American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Noel Ewart Odell, 1890-1987

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1988

NOEL EWART ODELL 1890–1987

Striding up through the sun-scented evergreens toward Nanda Devi in 1936, I remember Odell exclaiming, “God! It’s good to be back.” It was twelve years since his great effort on Everest had been hailed by the mountaineering world. He and three other distinguished British climbers had joined us four brash young Americans in what became a marvelous experience for all. We kept in touch thereafter; just fifty years later, I dined with him in Cambridge; he seemed unchanged. A few weeks later he died in his sleep at 97.

Noel Odell was of the old school of climbers, tweedy, casual, low key and more concerned with joy than triumph. Forever linked with Mallory and Irvine and Everest, he remains one of the great figures of mountaineering. Though he never sought fame and fortune, he was known and loved all over the world as a distinguished father figure, far more interested in others’ activities than in talking of his own. Indeed he seldom spoke of himself, his family or his long and diverse record of climbing and exploration. In 1975 he charmed and delighted a mountain medicine symposium in Yosemite showing old glass slides of the 1924 Everest expedition without mentioning his own heroic role. He often spoke in many parts of the world and in his later years brought a flavor of the old world to many meetings.

He became a member of the Alpine Club in 1916, a founder of the Himalayan Club, and was made honorary member of a dozen mountain clubs around the world. He had a long and intimate connection with American climbing. He was guest of honor at the American Alpine Club’s Annual Meeting on December 29, 1926. He became a member of the Club in 1928 and was made an honorary member in 1936.

His personality, strength and endurance during a sledge trip across Spitsbergen in the twenties led to his selection for Everest in 1924. We were awed by his acceptance of our invitation to Nanda Devi, where he and I shared the first summit bid. Then, paired with Bill Tilman he went to the top and held the record for the highest summit reached for the next fourteen years. Two years later, he went back to Everest with Tilman’s reconnaissance, and after the Second World War he climbed in the Rockies, the Canadian Yukon, Alaska and New Zealand, his last excursion being on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the Swiss Alpine Club, when he was 93 years old.

He was a Lecturer in Geology at Harvard University from 1928 to 1930. While there he was a great inspiration to the recently founded Harvard Mountaineering Club and inspired Harvard students to organize expeditions to the great mountains of the world. During his stay at Harvard, he climbed the ice gully in Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington which bears his name and has been a touchstone for undergraduates ever since.

The record shows that he was trained as a geologist, was three times wounded during the First World War and thereafter worked in various oil and mining companies around the world. He never aspired to be and never was a great geologist but, perhaps more importantly, he inspired many by example and a voluminous correspondence. His wife Mona was a climber though not an expeditionary; his son was a geologist but not a climber.

He was a gentle man. Generous, mild, modest and seldom ruffled or angry, he was a lovely companion, never bloody minded or out of sorts even when his companions were impatient with his deliberate pace. Although he had a grand store of reminiscenses and anecdotes, he was never boring. He was a joy to be with and a loss to generations who may never know someone like him.

Charles S. Houston, M.D.

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