Ray Norman was born on May 18, 1946, in Prittlewell, on England’s Essex Coast, and grew up in Ilford, on the of edge of London. His mother Phyllis was a piano teacher who taught Ray how to play, and his father, Christopher, a former freewheeling sailor who took a job in a law firm in order to provide for his family. By age five, it was apparent that Ray had inherited an independent and venturesome streak from his dad. Though he was told to cross the street while holding his mother’s hand, a neighbour discovered him crossing back and forth, over and over, to prove he could go it alone.
By age 11, he was one of a few young men from modest backgrounds who got a scholarship to a private boys’ school called Bancroft’s, near London. Ray excelled both in the classroom and on the field, playing rugby, field hockey and cricket. By 18, he earned a spot at Churchill College at the University of Cambridge. While there, Ray took a trip with classmates to Greece, where they climbed Mount Olympus. This experience left a deep impression on him, and he continued to hike and climb for the rest of his life. He was also passionate about piano, and even dreamed of becoming a concert pianist, but decided to focus on math; it seemed a more prudent route.
Ray graduated in 1967, and ended up working in IBM’s research and development lab in Hampshire, England. There, he met a young woman named Celia Austin. The two played at the same squash club after work, and one night, Ray offered Celia a lift home. On the way, he asked if she wanted to stop at a coffee bar for a drink. “He tried to woo me with his superior intelligence of the pinball machine,” says Celia. And it worked. Three weeks later, he proposed. Three months later, in September 1969, they married.
The corporate ladder at IBM didn’t appeal to Ray, and he wanted a job that would allow him time for the outdoors and for his family. So he decided to sit for Britain’s actuarial exams, which can take up to 10 years to complete. Ray would rise at 5 a.m. and study for two hours before work, as well as late into the evenings. “He had a very sparse social life,” says Celia. But he passed the exams in under three years and became a fellow of the Institute of Actuaries by 1973.
Ray took a job in London at an actuarial consulting firm. On weekends and holidays, he and Celia would go to Scotland to hike and climb. “He loved being in the outdoors,” says Celia. “He was happiest on an adventure.” In May 1974, Celia gave birth to their first child, Heather. Celia stayed home with their daughter, and Ray would commute to work from Hampshire, where they had settled in a home on a hill overlooking the North Downs. “I was so content,” says Celia. “I told Ray, ‘I could live here forever.’ ” Just three months later, in March 1975, they were on a plane, immigrating to Canada. “He had to make his life as exciting as possible,” she says.
In Toronto, where Ray worked in actuarial consulting, they immediately fell in love with the lack of tradition in their new home. Colin, a son, was born in 1976. After 2½ years, they moved to Vancouver, eventually settling in Calgary. The West was a great fit for Ray: living near the Rockies allowed him to fully indulge his passion for the outdoors. “He got up to Mount Columbia, the second-highest peak in the Canadian Rockies,” says Celia, “but he was less after bagging peaks, he just wanted an adventure.”
Ray became president of the Alpine Club of Canada’s Calgary section. He was also an accomplished cyclist, even riding across the country in 2008. A friend and fellow cyclist, Michel Charland, says, “Ray liked to help people, and share his knowledge. So he’d not only repair everyone’s bikes, he’d teach them how to repair a bike.”
After Ray took early retirement at the age of 57, he and Celia settled in Canmore, Alta. Ray began teaching outdoor safety courses. The Alpine club even gave him a distinguished service award in 2008, in part for his role in developing a backcountry safety program for skiers. Alpine member Sandy Fransham says, “I can’t think of a single person who wouldn’t choose to be on Ray’s rope in the backcountry.” Ray had earned the trust and respect of fellow outdoorsmen. “He always envisaged that he would be the one doing the rescue when things went wrong,” says Celia. On Feb. 26, Ray was with a group of backcountry skiers near Smithers in northern British Columbia when an avalanche struck. Ray was buried. He was 64.