Evelyn McNicol

Born: October 11, 1926;

Died: April 15, 2021.

EVELYN McNICOL, who has died aged 94, was a Scottish doctor who became a pioneer of women’s climbing. At a time when very few women climbed mountains, and when the equipment they had was rudimentary, Dr McNicol and two friends formed the first all-female British expedition to the Himalayas in 1955. At just 28, she was the youngest member of the team.

Dr McNicol, who was born in Glasgow, had always had a pioneering physical spirit and she retained it until the end of her life.

As a girl, she had been a keen hockey player and swimmer and once considered a career in physical education. Later, long after she had given up climbing, she remained active and keen to try new things: she took up dog-sledding in her sixties and scuba-diving in her seventies.

However, her greatest passion was always climbing, which she discovered while a medical student at Glasgow University, where she became the first woman president of its mountaineering club.

The idea of an all-woman expedition to the Himalayas was a particular challenge. Nepal had only just opened its doors to the outside world and had never granted a permit for women to climb alone.

But Dr McNicol and her friends, Monica Jackson and Elizabeth Stark, were determined to do it, and were conscious they were breaking new ground. Not only were they pushing physical and social frontiers, they helped to chart large parts of the Himalayas that had never been climbed before.

The sexism they faced in achieving their goal was considerable. Some raised doubts that women could handle the Sherpas and, in her book about the expedition, Tents In The Clouds, Monica Jackson said there were some who were waiting for them to fail. “Whereas a disaster in an all-male or mixed party may have passed almost unremarked,” she wrote, “the world was waiting to say ‘I told you so. What else can you expect of women?’”

Evelyn also faced some early opposition from her father. When she first raised the idea of climbing, he suggested she shouldn’t do it, but she remembered putting her foot down.

“I simply replied, ‘I will go climbing’ and that was it. I got my boots and off I went with the mountaineering club to climb, and that was the end to it. My father never asked me again what I was going to do. I never asked him whether I could go to the Himalayas or not, it just was a fait accompli.”

She had three aims for the trip: firstly, to find a way into the mountains; secondly, to find a mountain they would be able to climb, and, lastly but most importantly, to come back alive.

She and her friends borrowed some crampons, which they were using for the first time (on previous climbs, they had used nailed boots) and they wore three distinctive hats: a red one for Monica, yellow for Betty and green for Evelyn.

Dr McNicol was working in general practice when the idea for the Himalayan expedition first came up. She had already been climbing in the Pyrenees and Norway with friends and, in the spring of 1952, Betty Stark phoned to ask if she fancied going to the Himalayas. She replied she was busy and would phone her back. Such was the gestation of the trip that came to fruition two years later.

After the authorities in Nepal agreed to let them climb, the women won sponsorship from Picture Post magazine, the American Geographical Society and the publishers, Collins. The Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club also helped them with some equipment.

For Evelyn, it was part of a philosophy based on seizing the day. “I believe you should live today,” she once said. “If you live today, you’ve got something to look back on when it’s tomorrow, and if you live too far in the future, then you never do anything.”

The climb was a success and they named a 20,175ft peak they discovered Gyalgen, after one of their Sherpas, Mingma Gyalgen. “Women climb new peak; Scots’ success in Himalayas”, ran a headline in this newspaper on Thursday, June 2, 1955. The report said the trio had been supported by 30 porters, four Sherpa guides, and a Nepali youth, Murari Bahadur, who had acted as interpreter.

Dr McNicol continued to climb for many years after the Himalayan expedition, notably to the Andes in Peru, and unexplored areas of Greenland, before returning to Nepal for a trip to Jugal Himal exactly 50 years after her pioneering climb in 1955.

Aside from climbing, she had a long and successful medical career as a consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology, having followed her father, Henry Camrass, into medicine. Dr Camrass was a GP in Glasgow, her mother, Mary, a nurse. The family lived in the King’s Park area of the city and then in Pollokshields.

The young Evelyn was educated at Hutchesons’ Girls’ Grammar School and during the war was evacuated with her sister to Sanquhar in Dumfriesshire, where she discovered hills for the first time.

At one point, she considered studying PE at Dunfermline College, but won a place to study medicine at Glasgow and graduated in 1952.

Throughout her years at university, she was active in sports – she was captain of both the women’s hockey and swimming teams – and it was in her second year that she was invited to go climbing with the mountaineering club.

At the time, she had no equipment of her own and had to borrow a pair of boots but she quickly grew to love the sport and climbed most weekends, mainly in the Arrochar hills but also in Glencoe, Fort William, Torridon and Skye. By her fourth year at university, she was club president.

After university, her first job in medicine was as a general registrar at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. Later, she was a senior house officer at Stobhill Hospital, then a resident maternity registrar in Dunbartonshire.

She took time off to raise her three children but resumed full-time medical work in the late 1960s, specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology.

After moving from Glasgow to Stirlingshire, latterly she lived in Inverness, where she pursued her many interests, including painting and travelling to remote parts of all the continents of the world, including Antarctica.

She met husband Allan, an engineer, through her climbing at university and took 10 years off to raise her children before returning to medicine and retiring in the early 1990s.

Allan pre-deceased her and she is survived by her children Martin, Sula, and Erica, and six grandchildren.