Ken Wilson, one of the legendary figures of British climbing, passed away on Sunday June 12 after a long illness. His legacy of publications, ideas and passion will remain for years to come. Here, Alan James makes a personal tribute to Ken.
My first encounter with Ken Wilson came when he was aiming both barrels of his very large gun straight at me and letting fly. At this point we had never actually met, but he didn't hold back in his savage and unswerving attack on the Pembroke Rockfax I had just published in 1995. I was characterised as, "a vampire sucking the life-blood out of British climbing" and the book appeared to spell the end of traditional climbing as we knew it.
At the time I was somewhat taken aback but I did notice that his full-on broadside also contained some small compliments about the actual guidebook. The attack sounded personal and ridiculously over the top. It took me several years to realise that he wasn't being personal, and aiming over the top was his way of getting to somewhere in between. He was simply standing up for a topic he believed in very dearly, in the only way he knew - with full-on voracity and passion.
This may have been the first time I came to Ken's attention, but it wasn't the first time his influence had touched me. Like most people who learnt their climbing in the 80s, our inspiration was drawn from the magazines and books of the time. Their images, articles, debates and collections of routes defined our climbing lives and shaped where and what we went on to do. And, oh how Ken had shaped this media for us.
The impact of Ken's effort in Mountain magazine is beautifully summed up by Mick Ward in his piece in Footless Crow:
In the first age where the medium could be the message, Wilson, with a single Promethean bound, transformed Mountain Craft into Mountain. It no longer mattered whether you lived in Southport or Seattle. With Mountain, you were plugged into a global network spanning continents and eras, outcrops, big walls and great ranges. If there had been a mission statement for Mountain, surely it would have read, 'mountains and men who matter'. Unashamed elitism from a didactic autocrat?
Well unsnap the ring binders and consider those first 60 or so issues from over 40 years ago and what do you find? Classic, after classic, after classic. The great routes, the great personalities, the great debates. As Flaubert noted aptly, 'You don't make art through good intentions.' Good intentions, yes... but there must also be iron in the soul. And Wilson fashioned Mountain from a motherlode.
Of course Ken Wilson's most iconic and famous publications remain the Classic, Hard and Extreme Rock triptych. These books were inspiring not only for the 70s and 80s generation; young climbers today still covet them and pore over their every word, drawing up tick lists and inspiration for future climbing trips, forming entire projects, and lamenting the fact that completing the list is no longer possible since a few of the great routes have fallen down. The books regularly appear on eBay with bizarre prices, and Amazon with even more bizarre prices, and yet many will find them worth every penny. I was lucky enough to buy them first time round and they have taken pride of place on my bookshelf ever since, through half a dozen house moves. These books will never get consigned to that box in the attic.
It isn't just the list of great routes in these books that are inspiring, it is the reverence with which they are written that imparts itself onto the reader. Ken Wilson was great at enthusiasm and he was able to draw this out of all the people who worked with him, something which shines through in all his publications.
Mick Ward again from Footless Crow:
A few years later, The Black Cliff's celebratory promise of word and image was fully realised when Hard Rock, the volume most likely to be found on any climber's bookshelf, appeared. At once a hymn to the visual, the visceral and the cerebral, its 57 essays about major British routes gave us unforgettable images. Perrin's dalliance with Right Unconquerable was a paean of sensual pleasure, whereas Drummond's haunting refrain for Great Wall and its lonely progenitor rings forever in our ears. 'Lovely boy, Crew, arrow climber. Wall without end'.
Back to the vampire affair. After having appeared in Ken's sights, we inevitably met and these exchanges proved both formative and passionate as one might expect. Ken's style (as reflected in many of the anecdotes on this thread) was never to bother with platitudes and small talk - he went straight to the point. "Now, Alan, about this guidebook....." And then it would start, a ding-dong discussion at full throttle, which I was barely able to keep up with. I say discussion since it never became an argument and never descended into tit for tat. He said his piece and I explained what I was doing, but Ken's battles were always civilised if you could keep pace with him.
I realised through these discussions that he wasn't objecting to anything - the vampire bit had merely been to get people's attention - he was actually lecturing me on the importance of our climbing heritage and culture. I began to look forward to our exchanges. His tone softened (was it me or did he mellow a bit as he got older?) but his passion remained the same and his fierce stance as a pro-trad, anti-bolt climber was never diminished. The classic story of Ken getting thrown out of the Leeds Wall for leading a route on slings draped over big jugs is a cracker.
In the end I developed a massive respect for Ken Wilson, and Rockfax and UKClimbing would certainly be different were it not for the time we spent together. I now regard it as a great honour that in our later conversations he used to open with, "now Alan, when are you going to make me an offer for my business?". There it was - vampire to someone worthy of his business in 10 years. Thankfully I never did buy his business which went to Jon Barton at Vertebrate Publishing who is making a much better job than I could of keeping Ken's fabulous publishing legacy going.
I'll leave the final word to Mick Ward. If you get a chance read the full article at Footless Crow since it is a magnificent piece of writing from over 19 years ago, that really gets to the heart of what made and motivated Ken Wilson.
When you stand back and try to add it all up, you find that Ken has given so much to mountaineering that it's well-nigh incalculable. Why does he do it? Who knows? It's his belly and it's his rat. But for as long as we are content to live with the convenient popular caricature, we are blinding ourselves to a visionary in our midst.
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