Jeff Connor celebrates the life and career of the late Nea Morin, pioneer of feminine ascents both in the Alps and closer to home...
I bought her book in 1968, the year it first came out, after spotting it in an outdoor shop the size of a large cupboard in Cathedral Street, Manchester. The owner, who never seemed to move from the front counter, always had new gear and rare clothing and a few maps, guides and books, mainly climbing memoirs.
There was a Whillans, a Brown, the first Bonington, Hertzog, Gervasutti and a woman writer called Morin who sounded French and a bit exotic which were the main reasons I bought it. I handed over the 50 shillings (less five bob for being the member of a club) and the owner, Ellis he was called, gave me a free, customer catalogue in return. Thus began a lifelong infatuation – the sort of infatuation a teenager has for a film star – with a woman I'd never met and never would.
I read her book through a long night, totally mesmerised by a story that could have been from a John Masters novel or a Carol Reed movie: an unconventional childhood, Alpine odysseys, close shaves, a French resistance husband, a widowed mother of two. A Woman's Reach was less than 300 pages long and there was an awful lot of action to cover. Her famous eponymous route on Clogwyn Y Grochan, Nea, a climb often seen as an entrée to harder routes in The Pass (and one that has embarrassed just as many) is described in one sentence. There are dizzy, but brief, descriptions of 'cordée féminine' routes climbed by female teams - of which she was a noted advocate - and seemingly endless travel. There's a procession of historic meetings: in Chamonix with the Groupe de Haute Montagne (and husband to be Jean), in The Pass with J M Edwards (her second on Nea), tea with Robin Smith at her home in Tunbridge Wells and on Cloggy with a young Christian Bonington. There's no sense of name-dropping here, however; Nea the writer had a charming habit of seriously understating her own roles in any event.
There are several surprises. The costs for her trips to the Alps in the '50s with her daughter Denise were met by her translation fees, notably for Climbs of My Youth by Andre Roch and (with Janet Adam Smith) Annapurna by Maurice Hertzog. Perhaps both women should share the credit for that book's famous last line - 'there are other Annapurnas in the lives of men' – because it reads far better in the English than in the French.
It was only recently, too, that I realised that the mature lady on Idwal Slabs on the cover of A Woman's Reach was not the author, but her daughter Denise, who was herself a brilliant rock climber in her heyday, managing early ascents of Vember E1 with ease, and becoming the first (and so far only) female president of the Alpine Club. Until recently, Denise was very keen on long-distance sailing. The cover photograph information is hidden away in the inside back and quite missable. It must be a first among climbing autobiographies, too, given that most publishers go for the 'Me In Action' cover and that includes Brown, Moffat (Gwen), Moffatt (Jerry), Bonington, Dawes and even the serially un-full of himself Martin Boysen (who, incidentally, names Nea as a mentor in his own autobiography).
I often wondered about her choice of cover. There must have been several images of her from her great years and Tennis Shoe was hardly representative of her climbing career (or that of Denise). Perhaps it was an inherent modesty: that she should never be accused of being a bit of a show pony? She was also 62 when the book came out and had suffered crippling osteoporosis for some time, so it may have been written as a personal valediction to a beloved family. Certainly Jean, Denise and son Ian all feature at length in the book and there are as many images of them as there are of her. In 2016 I got the chance to find out.
Denise Morin/Evans had been keen on a biography of her late husband Sir Charles Evans, deputy leader of the successful Everest '53 and I'd been suggested by a relative, a regular crew member on Denise's 35-feet Trade Wind Sloop.
We met at the family home in Capel Curig and we got on fine though it's fair to say now that the initial enthusiasm, on both sides, didn't last long. She had recently lost her eldest son Chuck (at the age of 57) and I was still learning how to read and write again after a serious stroke.
I think I overplayed my own admiration for her mother and, to some extent, Denise herself. She insisted from the start that 'the book was only about Charles' and her roles in it had to be nominal. Given that she had been Mrs. Evans for three decades, had sailed and climbed with him on a regular basis and had been a prolific Alpinist in her own right, I thought that would be difficult.
She insisted on paying for lunch at the Pen y Gwryd (a free meal from a subject isn't always seen as a positive by a reporter) and I'd begun to wonder how I was going to write a book that would involve numerous interviews and background work when I lived in Lancashire and was no longer able to drive. She was also 85 at the time and her beloved Dunlin of Wessex was in the dry dock in Bangor harbour and would soon be up for sale.
When she phoned me to call it all off I was quite relieved and I never did get to ask about the Nea book cover. I'd done some of the background and even came up with a title. There Are Other Everests, a crib of Nea's translation from the Annapurna book, a reference to Evans's near miss on Everest in 1953 and his successes on Kanchenjunga two years later, seemed appropriate. There were also 'other Everests' in his battles with multiple sclerosis and militant Welsh-speaking students during his time as principal at UCNW Bangor.
Nea Morin suffered a severe stroke in 1981 and died five years later. She'd endured what one obituary writer described as a 'painful last phase' but all applauded 'a brilliant climbing career and rare person', her vivacity, humour and inherent modesty. To all of which, both good times and bad times, that rare person might insist on adding: 'It was only me, and it was all right.'