George Graham Macphee (1898-1963)
George Graham Macphee (at window) & Alan McNicol - CIC Hut c. 1951 Photo: Tom Weir
G.G. Macphee was born in Glasgow in 1898. Neither of his parents were interested in mountaineering, though Macphee made his first of many ascents of Ben Nevis when he was aged eight. He was educated in Glasgow, and when World War I broke out he joined the H.L.I. (Highland Light Infantry) in 1915, aged 17. Transferring to the Royal Flying Corps (the one which Harold Raeburn was desperate to join), he flew as a pilot in France, where he was shot down and made a prisoner.
After the war he became a medical student at Glasgow University, though there was then no Mountaineering Club at the University. After graduation he studied in Vienna, before returning to Liverpool and practising dentistry, in which he had also graduated. Eventually he ran two dental practices as well as holding an academic post at Liverpool University.
Macphee began climbing in about 1924, with trips to the Lake District, Wales and the Alps, though Scotland remained his favourite area. Two years later he joined the SMC. He did much hard work for the Mountain Rescue Committee. He was also active with the University Mountaineering Club in Liverpool, passing on his experience to younger members. There is a certain irony here, as his great rival J.H.B. Bell was also helpful in this area, being a bridge between two very different generations. Bell, in fact, was born two years’ earlier than Macphee, and though they climbed together on several occasions, they were probably like two similar magnetic poles – thereafter staying apart.
In 1930 Macphee had climbed The Crack on Deer Bield Crag in the Lakes, a Hard Very Severe and a mark of his competence. This was with A.T. Hargeaves of the Fell & Rock C.C. The following year Hargreaves and Macphee spent several days on Nevis, staying at the C.I.C. Hut, which had been formally opened in 1929. They opened up Carn Dearg Buttress with the first ascent of Route I. They also made an early ascent of Raeburn’s Arete, which Macphee thought was one of the finest routes on the mountain.
The lack of a decent length of rope was proving to be a handicap, especially on a route such as Raeburn’s Arete, with several long runouts necessary (and normally no protection available either). By now, 1931, the guide to Nevis was long out of date, the previous one being a revision in 1919 by MacRobert. They climbed what they thought was a new route – in fact it was Pigott’s Route on The Comb, which had been climbed in 1921. With his obvious energy, and enthusiasm for climbing on Nevis, Macphee was the obvious person to edit a new edition of the guide, which he began that year.
In the Alps, he was active throughout the 1930s, in August 1933 making several first ascents. One of these was a route up the south face of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, done solo as his companion, an expert rock climber, had turned back on encountering the easy glacier approach. Back in Scotland, for his Nevis guidebook he was making a remarkable series of weekend trips from Liverpool to Fort William. His Bentley helped make the driving bearable, cruising up to Glasgow on a Friday night, picking up climbing partners there and continuing on to Nevis. The round trip was some 640 miles, and this was before the new road was built approaching and through Glen Coe.
By the early 1930s, winter climbing in Scotland was still in stasis, with nothing of note having been climbed on Nevis since Raeburn’s magnificent ascent of Observatory Ridge in 1920. There had been a stretch of some ten years’ of poor winters since then, and Raeburn and his contemporaries had been guilty of pulling a veil of modesty over their climbs. Young climbers were about, there was a swelling movement to the outdoors, but a lack of awareness of the winter potential awaiting their attention. Someone had to trigger a change, and that someone was Macphee.
In March 1935 Macphee was busy on the guidebook work. He went up to the C.I.C. Hut with two J.M.C.S. friends, George Williams and Drummond Henderson. Their target was the prominent gully which descends into Coire na Ciste from the Tower Gap, now called Glover’s Chimney. On the17th March, after a late start, Macphee tied on to a 200-foot length of line, and began cutting steps up the formidable first pitch of steep snow and ice which formed a barrier to the easier middle section of the gully. Hard climbing and poor conditions meant that it was 8 p.m. before they gained the final steep chimney, leading up to Tower Gap. It was 10 p.m. before the plateau was reached, where Macphee, with typical thoroughness, had to walk over to the summit to tick another ascent.
Williams wrote up the ascent, published in November 1935. It had an inspirational effect on young climbers, who recognised that here was a chance to do something different, new and exciting. Winter climbing in Scotland, after a long time in the doldrums, was once more on the move. Macphee climbed 11 first ascents in 1935, which marks his zenith of exploratory climbing. The guidebook was published in 1936, acting as a further spur to climbing activities. His old adversary Bell wrote the SMCJ review of the guide, and was fair and even generous in his summary. Macphee became President of the SMC, from 1952-54, and in 1954, along with a new edition of his guidebook, he completed his 100th ascent of Ben Nevis. He also spent his 100th night in the C.I.C. Hut.
In 1958, when he was 60, he made his last trip to the Alps, for the Centenary Meet of the Alpine Club at Zermatt. After climbing 11 peaks of over 4,000 metres, he climbed the Dent d’Hérens, finishing in a snowstorm. His party left the hut at 1.30 a.m., returned at 5 p.m., and, after a 30-minute break for a meal, returned to Zermatt at 9 p.m.The following evening, the President of the Alpine Club, in his dinner speech, made the error of referring to this ascent by a ‘remarkable elderly gentleman.’ Macphee was of course unhappy with this remark, saying afterwards that he was ‘neither remarkable nor old.’
There is a bitter irony to Macphee’s untimely death. In February 1963 he and his wife had a holiday in the Canary Islands, where his wife was to recuperate from an illness. Macphee took no climbing or walking equipment, but could not resist the obvious challenge of a walk up El Tide, the local mountain. There was an unusual amount of snow and ice on the mountain, and Macphee was wearing plimsolls. Standing on the edge of a gorge to photograph the view, he slipped and fell to his death. He was buried on the island.
Finest Moment: First ascent Route I, Ben Nevis (1929); First winter ascent Glover’s Chimney, Ben Nevis (1935); First winter ascent (solo) South Gully, Ben Nevis (1936).
Bibliography: ‘In Memoriam’ by W.B. Spiers (,SMCJ,1964, Vol. 28, pp.50-51); ‘Ben Nevis Guide Book’, By G. Graham Macphee (SMC: Edinburgh: Douglas & Foulis, 1936); ‘Days on Ben Nevis’, By G.C. Williams (SMCJ, 1935, Vol. 20, pp. 394-400); ‘Ben Nevis – Britain’s Highest Mountain’, Ken Crocket (1986, Scottish Mountaineering Trust).