Neil Mackenzie: A Life Well Lived

Neil Mackenzie died whilst climbing near Vancouver in Canada in January 2015; he fell to his death together with two female companions.  He was 31and, although it sounds trite to say, he was too young.  But it’s true; Neil had so much to look forward to and had such huge potential.  We’re greatly saddened by his death.

He was our son Andy’s best friend; they had known each other for 10 years and had shared flats in Edinburgh for 5.  Neil & Andrew, together with a small group of other close friends had completed hundreds of climbs together both in the UK and abroad, summer and winter.  I got to know Neil through Andrew.  ‘The gang’ would use our home in Newtonmore as a base to go climbing and, if time allowed, we fed and watered them before they headed for home.  We had some lively debates around the table.  Neil always came across as a very intelligent and interested person with strong opinions.  Despite the huge gap in our ages I thought of him as a friend.  We also met him sometimes when we visited their flats in Edinburgh.  As is the case with many young people sharing, the flats were a bit ‘untidy’; doing the washing up was never at the top of the agenda.  Andy tells me that Neil was the best flatmate you could ever wish for.

I feel fortunate to have spent two days on the hill with Neil.  Both illustrate the kind of guy he was.  The first was a winter day with a thaw & a severe lack of snow in February 2012.  In his dodgy van with doors that didn’t quite close properly and steering that wasn’t quite right we drove to Craig Meagaidh car park.  Our route was; Aberarder – Carn Liath (1006m) – Coire Nan Gall – Coire Dubh – Coire a Bhein – Carn Dubh (767m) – Dirk an Uillt Fhearna – Garvamore.  Andy and I carried all the usual winter gear, Neil wore his snowboarding boots and carried his board, though he did have an ice-axe.  There were some soggy snow fields at about 3000’, just below the ridge, so every time we came across one, Neil would strap on his board and disappear into the mist whooping and hollering.  When the slushy snow ran out he would clamber back up to join us and repeat the process at the next snowfield.  He did find the walk a bit tough in boarding boots; what a zest for adventure and an example of lateral thinking.  In my mountaineering log I wrote “The day was enlivened by Neil walking in his snowboarding boots, backpacking his board and then descending every feasible bit of snow.  7 1/2 miles walking resulted in over 30 slushy turns, well done that man.”

In December the same year conditions were very different with excellent snow cover and high pressure.  This time it was me, our two boys, Andy (touring skis) and Duncan (home-made split board), plus Neil (split board) and Paolo from New Zealand (on foot, carrying his board).  Our route was Ski Car Park – Fiacaill Ridge – Cairngorm (1238m) – towards Loch Avon – Cairngorm again – piste to Car Park.  Once we reached Cairngorm all hell gleefully broke loose as we skied and boarded and whooped our way towards Loch Avon in good, if occasionally tricky, conditions; it was a fabulous run, we stopped at 1050m when the good slopes ended and just before the cliffs started, then skinned back up to Cairngorm.  At that point I had had enough, but not Neil, so he and the others set off to repeat the same descent, shouting out of sheer joy.  In my log I wrote “We were on ski by 8am, up Fiacaill Ridge to Cairngorm and then down the back towards Loch Avon before returning via Cairngorm again to descend the ski piste.  Loads of snow above 800m, the piste seemed a very easy ski after the off-piste ‘Cairngorm powder’.  Beautiful atmospheric day with mist coming & going.”   

Neil was a very intelligent guy and this, combined with his sense of fun, made him a good man to spend time with.  He also had a strong drive to get out and do things in the outdoors, surely as a foil to his research work at the Roslin Institute and then the University of Vancouver.  We feel there were strong parallels between Neil’s upbringing and the way we brought up our own sons and this could be one reason why Neil & Andy became such good friends.

Life moved on, Neil’s contract finished in Edinburgh and he went to work in Canada; it must have been a fantastic adventure for him, new fields to research at the university and new mountains to climb.  Sadly the central couloir on Joffre Peak near Pemberton, B.C. was his last and our deepest sympathy goes out to his family and friends.  A life well lived but sadly, not for long enough.

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