Obituary: Hamish Nicol

Click to follow
The Independent Online
As one of the leading British mountaineers of his generation, Hamish Nicol narrowly missed a place on the 1953 Everest expedition. Throughout his career as a successful doctor, mountains remained his great recreation. He died after a fall whilst rock climbing at Land's End.

Nicol was born in Hong Kong in 1929. During the Second World War, while his father was interned by the Japanese, he was evacuated to Canada with his mother. After the war the family lived in Edinburgh, where he attended Fettes College and Edinburgh University, reading French and Economics. He left Edinburgh in 1947 to do his National Service in the Royal Artillery, then went up to Balliol College, Oxford, to read Medicine.

By now he had already spent one season climbing in the Alps, and a contemporary in the Oxford University Mountaineering Club, Michael Westmacott, recalls that "when Hamish arrived, he certainly made waves. He was extremely energetic and enthusiastic."

For his second Alpine season, in 1950, Nicol teamed up with another Balliol mountaineer, Tom Bourdillon, to make the first British ascent of the north face of the Dru, above Chamonix. In those days the route had a formidable reputation and this was the first time for many years that British climbers had tackled anything so close to the cutting edge of alpinism.

Equally ambitious in his native Scottish hills, Nicol the following winter attempted the then unclimbed, notorious ice runnel of Zero Gully, on Ben Nevis. At that time ice climbing was still an extremely precarious business and he fell off, sustaining serious injuries. That accident, together with another unlucky slip in 1952, may have been the reason he was not selected for Everest in 1953. He was, however, asked to be a reserve member of the team. While his friend Bourdillon reached the south summit of Everest, Nicol returned to Oxford, celebrating the Coronation with a night ascent of that masterpiece of English baroque, the Radcliffe Camera, leaving a white bow tie on the summit.

In 1955 both men returned to the Alps, climbing some of the hardest routes in the Mont Blanc massif and crowning a brilliant season with an early repeat of the east face of the Grand Capucin. This spectacular impending wall of red granite, first climbed in 1951 by the Italian master Walter Bonatti, required advanced artificial technique using pitons - a technique which the Englishmen had first practised on a suitably overhanging tree in Bourdillon's Buckinghamshire garden.

They intended to climb together again the following summer, but Nicol arrived a day after his friend at the remote Baltschiedertal, in Switzerland, to find Bourdillon and another contemporary, Dick Viney, lying roped together, dead, at the foot of a climb. Writing in the Alpine Journal much later, Nicol recalled:

They were buried simply in Visp cemetery after a short service of which I could see and hear nothing because my eyes were tight shut. It seemed to be the the only thing to do, the only way I could attempt to blot out the awfulness of that dreadful day.

Even now, nearly 40 years later, I am unable to speak about it or confront it without emotion . . . I did not climb again for five years and came back to it slowly, at a much lower standard, in 1961.

He turned to medicine, gaining wide clinical experience as casualty officer, house surgeon and anaesthetist at St Thomas's Hospital, London, then in obstetrics and gynaecology at Odstock Hospital, Salisbury. In 1958 he married another doctor, Mary Walker, and the two of them moved to Stratford- upon-Avon, to join the practice of Archibald McWhinney.

Nicol loved the life of a GP, and brought to it his own adventurous energy, at one stage, for instance, taking a course in hypnotism to enhance his treatment of patients with psychological problems. He also took a keen interest in the ambulance service, initiating a training course in advanced life- support skills, which resulted in many saved lives in south Warwickshire.

The Nicols had a son and a daughter and family holidays were usually spent in the mountains, walking, skiing and canoeing. At a more ambitious level, Nicol, despite his claim to be a poor skier, took part in the 1972 British ski traverse of the Alps. He climbed several Himalayan peaks and continued throughout his life to enjoy rock climbing in Britain.

Like the other reserves, he remained very much a part of the 1953 Everest team, regularly attending reunions in Snowdonia, the Alps and Nepal, where he and his wife Mary devoted many hours to the medical needs of local people at impromptu camp surgeries. He was a vice-president of the Alpine Club (1986-87) and served as president of the Climbers Club from 1972, the year it decided to admit women members, until 1975.

Hamish Nicol was a popular man; his funeral was attended by over 600 colleagues, patients and mountaineers, who will miss his wit and his infectious enthusiasm.

Hamish Gordon Nicol, medical practitioner and mountaineer: born Hong Kong 6 June 1929; married 1958 Mary Walker (one son, one daughter); died 17 May 1997.

Comments