ores you’ll find there; wood and cattle; water—transit sure and steady
(That should keep the railway rates down), coal and iron at your doors.
God took care to hide that country till He judged His people ready,
Then He chose me for His Whisper, and I’ve found it, and it’s yours!
Yes, your “Never—never country” —yes, your “edge of cultivation”
And “no sense in going further” —till I crossed the range to see.
God forgive me! No, I didn’t. It’s God’s present to our nation.
Anybody might have found it, but —His Whisper came to Me!