The number of mountaineers who have heard of Hester Norris can probably be counted on the figures of both hands. She died aged 81 in 1991 and the fact that anybody knows anything about her (she never married and had no family) is almost entirely due to her diaries. While she climbed in the UK, for her, climbing meant the Alps, especially Switzerland, visiting most years between 1934 and 1956, other than in wartime. She was secretary to a boarding school in Colwyn Bay and had only two weeks holiday each summer. Each of these holidays were written up in big hard backed exercise books, up to 200 pages of neat handwriting with perhaps 30 pages given to the best days. They are not just accounts of what they did next but commentaries on the Alpine life and on her devotion to it, with comments on travel, food, hotels, guides, local customs, her chronic shortage of money, weather and much more. There are many photos, and odds and ends are pasted in such as travel tickets, and post war ration coupons. The diaries are now kept in the MAM archive at the University of Birmingham.
The diaries tell almost nothing of her personal life, though we know she rode a motorbike, as they are entirely about her climbing and are peppered with highly personal comments about her ambitions and shortcomings and the shortcomings of others. In one of her earlier diaries, written after a gap of a year she says how wonderful it is to be back in the Alps after a year of worry and doubt and goes on to say that she will never allow anything to deflect her from the mountain life again. Some uncaptioned photos hint of a close relationship with a young man. Did it all come to nought or did she even make a choice between marriage and mountains? She was forceful and pulled few punches. Of a bust up at Kleine Scheidegg she wrote “the Kl Scheidegg station officials must have a very low IQ!” She committed her fears and hopes to the pages, often with much underlining; “The Rothorn Ridge of the Zinal Rothorn. Oh, how I have set my heart on climbing this ridge. I wonder when I shall do it, if ever, but I must! “and “I am never going to climb with Cyril again!” She did, a few days later.
She was competent but no more than that, always climbing with a guide, becoming very friendly with some of them. She was always ready to scold herself if she did not do so well but was ever hankering to be off for the next peak. On being storm bound at the Strahlegg hut she wrote “as far as I know this has been the only day of my life when I had nothing to occupy myself with and I did not enjoy it”. Her 1939 season was at Chamonix with one of her favourite guides, Marcel Bozon. War was declared while they were there and she had to set off for home. “Marcel…cycled away. I watched him disappear into the torrential rain and wondered unhappily if he will be spared from the firing line of this hateful war”.
Her first major climb was the Matterhorn from the Hornli hut in 1934, a six and a half hour round trip, and her last the Dent Blanche in 1954. By this time she was climbing with the MAM at home and in the Alps and Norway. In 1955 she had a minor stroke while in the Alpes Maritimes; this was found to be due to a defective heart valve. Surgery followed later but it was the end of her proper climbing at the age of 45. She traveled extensively, summing up in a compendium diary for 1955 to 1966. In 1960 she paid her last visit to Switzerland and walked up to the Hornli hut: “an alien feeling that I did not belong to this mountain world any more…I was a stranger…I felt shy of so much as peeping inside the hut”
She retired to a cottage near Llanrwst in the Conwy Valley where she lived quietly, playing the violin, collecting climbing books and, no doubt, re-rereading her diaries which give a view of climbing in the pre- and post-war periods so fresh and honest in style as quite probably to be unique.