An Obituary of Noel Masterson (1929-2011)

(by Noel Brown, January 2012)
“Those of us who enjoyed his friendship and shared mountain experiences with him over the years are privileged indeed to have known this unique and generous man.”

Noel Masterson died suddenly in January 2011, just a few weeks after celebrating his 81st birthday. His passing further weakens the connection between those who were active in the early days of the club and the modern IMC.

Noel wasn’t a founder member, but came to the club on the crest of the second wave of new members in the early 1950’s, having served his apprenticeship in the Boy Scouts. His was an adventurous spirit, which saw the Irish Mountaineering Club as the gateway to the mountain world.

At this time, there were certain books which were essential reading (and perhaps still are) for anyone aspiring to climb in the Alps, but in those days it seemed that none was more important than Frank Smythe’s wonderfully inspirational “Mountaineering Holiday”. This was the famous mountaineer’s account of a few weeks spent climbing in the Alps during the summer of 1939, a few weeks that ended just days before the outbreak of World War II.

For Noel, Smythe’s book became a sort of blueprint for an alpine holiday and so, in the summer of 1953, he and a few other members of the club, having read and re-read Smythe, prepared themselves for a great alpine adventure, the training for which consisted of doing a couple of longer-than-usual walks in the Wicklow mountains and a handful of rock-climbs in Dalkey Quarry and Camaderry. Such was the extent of training for the Alps in those days.

Thus prepared, they set off in the hope of emulating some of the routes that were so excitingly described in Smythe’s book, and emulate them they did. Several fine climbs were done: Les Bans, Les Écrins, Les Dômes de Miage, Pic Coolidge and, to finish somewhat triumphantly, on a great climb – the ascent of Mont Blanc by the Bionassay Arête. Such a successful season, nearly sixty years ago, was surely a landmark in Irish mountaineering.

Earning a living has a habit of getting in the way of climbing plans and this was certainly the case with Noel. In spite of a great first season which promised so much, Criterion Press, the company that he had founded around that time (1952/1953), made enormous demands on him, and although he continued to walk and climb, his activities were, of necessity, carried out nearer home.

Some years later, Noel’s business acumen, combined with his energy and hard work, had, not surprisingly, borne fruit. His company had become extremely successful, allowing him the time to regain his former activity levels.

There were very few skiers amongst members in the early days of the IMC, but the late Jim Millar, a Scot, was one of the exceptions. When the unusually heavy snowfalls of the early nineteen-sixties occurred, Noel, under Jim’s tutelage, learned to ski and took to it with his customary zest. A few years later, in 1964, he was one of those who founded the Ski Club of Ireland and he continued to teach there for several years.

He was very active throughout the seventies, by which time he had become an expert skier. He skied in the Silvretta, and, with the Ski Club of Great Britain, did a ski tour of the Bernese Oberland which included an ascent of the Finsteraarhorn. The next year, along with his wife Ingrid, he skied the Chamonix – Saas-Fee High-Level Route, again with the Ski Club. He also skied in Scandinavia.

In 1976, back in the Alps, Noel did a fine lead of the Forbes Arête on the Aiguille du Chardonnet and in the following years had several winter ascents in the Scottish Highlands.

He loved challenges and when in 1977 I informed him that I was planning to do the extremely demanding Double Lugnaguilla Mountain Walk, he said, without the slightest hesitation, ‘count me in’. We did the walk in 27 hours and to this day, I still remember his wonderful cheery companionship during that gruelling marathon.

In 1981, shortly after running the first Dublin City Marathon, Noel discovered, almost by accident, that he had a cardiac condition. He was shocked, of course, but after a time came to look upon the discovery of the condition in a positive way; he saw it as something that might well have saved him from an even more serious problem at a later stage. He was advised to and did undergo a triple heart by-pass which was carried out by the late Dr Maurice Neligan.

He recovered remarkably quickly from what he regarded as a mere setback, and although his climbing was sporadic in the years following his “meeting with Dr. Neligan”, as he used to describe it, he remained active in many exciting ways and for the next few years was as likely to be found white-water rafting in Africa, which he visited a number of times, as climbing in the Alps or the Scottish Highlands, but in 1992 he was back where he most wanted to be – in the mountains, this time in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming with the very successful IMC Meet of that year.

The following year, 1993, a full forty years after his first great mountain adventure, Noel embarked on yet another – his objective this time being to ascend to the base camp of the Irish Mount Everest Expedition at an altitude of 17,000 feet. In a message from the camp via satellite phone to a Dublin radio station, he described with some emotion his joy at being so close to the greatest mountain of all, and he didn’t forget to request that a message of thanks be conveyed to Dr Neligan, without whose great skill he felt he never could have had this unforgettable experience.

Noel didn’t climb again after his Himalayan adventure, and although it wasn’t obvious at the time, his Everest trip clearly was a kind of pilgrimage – his farewell to the mountains. After it, he transferred his energies to cycling, an activity that was kinder to the system than climbing mountains. In nearly every year between 1994 and 2009 he set off with friends on cycling tours, mostly in France, but Germany and Austria and even Hungary were visited too. One bleak April, when Noel was in his mid seventies, he slipped away quietly, almost secretly, and cycled alone from Land’s End to John O’Groats, a distance of more than fourteen hundred kilometres, and a journey that took a full month to complete. Two years later, this time with friends, he cycled from Mizen Head at the southern tip of Ireland, to Malin Head in the North. Easy by comparison!

Noel had many interests; he was highly regarded by those in the craft of woodturning, at which he excelled and he did turn out some beautiful pieces of work. He had a lifelong interest in music, and when in later life he discovered that he possessed the skill required to hand-make musical instruments, he lost no time in getting started. With the care that was typical of him in everything that he did, he produced a viola and two fine violins which are still being played by one of his daughters. At the time of his death, he was making a cello which, of course, remains unfinished.

In spite of leading a busy life, Noel managed to find time to think of others who were less fortunate than himself. He devoted much time to charitable organisations such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul and was held in great esteem by The Samaritans, on whose behalf he regularly visited men who were imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail.

Noel was in love with life but his greatest love, apart from his wonderful family, was a simple one – love of the mountains in all of the moods that they could muster.

Those of us who enjoyed his friendship and shared mountain experiences with him over the years are privileged indeed to have known this unique and generous man. We miss him.