The Orotava Valley, on the island of Tenerife,
awakened to a sunny day late in February 1963. It was a relief after such heavy
rains and Mount Teide sparkled invitingly high above, showing off its finest
costume. Business carried on as usual in the gentle and picturesque town of
Puerto de la Cruz.

Puerto de la Cruz in the early 1960s

     However,
there appeared to be a commotion that Tuesday morning at the Honorary British
Vice-Consul’s office. A rather distressed, middle-aged English lady and a good looking
young gentleman appeared to be having a heated discussion. They were led across
the Spanish courtyard and up the magnificent wooden staircase to the first floor of
what was known as La Casa Reid. That
was where Noel Reid shared offices with his brother Rio.

     When Mr.
Reid returned home late for lunch he explained to his wife that he had had a
busy morning dealing with the case of a fellow Scotsman who appeared to have
got lost on Mount Teide.

     The lady
and her husband, Dr. Graham McPhee arrived at the Las Vegas Hotel in Puerto on
Friday, 22nd February for a fortnight’s holiday. She recalled that as their aeroplane descended over Tenerife her husband spotted Mount
Teide covered in a heavy blanket of snow and exclaimed, “I must climb that mountain!” She protested. He had promised to take
her away to a warmer climate in order to recover from illness and she was so tired of mountains. “It’s just an afternoon’s stroll”, he
replied. After
all, George Graham McPhee was a well-known and accomplished mountaineer and he would be back in time for tea. 

Mount Teide from the air

     Born and
educated in Glasgow, he joined the Highland Light Infantry at the age of
seventeen. He transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and was a pilot over France
before being shot down and made prisoner in 1917. After the war he graduated at Glasgow
University before finishing his medical studies in Vienna. But his heart was in
challenging mountains and by the time he married Jean Craigie in 1930 this most
attractive personality had climbed every peak in the United Kingdom. As his
friend, Iain Ogilvie remarked in his obituary, “he possessed an incorrigible sense of fun and was at times outrageous”.
In fact his application to join the Alpine Club in 1934 would have failed had
it been known that he had climbed the south face of the Aiguille
Noir de Peuterée
 unaccompanied. He made eleven first ascents in the Swiss Alps in 1935 and climbed the same eleven 4,000m peaks,
crossed the Zermatt mountains and spent
seventeen hours on Le Dent d’Hérens when he was sixty.
After returning to the climbers’ hut his colleagues were ready for bed, but he
preferred the comfort of a hot bath and continued on his own in the blizzard to their
hotel nine miles down the valley. After that feat, in a speech by a fellow mountaineer at a meeting of the Alpine Club, he was referred to as a remarkable old gentleman. He replied, rather angered by the description, “I am neither remarkable nor old!”.

Le Dent d’Hérens in the Swiss Alps

     There was
no stopping this remarkable old gentleman…….except, it appears, his afternoon stroll on Tenerife’s peak.
News of his death even reached Australia during the visit of Queen Elizabeth
and the Duke of Edinburgh and on 4th March the Sidney Morning Herald
reported “the body of Dr. George Graham
McPhee, of Heversham, Westmorland, was found on Teide Mountain. Lady Hunt, wife
of mountaineer Sir John Hunt, made five lone ascents on the snow-covered
mountain to search for her friend before hikers found his body”. 
In fact the hikers were local Canary Island guides. Lady
Joy Hunt, who was accompanying the McPhees on the island holiday, had learnt to
climb in the Himalayas with her husband, Sir John, of Everest fame.

Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir John Hunt and Tenzing Norgay

     As far as an old diary can tell, the first thing Dr. McPhee did the day after arriving
at the hotel in Puerto de la Cruz was to ask at the reception desk about the
possibility of climbing Mount Teide. He was inspected as if he were quite mad.
Nobody climbed the volcano at this time of year! It was the closed season. It
was far too dangerous. Besides, the three young men who acted as guides for adventurous British visitors were not usually available at least until April.

The Las Vegas Hotel in 1963

     A young
Italian tour representative overheard the conversation at the Las Vegas and intervened. He
claimed to be an expert guide and said it would be a pleasure to take the sixty
five year old Briton up the mountain. Another young English couple also joined
the conversation at the reception desk and it was agreed the Italian would take
them all up in to the mountains early the following morning in his own car. In their report to the British and Spanish authorities the Italian and the young English couple said they drove as far as the old Guardia Civil outpost which used to be close to the foot of
the magnificent volcano. It was a beautiful Sunday morning, the snow
sparkling in the warm sunshine, and they set off in spite of the guardias warning that it would be unwise
to climb Teide because the sun and the wind had turned the snow into ice. Indeed, the English couple soon realised the climb was too much for them and
suggested they all return to base. McPhee is said to have replied “If I make up my mind to do something I
don’t give up when I meet difficulties”
. The Italian guide also began to
feel that he might have made a terrible mistake and tried to persuade the Briton to turn
back. But the mountaineer was determined and the Italian was honourable enough
to keep his word. So, while the other two returned to the car McPhee and his
guide went on. 
     
     When I
was a twelve year old boy, before the cable car was installed to ferry visitors
up the slopes of Mount Teide, I was invited to climb the volcano by a group of
medical students from the University of La Laguna. They treated me like some
kind of lucky mascot and I was given a piggyback ride on the last stretch when
sulphurous fumes made me sick. It was midsummer, there was no snow and we set
off in the early evening to avoid the worst of the day’s heat and to capture the spectacular sight of Teide’s shadow at sunrise. 

At dawn, on Teide’s summit, looking at its own shadow as the sun rises.

     It was not a
difficult climb for a fit person following the mule track to the Altavista
refuge station three quarters of the way up, but the climb still took four
hours. The original refuge, just a simple, volcanic stone wall to keep his
instruments out of the wind, was erected by British astronomer Charles Piazzi
Smyth. He spent sixty five days on Mount Teide in 1856.

    Another Englishman,
George Graham-Toler, contracted the same builder who built the Anglican All
Saints Church in Puerto de la Cruz to erect Altavista, providing proper
habitable quarters in the 1890s. His idea was to offer climbers a place to rest
and get used to the height, but he also charged a small sum to intrepid British
visitors who wished to shelter for the night on the volcano with their mules.
Graham-Toler’s Altavista

     Dr.
McPhee’s Italian guide described how they had gone to the refuge, not to rest
but to leave their backpacks before tackling the summit. He insisted
they had reached the top, where they took photographs inside the crater and of
the spectacular view below them before starting their descent down the icy
surface. McPhee began to complain of cramp in his legs and told the Italian to
go down to Altavista ahead of him in order to retrieve their belongings. “I will follow you down and meet you at the
bottom”
, he told the young guide. When the Italian returned
to the mule track he could not see the old climber coming down behind him and assumed he
must have already gone down ahead. But when he reached the car
he only found the young English couple waiting. They went to ask the Guardia Civil. No, the man they had warned
against climbing the peak had not been. The group drove to the recently opened National
Parador hotel further down in the island’s sunken Cañadas landcape where they waited until after dark. Eventually Jean McPhee asked
to be taken back to Puerto de la Cruz. She was concerned, but quite accustomed to
her husband altering course at the last minute if he met an interesting
challenge high up on a mountain. It must have been a very sleepless night for
the young Italian, however and he returned to climb the volcano again early the following morning in freezing conditions. He called and shouted all the way up and
down, but there was no sign of McPhee.

Dr. George Graham McPhee, a very determined character.
(in a photograph from The Scottish Mountaineering Club)
     It was only on the Tuesday morning that
Mrs. McPhee decided to seek help at the Reids’ office and an immediate rescue
operation was ordered. A spotter plane carried out continuous passes over the
snow-covered slopes. The Guardia Civil searched the mountain day and night. They were joined by three local mountain
guides and Lady Hunt who spent the next four and a half days combing Mount Teide.
Even seventy one year old Noel Reid joined in. But it was futile and nobody will ever know if McPhee might have survived had his disappearance been reported immediately. He was an accomplished mountaineer, but not equipped on this occasion, wearing only plimsolls, for survival on the frozen slopes of a volcano at the height of
12,000 feet.
 
La Casa Reid in the 1960s

     The body was discovered a long way from the mule
track he should have been following. It is thought he lost his footing while taking a photograph and
slid for some considerable distance down the icy slopes.
George Graham McPhee was buried in what was locally known as la cherche, or today as el cementerio inglés, the English cemetery
in Puerto de la Cruz.

     The Guardia Civil confiscated the unfortunate Italian guide’s camera during their
investigations. It seemed rather a cruel thing to do but to begin with Jean McPhee
seemed reluctant to believe his account. Nevertheless, when his film and that in
McPhee’s own camera were developed the photographs confirmed that both men had
reached the summit. The Italian had been telling the truth. Perhaps they should
have planted the Union Jack and il
Tricolore
on the rim of the crater.

The rim of Teide’s crater
     The expected
news was broken to Mrs. McPhee at the Reid’s house, in the company of Mr. Fox, the British Consul in Santa Cruz and Reverend Evans-Gregory, the chaplain
at All Saints Church in Puerto. Jean McPhee returned to England almost
immediately. In the old diary, Noel Reid’s wife, Annette, who had spent time
trying to comfort and encourage her almost every day, noted “Mrs. McPhee gave me the impression of being
strong, brave and patient.”


     Later in
the year Noel Reid received a package from Lady Hunt. It contained three woollen
pullovers and three mountaineering ice picks. He was to hand them over to the
three local mountain guides who had helped search for Dr. McPhee. Lady Hunt had
been very impressed by the dedication, not only of the Guardia Civil police officers but also of the three local mountain
guides. They had climbed the freezing Mount Teide for four days without any
anoraks or warm clothing and wore only the local lona footwear, made from sacking material and rubber soles.

     McPhee,
the expert British mountaineer, was not the first and he will not be the last victim
to belittle Mount Teide, the dormant pride of Tenerife and the Canary
Islands. 

By John Reid Young

Author of The Skipping Verger and Other Tales


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