Ted Wilson: Character of a Cliff Climber

“Auto racing, bull fighting, and mountain climbing are

the only real sports…all others are games.”

–Ernest Hemingway quote

–Ted Wilson conviction

climbing photos 006

On lead-1962 Cottonwood Granite

In and around Salt Lake City, the question “Who is Ted Wilson?” has several different answers, depending on who you ask. Some know Wilson as the three-time mayor responsible for rebuilding Salt Lake’s water treatment system and giving the International Airport a new face, the same mayor who expanded the city’s parks and green space and passed the first foothill preservation ordinances. Others will know him as a professor and the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the U. There are some who say that Wilson is a writer, who’s published two books and numerous columns and editorials, mostly featuring interests and concerns in Utah and throughout the west. And there are others who will say that Ted Wilson is the acting Executive Director of the Utah Rivers Council.

Each of these answers is correct. With his long list of titles and accomplishments it seems a little complicated to get down to the bare bones of who Ted Wilson is. The simplest answer to this question was by a group of climbers drinking beer and eating chicken wings at the trolley car in Trolley Square. When asked, one of them answered, “Isn’t that the guy who mapped out all those routes in Little Cottonwood Canyon?”

With all of his life experience, teaching, government service, distant travels from the Alps to Alaska to the Andes and the Himalayas (which even includes a once in a lifetime visit with the Dalai Lama), to sum Wilson up simply as a mountaineer would suit him just fine. Wilson does not hesitate to credit all of these achievements to the lessons he learned climbing Little Cottonwood Canyon, a place he calls his “heart and soul.”

Wilson grew up playing and skiing in the mountains that were his home. He discovered his love for the sport of climbing, however, in Yellowstone. He and his friend Glen Adamson were bussing tables at a restaurant in Mammoth the summer of 1958. Sitting outside with some men Wilson describes as “Old Salts,” they stared at the rugged and steep rock of Mt. Evert. One of the Old Salts pointed to it and said, “Nobody can climb that face,” to which the other Salts agreed. Wilson hadn’t climbed much of anything at that point and didn’t think Mt. Evert was much to look at, but he liked the idea of a challenge. A twenty-dollar wager later, he and his friend were on a mission to the top.

Wilson and Adamson took a bed sheet and forded the river, (which he admits now might have been more dangerous than the climb itself.) They headed up for about five hours or so, kicking their boots into the dirt face before scrambling up 150 feet of limestone until they reached a chimney. Pulling themselves up through the opening, they reached the top, surmounting the assumed insurmountable. They briefly enjoyed the view and then tied a sheet to the rock for everyone below to see. Back at the restaurant it was time to collect on their bet. They pointed to their victory sheet waving at the top of Mt. Evert. The Salts replied, “I don’t see any sheet.” And to their disappointment the Salts were unable — or perhaps unwilling — even with binoculars to see the giant piece of fabric waving at the summit.

Twenty dollars or not, a climber was born. Wilson got the bug, a feeling he describes as, “something down deep awakened in me.” That something drove him to climb everything he could climb that summer, including Mt. Electric, the highest peak in Yellowstone, the very next week. “I had youth, strength, and guts—all the things that make a climber. Deep in my bones I knew this was for me. This was mine.”

With his newfound love for climbing and adventure he returned to Utah to take on new challenges. The Wasatch Mountain Club, led by Harold Goodro, had been establishing routes in the quartzite rock of Big Cottonwood Canyon. Yet this club had stayed wary of the gray granite of Little Cottonwood, because they found it unstable and complained that the rock bent their pitons.

“It was a reasonable complaint,” Wilson says. “At the time, pitons were imported from Austria. They were made of soft iron and would bend in the cracks and you couldn’t get them out. At two dollars a piece, leaving a piton behind would get kind of expensive.” It was also a reasonable complaint for safety’s sake. Wilson explains that they only had eight or nine on a rack and the climbing was bold, with 30-foot run-outs, which meant a 60-foot fall on a ruined piton.

In the small community of American climbers, Wilson had befriended Yvon Chounaird. Before Chounaird founded Chounaird Equipment, which later became the sportswear empire of Patagonia, he was an eccentric. He was living in California in an old incinerator, doing blacksmith work, and learning on his own to create better tools to climb. In the 1960’s Chounaird developed the next phase of pitons in America, making them out of alloy steel. These new unyielding pitons had a dramatic effect on the sport.

Wilson brought a bunch of them back to Utah, and with Bob Stout climbed Chicken Head Holiday, the first official route on the granite of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Wilson explains, “It was a high quality route, and nobody else would try it. Bob turned to me and said, ‘All this granite is ours!’”

And it was theirs, at least for a little while. Wilson says that even though climbing was an established sport, there wasn’t near the amount of interest that there is today. “They called us ‘Cliff Climbers’ and they thought we were nuts, and we didn’t argue with them. We liked it that way.” Those first ascents in Little Cottonwood were a far cry from the line waits, crowded routes, or even what some might see as territorial competition that can happen today on the granite slabs of LCC—the same granite slabs that no one wanted to climb in the late 50’s.

Wilson says that when he started climbing, the prevailing attitude was to share. “I don’t know if we ever really thought about being the first [to climb a certain route],” he remembers. Not only did they share equipment innovation with California climbers, they shared techniques and credit for mapping the climbs as well. For example, the first 5-10 established in LCC was The Thumb, a route Wilson climbed with Royal Robbins, and is named after Robbins. Wilson says, “There wasn’t much professional competition, I guess because you couldn’t make a living as a climber. You either had a day job or you were dirt poor living off a cup of ramen.”

When asked about the growth of climbing as a competitive sport and even the aggressive attitude that some climbers have, Wilson says, “I’m for all types of climbing. My son is great at bouldering and can do stuff that I could never do in a gym—but get him out on a mountain…” When asked about speed climbing or the drive to climb 5-16 routes, Wilson says, “Why not? We have to continually create new challenges since most of the climbing world has been discovered. I admire those people. I couldn’t climb a 5-16 with a rocket on my butt.”

He might not have climbed a 5-16, but Wilson has had some unbelievable experiences climbing, especially when he was working as a park ranger at Grand Teton National Park. He says his most dangerous time on a mountain was a rescue on the North Face of the Grand Teton in 1967. “We lowered a guy 2,000 vertical feet with poor rescue equipment, spent three days, [we] did a 300-foot body rappel to pass a knot in the rope, [and] had lots of rock and icefall coming down.”

Although the rescue was precarious, it was successful and it earned Wilson a Valor Award from the Department of the Interior. When asked if there was any climb that made him want to quit the sport altogether Wilson says, “I did some big climbs in the Alps that were pretty hairy, and I wished I’d stayed near the hearth, but most of my climbing career has been without terrible incident.”

Climbing is dangerous. There is no way around it. Wilson describes climbing as, “powerfully both adventure and personal physical challenge. It is so relentless and takes so much out of you that there is no way to take it casually.” And because of the intensity of the challenge the mountain brings, Wilson believes that the reward is just as powerful.

Alpenbock Climbing Seminar-LCC 1964 Royal Robbins in the white hat

Alpenbock Climbing Seminar-LCC 1964 Royal Robbins in the white hat

When considering why he climbs, and why it brings him so much gratitude, Wilson describes his experience as transcendent. “[Climbing] can allow a Zen-like state of meditation. I like to get there by moving fast and moving solid . . . there are times when I stop and enjoy the scenery and have a quiet moment of reflection.” He says that is the place where you can forget about the 5-16’s, being fast, being the first and all the other competitive facets of the sport, to give way to simply enjoying the compatibility of the mountains. When asked about his favorite part of climbing, Wilson says that for those who pay attention, “the mountain can teach you how to climb it.”

Wilson’s checklist of what they used to climb with seems pretty sparse. No chock nuts, no camming devices, not even harnesses—not to mention the latest and greatest in ultimate climbing shoes. Since rock climbing magazines can read cover to cover like glossy gear commercials with bigger pictures of the equipment itself than of the mountains they feature, it is remarkable to see what very little they started out with, and how much of that equipment was in its trial and error phase.

When asked why climbers get somewhat obsessive over their gear Wilson explains, “Gear is the invitation to discovery. It is a necessary part of climbing, however, it is not climbing.” Instead it is very much about the mountain for Wilson. Ropes, harnesses, carabineers, and even shoes are just the means of getting there. Wilson prefers climbing big mountains. He likes to have 25- to 30-foot run-outs and taking minimal gear because he says, “[having too much] can get in the way, and ruin my experience.” He says you have to prepare for the weather of course, and you want to bring what will help you move as fast as possible, “it’s about handling the ropes well, no tangling, no mess.” Wilson brings whatever he needs to get up the mountain and get back down in time for a cold beverage. He’s still a minimalist, just as when he started.

There is however, equipment that he finds absolutely necessary. “I would not do without a harness. Falling on a tied rope is at best uncomfortable and at worst dangerous,” Wilson recalls. “A friend of mine fell over an overhang in the Tetons and his belayer could not budge him. He died of organ constriction. This would not happen with a harness.”

Ted Wilson has a long list of achievements and could probably spend his time and efforts with any of numerous organizations. So why does he choose to contribute most of his time to the Utah Rivers Council? “I make so much money here,” Wilson says.

To put the rare (although appreciated) sarcasm aside, taking on a position where you get called a “damned environmentalist” at every turn probably has more to do with his character, developed after years of climbing. When Wilson was first starting out he made friends with Willi Unsoeld, one of the first Americans to climb Mt. Everest. Unsoeld made a profound impression on Wilson, passing along a reverence for nature, first hand experience, and the importance of education. When you look at Wilson’s achievements you can see how his life exemplifies these values.

But does the act of climbing itself necessarily make you an environmentalist? Wilson thinks so, “climbing teaches you how fragile the environment is.” This acknowledgement of how vulnerable the environment can be strongly influences how Wilson feels about such controversies as Dean Potter climbing Delicate Arch, and thus losing his sponsorship. Wilson says, “That’s just stupidity—leaving a groove in the arch like that. He should have lost his sponsorship. He broke the law.”

At the Utah Rivers Council

At the Utah Rivers Council

It seems to bother Wilson more that a climber would commit such an offense. “You learn to protect the things you appreciate.” Wilson goes on to say, “I don’t believe in cheats,” Wilson states, talking about some climbers who choose to chip out holds in the mountain to get by on difficult routes. “The choices you make are what defines you.” Instead, the whole point of climbing to Wilson is to face the difficult choices, and even life dependent decisions, and overcome them with integrity—without cheats.

The Utah Rivers Council is Wilson’s way of protecting Utah’s unique natural landscape and taking on the challenge he calls, “the environmental quagmire we are slowly slipping into.” And when considering the Rivers Council he says, “This vineyard is a place to grow good grapes.”

A major priority of the Council at this point is protecting the Jordan River. Wilson explains, “Some agencies don’t pay much attention, and don’t plan very well which leads to making decisions in crisis mode.” By being a watchdog over Utah’s waterways Wilson acts to cast a light on problem areas and find better ways to solve them.

“We can hopefully save beautiful hot springs, and wetlands, and flyways for migrating birds.” The Rivers Council is also involved in the controversial battle over protecting a 3,000-year-old archeological site, which happens to be the same location where UTA wants to build a station. Wilson and the Rivers Council have also worked to protect the Supreme Court ruling to uphold rights for anglers and boaters, and want to eliminate poorly planned dams and diversions however profitable for outside groups.

As a climber, Wilson says he learned to do the hard thing over take the easy way out. When discussing the environment Wilson says, “We need to express restraint in what we do.” His advocacy for conservation has a lot to with having 12 grandkids, and thinking about what kind of world they will inherit. He wants it to be one with healthy water supplies, unscarred mountains, and unobstructed views. Wilson says, “When I was growing up we had space, security, and freedom. It was a sweet spot in history, and I want to work to keep part of that available for kids growing up today.”

Sarah Tackett is a writer living in Salt Lake City, via Kentucky. Yes, Sarah has climbed Red River Gorge. She enjoys hiking, camping, and living to tell about it.

Somewhere in the Tetons

Somewhere in the Tetons

3 Responses to “Ted Wilson: Character of a Cliff Climber”

  1. I am not biased by any means (!!), but thank you for this fact-rich and well-written piece about Ted. Some of our closest friends have read the story and told us they learned details about Ted’s life they never knew before. Thanks again for recognizing a great athlete and decent man.

    Holly Mullen Wilson

  2. thanks

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  3. You missed one of Ted’s alter egos. Though we also know him from wearing other hats, he is first and foremost my daughter Laurel’s ski coach when she was racing.

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