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A Tribute to Ken Wilson, Legend of Mountain Literature

Posted on: June 15, 2016


Ken Wilson in 1973. Wilson was the longtime editor of Britain's Mountain magazine (seen in his hand). [Photo] Chris Bonington Picture Library

Ken Wilson, founder and longtime editor of Britain's Mountain magazine (from 1969 to 1978), died last weekend. This past November, he had received the Boardman Tasker Lifetime Achievement Award, given to those whose have made considerable impact on mountain literature. An outspoken voice in the climbing community, Wilson fought to preserve traditional ethics in the mountains, and he campaigned for the rights of women. In the book Up and About: The Hard Road to Everest, British mountaineer Doug Scott called Wilson, "a relentless guardian of the soul of mountaineering—as he saw it." Looking back at his long career in his preface to the 2007 edition of Classic Rock, Wilson wrote that though "many of the writers have now passed on...[climbing] is a timeless process...and a wondrous new arena ripe for discovery by succeeding generations." His work and vision have had a profound influence on all of us at Alpinist, and our condolences go out to his family and friends.—Alpinist staff.

Ed Douglas Remembers Ken Wilson:

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Now people email, but back then we talked, and Ken Wilson would call at pretty much any time of day. The telephone was his window on the world, and he kept the window open, broadcasting his high-voltage crackle of energy around the world. Joe Tasker told the story in his book Savage Arena of how, on returning to London from a new route on Dunagiri, he borrowed Ken's phone for some reason. Ken became intensely agitated. "It wasn't the cost," Tasker recounted. "I was paying for the calls. He just felt out of touch with world mountaineering for as long as his phone was occupied." At that point, in the mid 1970s, Ken was at the height of his powers, editing Mountain magazine, a publication that captured the Zeitgeist of world mountaineering as nothing had done before.

I remember being woken by the phone ringing early one morning when I was living in Manchester, editing a small rock-climbing magazine inspired mostly by Ken's example, following like so many others in his footsteps. This was in the late 1980s, when rock climbing was going through a seismic shift, perhaps its greatest, and Ken was arguing with characteristic passion a line that set him at odds with a large proportion of the new elite. I crawled out of bed, and picked up the receiver. It was Ken, sounding me out, trying to get to the bottom of what I believed. (He did it with everyone. When he was publishing Ed Drummond's Byzantine collection of essays, A Dream of White Horses, Ken wrote him asking precisely that: Who exactly are you?) I gently put the receiver down on the kitchen table, and while Ken launched into one of his famous tirades, I made breakfast, occasionally returning to the phone to offer encouragement.

Ken Wilson on the 1975 British Everest Expedition led by Chris Bonington. [Photo] Chris Bonington Picture Library

We talked often, and I came to know him well. I was too young to understand the scale of his achievements or the surprising complexity of his personality: his insatiable curiosity, his wisdom and his kindness. He was just a voice coming out of the earpiece, a Girolamo Savonarola of the heights, treating climbing as though it were a world religion whose fundamental precepts were under threat. With the passage of time, however, I can sense his frustration, his sense that for all his boundless energy and experience, things were drifting in a direction that undermined everything he held dear.

Ken was not your typical binary thinker. Yes, he believed the world could be divided into good and bad. Part of him reveled in that distinction. He also loved hierarchies. He divided climbers into teams; he and I were firmly in the "D" team, the broad mass of weekend enthusiasts with little discernible talent. To make the "A" team, you basically had to be Bonatti. The early editions of Mountain magazine, the title that defined the first part of his career, were full of definitive lists, lassoing world climbing and wrangling it to the floor. Back then, in the late 1960s, few behaved with such gleeful directness. He was Prometheus unchained, defining the world he was trying to describe. Very few editors get to do that. The side effect was a mood of competition, of taking climbers from their natural context and setting them against each other.

Yet his instincts were also profoundly libertarian, a paradox that explains how someone so opinionated could welcome such diversity. He adored the rough and tumble, and lacking self-importance, he took the consequences on the chin. Mountain thrived on a broad cross-section of voices and standpoints. He loved soccer and understood the complexities of teamwork; he was warmly respectful to talent but would never genuflect. If Mountain sometimes drifted towards pomposity, there were writers like Tom Patey and Ian McNaught-Davis, two of climbing's best satirists, or the genius of cartoonist Sheridan Anderson, to dirty the tone a little, to have a laugh and let some light in. The Letters pages were vibrant, critical, sometimes outraged and always carefully manicured, like a garden, to cultivate debate.

What drove Ken, I think, was his passion for the authentic. He took that idea very seriously. Publishing essays like Reinhold Messner's "The Murder of the Impossible" was the definition of what Ken was trying to do. Messner's criticism of expansion bolts resonated with Ken; he would argue ardently against them for the rest of his life. What is it that makes climbing so compelling and satisfactory? It is a game with rules—but none of them written in an arena that is not of our own design—a competition with no clear winners, a place to impose our will and then have it ripped away. (He was powerfully influenced by Lito Tejada-Flores' essay "Games Climbers Play," anthologizing it in his classic essay collection of the same name as the lead article.)

Summer 1971: Wilson "returning on the ferry from Lundy Island where we'd all been spending a couple of weeks 'pioneering'—before the place really became popular," photographer John Cleare said. [Photo] mountaincamera.com

This boisterous heralding of self-reliance could look a little daft in wider society. He campaigned against the imposition of seat belts for example, instead of just sticking two fingers up and not wearing his own. And he could misjudge the direction of travel in climbing too, famously lambasting John Allen for using chalk to free climb the iconic route Great Wall on Clogwyn d'ur Arddu. Even Ken laughed at that one, before mounting a spirited defense. Sometimes his passion for debate would spill over into something a little darker, a little more personal, but if it did, I think he regretted it.

He took the more journalistic parts of the job very seriously, mounting determined investigations. Fraudsters were of particular interest. He was quick to expose fantasists who claimed routes they hadn't done. He provided excellent and concise coverage of the Cairngorm Tragedy of 1971, a turning point in the long debate about the role of adventure in education. His inquiry into the claimed first ascent of Cerro Torre in 1959 was just as significant. Even after he stopped editing Mountain, he remained a sounding board and advisor for those like Rolo Garibotti who had the courage to keep pressing the investigation.

After Mountain, he moved naturally into publishing, ultimately a more productive role. It allowed his enthusiasm full rein. He reveled in the detail, far more than any mainstream publisher would consider sane or profitable. When Hodder and Stoughton bought his first company, Diadem, he managed four years in the corporate world before a merger forced him out. Within days he had started Baton Wicks. His books were underpinned by the same principles that Mountain had thrived under: scope, ambition and passion. Hard Rock serves as the best example, an eclectic smorgasbord of essays about British rock climbing at a particular moment that somehow contrives to give a sweeping overview, like a painting by Bruegel. He repeated the model successfully with Cold Climbs, a bible still for many winter climbers, Classic Rock and Extreme Rock.

He was nervous around more literary writers. Drummond's collection was his only real attempt to bring something of such complexity to press, although he used Jim Perrin to great effect as an editor for Mirrors in the Cliff, his second compendium, and for new editions of H. W. Tilman and Eric Shipton. His great strength was in his organizational ability, his scope, his enthusiasm and his clear visual imagination. He made books to last, books constructed with enthusiasm, books that rewarded close attention, and readers responded warmly. Ken was likeable, and so were his books. The dementia that slowly robbed him of himself was painful to watch, even from a distance. It must have been excruciating for those close to him, not least his wife Gloria. He was such a presence, such a commanding figure, bristling and industrious, that even though he was largely gone by the time he died, the feeling of sadness is profound.

I really miss those phone calls.

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Comments
nickoconnell

I too remember Ken well. Right after my second book, Beyond Risk, came out in the UK I visited Wilson at his home. He was a very lively raconteur and such an opinionated man about all kinds of topics. We did some easy soloing near his home, spending most of the afternoon out on the crags, climbing, talking, settling the fate of the world. My best to all his friends and family who I'm sure will dearly miss him! Nicholas O'Connell

2016-06-23 17:13:06
nickoconnell

I too remember Ken well. Right after my second book, Beyond Risk, came out in the UK I visited Wilson at his home. He was a very lively raconteur and such an opinionated man about all kinds of topics. We did some easy soloing near his home, spending most of the afternoon out on the crags, climbing, talking, settling the fate of the world. My best to all his friends and family who I'm sure will dearly miss him! Nicholas O'Connell

2016-06-23 17:12:30
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