Friday, 1 July 2016


Ken Wilson: Photo John Cleare-Mountain Picture Library
‘It’s an old Ken Wilson maxim, a picture is worth a thousand words, so snap away, snap away, snap away!’

(From a song by the author)

Not many sports can have spawned a character like Ken Wilson. A photographer and publisher of outstanding talent with an unequalled track record in producing high quality work, but a climber who is always at the centre of controversy.

On a book shelf in my home is a full set of Mountain magazines (at least there was until I lent out a couple of none returned copies), and just a quick review of these illustrate what Wizz is about. Opinionated, hard hitting, tight editing, first class graphics and photography, with in depth interviews, and no dodging of the issues .As Tom Patey observed, ‘Mountain was the magazine that all climbers were seething about!’

Ken took over the old house magazine Mountaincraft of the Mountaineering Association in 1968, and turned it into a highly respected, bimonthly review that was widely acknowledged as the number one mountaineering magazine in the UK.

My own first meeting with Wizz was when I gave a lecture, in the winter of 1964/5 on the Gauri Sankar expedition, at the Westminster Hall in London. After which the Chairman, Raymond Japhet invited questions. Enter Wizz, and he subjected me to a barrage of questions from the back of the hall; ‘Why had we failed to reach our summit? Why were we so badly funded? Why had we needed to drive overland etc?’ From the stage, this young guy with dark hair, and of medium height, a loud strident voice and flashing eyes and teeth seemed to me to be some new kind of nutter. I had never then been subjected to such a cross- examination and Raymond who could have doubled for Mr Magoo, was too kind and polite to close him down. We simply ran out of time, the caretaker threatening to put out the lights, and so we continued with a shouting match in the pub.

My next meeting with Ken was to be even more dramatic, and it occurred during that summer. I was climbing on Cloggy with Harry ‘The Kid’ Smith and we were attempting an early repeat of Taurus on the Pinnacle when there was the sound of a huge rock fall from the West Buttress. A guy came rushing to the foot of the East Buttress to shout up that there had been an accident on the Great Slab and could we go to the aid of the stricken climbers.

Harry and I descended and rushed over to the West Buttress, where we could see a team at the bottom of the 40 feet Corner who were obviously in distress. Smith shot up a full rope length, without placing any protection and I joined him and then led through to reach the injured party. On meeting them I was surprised to find two fellow Rock and Ice members, Ray Greenall and Don Roscoe tending an unconscious Steve Glass, lying at the base of the Corner. Steve like the other two was then an instructor at Plas y Brenin. Above our heads was another party, and the second on a top rope held by his leader, was shouting down excitedly.

‘Crikey’ I realised it was Wizz. It transpired that Ken following Graham Gilbert, in order to avoid the crowded 40 feet Corner had decided to climb up the wall out to the right, which is actually an alternative in the guidebook description of the West Buttress Girdle, the climb they were following. Wizz had mantled onto a large basalt block, which then collapsed under him, and it had fallen away raking a large portion of the cliff. It was a miracle that only Steve had been hit and by the time Harry joined me he was regaining consciousness, but was obviously injured.

Although it must have taken quite some time, eventually a rescue party arrived with a stretcher and we pulled it up, set up some belays, then between us we lowered Steve down the cliff. He was then carried off to Bangor Royal, and happily he made a complete recovery from this accident.

Ken was born in Birmingham in 1941, and originally began to train as an architect but found he was better suited to Photography, and after following a three-year course in that subject at the Birmingham College of Art, he fetched up in London working as an Architectural Photographer. Anyone who studies Ken’s photographs, particularly of crags will note these influences in his work. And it was whilst he was engaged in this arena that he took the bold step to set up Mountain Magazine. Unless you were active in that era, it is hard now to understand the impact this organ then had on British climbing, and to a lesser extent on similar activities in the USA, for Ken using his contact with American climbers, particularly Royal Robbins built up a large circulation base there.

Initially Mountain was on a knife-edge financially and Wilson took a serious personal risk, giving up a safe position to take over Mountaincraft. He produced only one issue under that title, dedicated to developments in Patagonia, which to publish he had to double the cover price to meet his costs, but it worked and at this his first attempt at editing the issue sold out. He then launched Mountain and for the next decade he lived, ate and slept the magazine for 24 hours a day establishing its reputation as the outstanding British climbing magazine.    

By the time I joined the BMC, as its first ever professional officer at the end of 1971, Ken had also established a reputation as a climbing politician, referred to rather impolitely on occasion as ‘The London Lip’ (shades of Cassius Clay?) And I immediately began to find out why, for he seemed to spend a large proportion of his time ‘phoning people at home and abroad, discussing what he saw as the key climbing issue of the day. Trying to cajole and persuade the listener around to his point of view, myself included. But he was always good value and an important sounding board, and so he was invited to take part in the first BMC Future Policy Exercise in 1973/4 under Alan Blackshaw’s chairmanship. And as a matter of historic record, Wizz is the only committee member to have taken part in all three such exercises that have taken place over the last 30 years.

This in retrospect was the initiative that set the Council on its modernisation phase, and when the BMC moved from London, it was Ken who because of a contact with a group of Manchester University climbers, suggested we locate ourselves in the Precinct Centre of that body. Tiring of London and wishing to move himself, a few years later Ken transferred his publishing activities to the north, first basing himself in Altrincham, then Macclesfield where he is still living.

Being a realist he realised he could not edit and publish Mountain magazine for ever and so in 1978 he sold out to a group based in Sheffield, headed by Tim Lewis, his wife Pat and Paul Nunn.

Wizz then set up the first of his book publishing enterprises with Ken Vickers as his partner, and this new imprint, Diadem, quickly made its mark. He had already edited The Black Cliff (1971 jointly with Pete Crew and Jack Soper), Hard Rock (1975) and Classic Rock (1978) whilst working with other mainstream publishers, but now he took on the whole of the publishing process for himself. In quick succession he produced further titles in the ‘Classic’ format: Cold Climbs, Extreme Rock and Classic Walks. But there were also some other groundbreaking titles such as, The Games Climber’s Play, Mirrors in the Cliffs and Irvine Butterfield’s ‘The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland’. This latter being referred to as the bible of the native Peak bagger, and several reissues of out of print classics and omnibus editions of such as Shipton’s and Tilman’s classic books.

There is a long tradition of national publishers having an interest in producing mountaineering books, although this seems to depend on who is running a company at any particular time. It was Longman’s who sent Edward Whymper, a young wood block engraver to the Alps for the first time in order to prepare a series of Alpine sketches for them. Another Company with a long history of publishing climbing books was Hodder and Stoughton, and in 1989, aware of a dynamic presence in this field, they made a bid for and took over Diadem keeping Ken as the Managing Editor. Initially this worked well with two outstanding coffee table picture books being produced, Chris Bonington ‘Mountaineer’ and Doug Scott ‘Himalayan Climber’, both of which were best sellers. But then with the onward march of globalisation, and the swallowing up of smaller fish by bigger ones, Hodder’s was taken over by Headline, and Diadem was decided by them to be surplus to requirements. And so Ken struck out on his own and formed a new publishing company in 1993,called ‘Baton Wicks’

This has continued where Diadem left off, in 1994 Dermot Somers’ ‘At the Rising of the Moon’ and in 1997 Paul Pritchard’s ‘Deep Play’ were both Boardman/Tasker Literature Prize, winners. In 2002 W.H.Murray’s autobiography, ‘The evidence of things not seen’ won the Grand Jury Prize at Banff. Ken’s latest project is a complete re-vamp of Classic Rock with new photographs and up to date graphics. This will be something like his 60th publication!

When Wizz moved north to live in Altrincham he was soon drawn in to attending Tuesday night climbing meets of the All Stars. This group formed from Manchester/Peak based climbers and included such as Martin Boysen, Trevor Jones, Dave Pearce, Malcolm Howells, Chris Bonington, Mark Vallance etc. Apart from Boysen, Howells and Pearce they were more alpinists than top rock jocks, but when they zoned in on a crag on the appointed mid-week evening, they were good value for an exciting evening. Ken fitted in well as the group’s publicist and a journeyman climber.

On several occasions the All Stars visited our local West Yorkshire outcrops. And sometimes they experienced difficulties. The first indication we Tykes had that they would visit was a warning phone call from Wizz. On one occasion I met them at Almscliff and was invited by Ken to be his local expert. I pointed Wilson and a youthful partner at the Traditional Climb (VS), and the kid was sent forth to lead this. He managed about ten feet of ascent, then winged in a large Hex into the crack, the next moment he was pulling on this, and then gasping he persuaded his second to first hold his weight then to lower him back down to the ground.

Ken whispered to me, ‘I can’t understand it, he led Slanting Slab on Cloggy at the weekend’. ‘Maybe he is still tired out from that effort?’ I suggested. Snorting like a bull Wizz pulled the rope through and then set off to lead the route himself. It was a case from thereon of hands, knees and bumps a daisy, but using the friction from off his moleskin breeches and Helly Polar jacket to the full he wobbled his way to the top of the route. ‘Bloody fantastic’, ‘Frankland (who made the first ascent circa 1920) must have been a great climber’ ‘Incredible jams’ etc, was then shouted out at full volume around the Crag.

You always know when Ken is on a crag and he is always up front with his comments. Instance his turning up at Almscliff on another occasion and seeing a young climber soloing such routes as The Wall of Horrors and Western Front shouted up at him, ‘Oy…… are you  that guy Ron Fawcett?’ ‘Am I climbing that bloody bad?’ was the laconic reply from one Mike Hamill, who at that date could fairly have been seen as a rival to fellow local boy Ron.   

On other West Yorkshire visits members of the All Stars were to find our climbs even more unforgiving. On one occasion at Caley Crags they were falling like the Autumnal leaves, and the result was a dislocated shoulder and a sprained ankle and on another occasion a badly fractured leg at Greetland Quarry. Mike Browell who unfortunately was the victim on that occasion has written that these meets were testosterone fuelled, solo, fests!

One of my own keenest memories of Wizz was when he and I were the BMC representatives on the Plas y Brenin Management Committee, and we met to appoint a new Director of the Centre. Ken a great devotee of the novels of C P Snow loves the cut and thrust of such gatherings, and thus it was that he earned the sobriquet of ‘The BMC’s tame rottweiler’.

In a committee meeting he is a tireless debater, and a handful for any Chairman to deal with. However on that occasion, Jack Longland who had been in the Chair for a very long day, when I apologised if in our enthusiasm to get our candidate, John Barry, into position, Wizz had overplayed our hand, responded with an ‘Oh no!’ ‘ Ken is actually a real sweetie!’

Without reference to me Ken challenged two young hot shots of the Welsh scene at that time to a ‘race’ up Dinas Mot as soon as the meeting had finished. And when we arrived at the base of the crag they were waiting. It was agreed that Billy Wayman and Nigel Shepherd would climb up West Rib (HVS), whilst Ken and I would tackle Western Slabs (VS). We set off climbing when Wizz shouted out ‘OFF!’

I had not climbed the route before, but in the lead I was levitated up the cliff by Ken urging me on in full voice. ‘I had not realised how good you were!’  ‘Faster, they are catching you.’

I had never previously been keen on such an idea as racing up cliffs, and when I had seen the Russian climbers at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 give an exhibition of their speed climbing, I found this both hilarious and worthless. However with Ken’s enthusiasm driving me on I ran out about 140 feet of rope at speed. Ken then came running up the cliff, and shot into the lead to climb a steep groove above our heads. I then seconded this and led another short groove and we were on the top, well ahead of the local experts. The losers had to buy the drinks and we repaired to the bar of the PYG, where news of the appointment of Captain John Barry as the new Director of Plas y Brenin had preceded us. For some reason Chris Briggs then the landlord of the PYG and his wife were not best pleased about this. I guess it might have been because they were friends with some of the other candidates and I was subjected to some harsh criticism as this was seen as a BMC organised coup. For once Ken kept his head down, and enjoyed watching me take the flak, while nodding serenely in agreement as if he was a total innocent in the whole matter.

Ken’s love of climbing is still as keen as it ever was, and although he is now travelling on a Bus Pass, his enthusiasm for traditional British rock routes is undiminished. The new edition of Classic Rock will testify to this, as will his continued campaigning to preserve all that is best in this area of our sport. His contempt for bolts and particularly retro-bolting are so well known that the message does not need repeating here. He does on occasion to cement his arguments over egg his pudding, but it is good that such a vigorous and outspoken character is always ready to defend our tradition of bold and self protected climbs. And long may it be so!

 Dennis Gray:Loose Scree March 2007