Mick Tighe and the making of a mountain man

Legendary mountain man Mick Tighe is known to thousands of Scotland’s hill walking and climbing community as something of a local hero,

  • Full feature in Issue No. 2

Photograph by: Gerry McCannMick Tighe

Tighe, who was last year named Mountain Culture Ambassador 2016, at the Fort William Mountain Festival is renowned as a mountain guide, mountain rescue expert and collector of mountain memorabilia.

His anointment as an Ambassador put him in the ranks of many other esteemed mountaineering giants. Since the inauguration of the award in 2008, recipients have included Hamish Macinnes, Richard Else, Jimmy Marshall, Ian Sykes, Dr. Adam Watson, Myrtle Simpson, Andy Nisbett, and Robin Cambell, all of whom are personally known to Mick.

Born in Derbyshire in 1950 Tighe worked on a farm till he was 17 but the call of adventure beckoned and he joined the Royal Marines, completing tours of duty in Singapore, Malaysia, and Northern Ireland. As a qualified instructor in Mountain and Arctic warfare, Tighe worked closely with Alpine troops and the French Foreign Legion, spending several winters in Arctic Norway at the spearhead of NATO’s Cold War military defence.

In all, his 10 years as a winter warrior served as an ideal apprenticeship to his becoming a British and international Mountain Guide in 1979 and his work as an instructor with the Joint Services Mountain Training Centre at Tulloch.

In 1982 Mick started his own guiding business, Nevis Guides, and still leads clients on expeditions to Ben Nevis and Glencoe, as well as taking them climbing on sea cliffs on the islands. On the cliffs he has completed around one thousand first ascents, many in the company of clients.

Summer Alpine trips have continued over the past 35 years and the Canadian Rockies have also become a speciality. Cross country ski trips to Norway also continue to be a passion, and he has recently started a project to ski as many of the Munros as he can.

The former marine who lives just up the road from the Commando Memorial in Glen Roy has also been on call pretty much continuously as a member of the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team. Indeed, he has built up such expertise in the role that he was the National Training officer for all of Scotland’s mountain rescue teams for 10 years. An unknown number of walkers and climbers owe their lives to his skills, and passion for saving those in trouble. He is also well-known for getting less able people with disabilities up the Big Bad Ben, even arranging helicopter back-up.

Photograph by: Gerry McCannGlencoe. The view from Stob Coire nan Lochan over the Aonach Eagach Ridge and to Ben Nevis with the Carn Mor Dearg arete to the right of the summit.

Mick Tighe is a versatile man with insatiable curiosity which has remained with him since the day he started his climbing career.

“Not wishing to buck the national trend and coming from good Irish tinker stock, I started collecting mountaineering gear somewhere back in the midsts of time, and the project enhanced my career as a mountain guide,” said Mick, whose collection has grown at a rate of knots akin to a Ben Nevis storm.
Mick is acutely aware of the social history aspect of what is now the Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection.

“The gentleman mountaineer of the late 1800s, with his rich portmanteau, gave way to the working class folk of the 1920s, who were able to access the hills courtesy of strange inventions such as the bicycle, and to cook meals on, a Primus stove rather than an open fire,” said Mick.

“They would buy old military gear if they could afford to, or make their own if they couldn’t. A similar era ensued after World War Two, and each of these eras has left a legacy of equipment and literature which we now collect, if you like, as the antiques of the mountaineer. It ‘s become a personal scrum of junk .Pungent Optimus stove aromas would assault the nostrils when the door was opened and a wrong move could trigger an avalanche of wooden skis, old ice-axes and rucksacks.”

Along the way there have been acquisitions of real gems. The SMHC houses the precious altimeter of Harold Raeburn, regarded by many as the father of Scottish mountaineering.

There are also the tricouni nailed boots of the famous guide book writer Walter Arthur Poucher, though not the gold lammy gloves or eye-liner the eccentric perfumier was reputed to wear on the hill. Another find is the writing desk of the Ullapool GP and climbing pioneer Tom Patey, which for reasons unclear, was on its way to a skip.

A few years ago some Heritage Lottery money was awarded to the SMHC for its contents to be archived and catalogued and this depended on it becoming a charity. In a slightly surreal episode Mick, by now the chairman of trustees had to write a letter to himself, thereby handing over the collection to himself, and this at a stage in which no-one actually knew what the collection contained. The money ran out in 2010 though donations continue today, but there is a proviso that the volunteers at the collection cannot value items.

Photograph by: Gerry McCannMick Tighe with some of his collection

On presenting Mick Tighe with the Mountain Culture Ambassador for 2016 for a raft of achievements over many decades in the mountains. Mike Pescod of the Highland Mountain Culture Association, said: “Mick embodies the spirit of mountaineering perfectly, from its slightly rebellious side to its cultural side.

“Mick has dedicated his life to mountaineering and has helped others to do so as well. It was Mick who first came to rescue me after an accident 11 years ago, so it is on a very personal level that I am delighted he received recipient the award.”

Mick is known as irreverent and epitomises the rebel to the point where one wag has said, “the next time he’s hanging off a cliff he’ll be in a gibbet.” But he is also a sensitive man, being a member of a local poetry club. He lives with his wife Kathy, a doctor in Fort William and can be reticent about other experiences. It takes a bit of teasing out to get his tales from film sets where he works as safety advisor, but these anecdotes include, attaching a harness to Michelle Pfeifer and the Hoff on Skye, and taking Lauren Bacall for a hill walk.