Hard Rock, a pictorial paean to then top routes in the UK, was
the first climbing book I ever bought. The second was Games Climbers Play, to give as a gift. An early climbing bestseller, owned by multitudes
of climbers in the UK and United States, the anthology was dramatic, thoughtful and highly entertaining.
Hard Rock (1974), Classic Rock (1979) and Extreme Rock (1987),
all edited by Ken Wilson, were handsome coffee-table compilations that inspired a generation’s dreams. Cold Climbs (co-edited, 1983) celebrated
sweet and savage winter adventures, also in the UK. He was the editor of Mountain magazine, the country's first climbing magazine as opposed
to journal. It is hard to say what Wilson, 75, of Manchester, England, was best known for or which of his many editorial productions was most influential.
Wilson died June 12 after a long illness.
Says Doug Scott, leading British alpinist, "I think he helped keep the best traditions of British climbing on course more than any other single person
- and therefore world climbing!"
Games Climbers Play remains the bedrock of many climbers’ book collection. In its 688 pages, Wilson chose and created classic essays, publishing
the works of Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, Anne Marie Rizzi, Yvon Chouinard, Art Higgins, Pat Ament, John Long, Tom Patey and Dougal Haston, among many.
Mountain flourished under his direction, from 1969 to 1978. The expedition and new-route section in the front of the magazine was followed worldwide,
while Wilson guided opinions and ethics in the British climbing community and beyond.
According to the British Mountaineering Council (BMC), “as a supporter of the BMC and the Climbers’
Club, he made sure the community was working to safeguard the ethos of climbing, and to ensure it was accessible for everyone.” Wilson championed the
place of women in the Climbers’ Club, and inclusivity otherwise. The book Unjustifiable Risk? The Story of British Climbing largely credits
him for Pete Boardman’s place on the 1975 Chris Bonington Everest expedition: "Boardman was 16 years younger than Bonington, and his inclusion on the
team was a response to the increasing clamour of the climbing press, and from Ken Wilson in particular, about perceived cronyism.”
He started and later sold two publishing houses, Bâton Wicks and Diadem, producing books on climbing and hillwalking. Two titles won the Boardman Tasker
Prize for Mountain Literature, and another won Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Literature Festival.
Last year Wilson received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Boardman Tasker trustees. Upon the occasion, Jon Barton of Vertebrate Publishing (which had acquired Bâton Wicks) printed a congratulatory note titled “An Eye for Class, a Nose for Bullshit”
that showed the strength of Wilson’s convictions about adventure. Barton paraphrased a conversation (from archival sources) between Wilson and Adrian
Berry, of the former Climbingmedia website, regarding Deep Play by Paul Pritchard.
Adrian Berry: I’d like to publish an extract from Deep Play on my website.
Ken Wilson: You can’t. I don’t agree with your stance on bolting in the mountains and thus I want nothing to do with you.
AB: Well you will find I did a law degree, I’m an expert in copyright and I have every right to publish the extract on my website.
KW: You can’t. I don’t agree with your stance on bolting in the mountains and thus I want nothing to do with you.
Barton concluded by quoting Wilson’s preface to Classic Rock: “[Climbing] is a timeless process that we are all privileged to have discovered
and enjoyed, and a wondrous new arena ripe for discovery by succeeding generations.”
John Cleare, distinguished British photographer, author and filmmaker, recalls another tale of the young rabble-rouser, then a student in architecture
and photography at Birmingham College of Art:
He was very left-wing at the time, and when we all set off to hike a couple of miles to the pub to enjoy a Christmas dinner and lots of drinks, Ken wouldn’t come.
He preferred to remain sitting by the fire reading Das Kapital. Which we thought was a bit strange ... and told him so in no uncertain terms ....
Ken was always a rebel – he was considered ‘bolshi’ - but out in the real world be soon became much more practical. And soon got stuck in to climbing politics which did need some reform.
As a rock climber he was a highly competent, though by no means a leading light. As an alpinist, he’d done the Badile North Face, which was
considered quite a good achievement at the time. ... more than merely competent.
But always an activist. Always looking for an angle, a story, a controversy to follow up.
Cleare wrote that Wilson, who was first to explore the Cerro Torre controversy in print, would have made a fine investigative journalist. "[H]e
had no room for humbug and wasn’t afraid to say so."