Ken Wilson obituary | Mountaineering

In the early 1970s, an editor at the Hart-Davis publisher, MacGibbon phoned climber and magazine editor Ken Wilson with a proposal. A rather dry German mountaineering book of selected climbs had worked well. Would Wilson do something similar in Britain? His response was typical, both for its frankness and its vision: “You won’t want to do the kind of book that I want.” But Wilson, who died at the age of 75, succeeded and in 1974 published Hard Rock, one of the most influential climbing books of the 20th century.

For what was essentially a collection of illustrated essays by various authors on the best rock climbing in Britain, Wilson – thanks to his boundless energy and already considerable reputation as a guiding force in the climbing world – was able to attract top climbers such as Chris Bonington and Royal Robbins, as well as top climbing writers including Jim Perrin and Ed Drummond. He even got a tryout from Al Alvarez. As Wilson had promised, the book made no concessions to the uninitiated. He knew his audience like the back of his hand, had a seemingly limitless appetite for work, and had no time for the kind of sensational foam that many of his competitors traded. Authenticity was key and his clients loved him for it. Ultimately, he helped shape the world he described.

Wilson followed Hard Rock with a series of similar titles and, together with book distributor Ken Vickers, started a publishing company, Diadem, which they later sold to Hodder & Stoughton. Following Hodder’s merger with Headline, Wilson left and started over with a new company, Baton Wicks. His specialty was the compendium. Mountaineering is suitable for the shortest essay, and Wilson produced two large volumes of it, editing the first, The Games Climbers Play (1978). He then published collections of the work of heroes of the past, notably the great explorer mountaineers of the 1930s, Eric Shipton and HW Tilman, as well as the ecologist John Muir.

Having started climbing and walking with the Boy Scouts in the early 1950s, Wilson had a solid understanding of the British world of mountain walking and published books that had all the depth of knowledge and integrity of those he produced on mountaineering. They were equally popular, including The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland (1986) by Irvine Butterfield and several collaborations with traveling writer Richard Gilbert. You could hardly be a hiker or climber in Britain without having one of Wilson’s books on your shelves.

He was born in Solihull, the son of John, a stationery salesman, and his wife, Blanche (née Colman), and after leaving school in Solihull studied architecture and photography at Birmingham College of Art . He moved to London and worked for four years for architectural photographer Henk Snoek. When a job came up running a Hostel Association magazine called Mountain Craft, he saw a chance.

By then Wilson had been climbing and walking for 15 years, starting with a holiday in the Lake District in 1953, the year Everest was climbed. He had grown up with future communist organizer Dave Cook, and the two had mountains in common. They went to the Alps together for the first time on a Mountaineering Association route, climbing 19 peaks around Arolla. Although he was never a leader, Wilson climbed a number of impressive alpine routes, including the Younggrat on the Breithorn.

In the 1960s he was a charismatic force in the cool young climbing scene that developed in Llanberis, North Wales. Competitive, loud and opinionated, Wilson was a keen observer of the talent around him. When he took over Mountain Craft, it quickly became a natural platform to share his passion and use his connections. He quickly bought the magazine, changed its name to Mountain, and relaunched it with a new design that captured the vibe of a rapidly changing world.

During the 1970s Wilson maintained a network of correspondents around the world and for a time Mountain was the international forum for all things mountaineering. For all his exuberant confidence, Wilson was remarkably outgoing and collegial, an incendiary preacher who led a very broad church, pairing lofty overviews of the Himalayan scene with satirical takes on the pomp of its stars by Tom Patey and the brilliant cartoonist Sheridan Anderson. The magazine also had serious journalistic credentials, exposing fraudulent climbers and producing exemplary coverage of the 1971 Cairngorm tragedy when six youngsters perished in a storm.

On top of all this, Wilson was immersed in the tumult of climbing politics, with sometimes Machiavellian taste, campaigning for women to join the Climbers’ Club, serving on committees of the British Mountaineering Council, advising the editors of guides, directing policy and all the while making his strong opinions known to successive generations of new stars on the ethical direction his beloved mountaineering should take. This made him, in many ways, a sports conscience.

He met his wife, Gloria, living in North London in the mid-1960s. They married in 1971, had two sons, Andrew and Owen, and moved to Cheshire. They all survive him.

Kenneth John Wilson, publisher and editor, born February 7, 1941; died on June 11, 2016