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Ken Wilson: an eye for class, a nose for bullshit

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Ken Wilson, Everest 1972
Ken Wilson, Everest 1972. Photo © Doug Scott 

Ken Wilson is widely recognised as a leading influence in global climbing politics and the outdoor media. Known for his work with Mountain magazine, Diadem and ton Wicks, Ken has long been a fierce defender of the adventure and freedom of traditional climbing. To mark Ken's Boardman Tasker Lifetime Achievement Award, which is being presented on Friday, Vertebrate's Jon Barton shares his thoughts on one of the climbing world's most outspoken and committed commentators.

Contained in the Ken Wilson archive (what, you don’t have your own archive?) I found an interesting, and not untypical exchange of letters, which I’ve paraphrased here.

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.’

And so went the exchange between Adrian Berry, proprietor of the now defunct Climbingmedia website, and Ken Wilson, the then owner of Bâton Wicks, publisher of the rather excellent Deep Play by Paul Pritchard.

After this exchange, struggling to get his own way, Adrian spat his dummy out somewhat and published Ken’s letter. And once again Ken was ridiculed as the ‘gob’ of British climbing – an Ian Paisley type character resisting change at every turn. To many people this may have seemed not an unfair assumption. However, there is of course another side to Ken Wilson.

The exchange detailed above wasn’t just a thoughtless spat; it represents Ken defending his copyright and not wanting to support what he felt was a dumbing down of adventure climbing, a position that he championed throughout his career.

When it came to climbing, Ken was in the thick of it from an early age, and after a ten-year career producing the iconic Mountain magazine he went on to focus on publishing books under his Diadem imprint. Many people, like me, were brought up on a literary diet of Mountain and Diadem books. Ken was the man to talk to in order to get your name out there, to get your climb into the media. But he was a canny operator – he had a nose for bullshit.

Ken championed many international classics, translated them and kept them in print, along with publishing his own series of blockbusters. All these books were produced with immaculate skill and attention to detail. Of course they are now legendary: The Big Walks, Classic Rock, Hard Rock (with its impossible tick list), Extreme Rock, The Games Climbers Play.

Ken was on a mission, he wanted to inspire us all to get out, experience the best of British climbing, and to travel – to go to the Alps, to the greater ranges, to the highest summits and the deepest caves. Ken was always clear on his responsibilities as a publisher and says it best in his closing comments in the preface to Classic Rock (2007 edition): ‘Many of the writers have now passed on … [but 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.’

He sold the Diadem business to a mainstream publisher and continued to work for them, but as their interest waned he gradually started to acquire back all the classics under a new name, Bâton Wicks, and his mission continued. Frank Smythe, Tilman, Shipton, Muir – books by these authors needed to be in print. As did the works of Diemberger, Fowler, Boardman and Tasker. The list was endless. Unfortunately Ken wasn’t. The manuscripts started to pile up; the out-of-print list was getting longer. It was time to retire.

I spent quite some time talking to Ken, looking at what he had achieved, hoping the magic would rub off onto me and my team at Vertebrate Publishing. We bought the stock, we bought the rights, and we bought a lot of dusty files. Unfortunately we couldn’t buy Ken, the soul of Bâton Wicks. Luckily, what we did acquire was a literary gold mine – fascinating old tunnels lined with rich veins of ore. Many neglected books have since been bought back to the surface and, using ebook formats, made available again.

So here we are continuing what Ken started. And we are still discovering stuff. Last year we found the first draft of the book that is now the award-winning One Day As a Tiger, we’ve found early chapters from Doug Scott, plans for VS Rock, and edits for an updated Extreme Rock. All thanks to Ken and his instinctive knack for producing classy books with enduring appeal. Indeed, his archive is showing no signs of exhaustion, with plenty for the new generation of outdoor adventurers to look forward to …

Of course there was so much more to what Ken achieved: his work with the BMC, his work with climbing clubs, his photography. The man is a legend, and I hope we can all be true to his clarion call, the dedication he wrote to the start of The Games Climbers Play: ‘To the editors, writers, photographers and illustrators of the world’s mountaineering journals and magazines. Long may they continue to record the affairs of the mountaineering world and preserve its literary traditions.’

Congratulations on your Lifetime Achievement Award from the Boardman Tasker trustees, Ken. Very, very well deserved.

Ken Wilson will be awarded the Boardman Tasker Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to mountain literature at the Kendal Mountain Festival. To book a place for the Boardman Tasker Prize event, click HERE.

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