June 2011: Freddie Wilkinson '98
Freddie Wilkinson ’98 is a professional climber, a mountain guide, and a writer, who has combined his love for the outdoors with his passion for adventure. He is the author of the recently published book One Mountain, Thousand Summits – The Untold Story of Tragedy and True Heroism on K2.
A true outdoor enthusiast, Wilkinson credits his parents with helping him to cultivate this interest. “I played all the usual sports when I was young, but I came to the realization that I was probably not going to be playing professional sports because I didn’t excel in any of those traditional activities. When I got cut from a hockey team, my parents bought me a back pack and sleeping bag, encouraging me to follow my passion for the outdoors.” But it was literature that inspired his progression to climbing. “I devoured issues of National Geographic and other publications and books whenever possible and was always intrigued by the mountaineering adventures.” One of those books was K2: The Savage Mountain, co-written by the late Dr. Charles Houston, a foremost authority on altitude medicine and a member of the Hotchkiss Class of 1931. According to Wilkinson, Houston’s book is “one of the all-time classics in adventure literature. He was part of a tight cadre of guys who went to Harvard and got into climbing. They were true Renaissance men and still serve as an inspiration for current day climbers. What are the chances of two alums sixty years apart writing books about the same mountain?”
Wilkinson’s parents gave him a trip to Alaska for a climbing adventure as a present when he graduated from Hotchkiss. “The conditions were bad and the climb failed, but I was living my dream. My parents hired guides to make sure I did it safely, and these guides were my first informal mentors.” That fall Wilkinson entered Dartmouth College, where he had both the freedom and the opportunity to climb. After college, he spent time as a guide in Alaska’s Denali National Park and elsewhere, and has since made many ascents, including those of peaks in Patagonia and the Himalayas.
Along with climbing and guiding, Wilkinson frequently contributes to many of the most popular climbing websites and publications. While researching the August 2008 disaster on K2, where eleven climbers lost their lives, for a story for Rock and Ice, his curiosity was piqued. He had blogged about the tragedy and knew it was a big news story, way beyond the typical outdoors adventure. He had expected someone to write in depth about the incident, but no one had. “I thought it should be written about by somebody experienced in climbing so that the context would be correct. I wanted to raise the level of discussion and to explore the role of the climbing-Sherpas. No one was digging into the tragedy as it should have been done. Analyzing accidents and gathering the lessons are an important part of this sport. Early on I realized that the right way to tell this story would be to tell it from the perspectives of many.”
Wilkinson spent the better part of the next two years working on the book. “I made three trips to Nepal and went to the Netherlands, Ireland, Colorado, New York City, and Massachusetts to interview survivors and their families. It was critical to interview people in person to really feel the depth of the tragedy. It was touchy terrain -- people had lost best friends and family members. Talking to the Sherpas was key, and having had the experience of being a guide myself - that was where a lot of my reportorial instincts originated. A guide who has had the experience of getting down the mountain at the end of the day has a much different story to tell. The Sherpas are the experts. I knew if I could access their impressions of events, the story would be accurate. In addition, it was important to consider the Sherpas’ point of view through an understanding of their lifestyle, religion, and outlook on life.” When asked if Western climbers take advantage of Nepalese Sherpas, Wilkinson admits, “It happens. But it is also inaccurate to portray all Sherpas as virtuous. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes.”
Wilkinson views himself as lucky. “I have three different jobs. As an independent guide based in the Mount Washington Valley of New Hampshire, I work in conjunction with several different services and give guided climbs and technical instruction year-round. Though I’ve had many opportunities to travel and climb around the globe, for diverse, accessible climbing adventures the White Mountains are second to none. I also work with outdoor industry companies generating media content. And I do investigative, narrative writing.” On his most recent trip to Nepal, Wilkinson worked as a producer on a documentary. Another book is on the horizon.
Through tragedy and triumph, people continue to climb mountains. “For me personally,” says Wilkinson, “it is an incredibly satisfying journey, the most complete challenge that I have found. It is a physical, mental, strategic, intellectual challenge, and assimilating all of these things is thrilling. While training and certification are slowly being adopted for those working in the trekking industry, the unfortunate truth is that climbing accidents have always happened and will continue to happen.”
As for his time in Lakeville, Wilkinson says, “Hotchkiss gave me a strong background in writing. I will never forget my Shakespeare and the Bible class with former faculty member Roy Smith, aka ‘Uncle Roy.’ My time on the cross-country team was pivotal to what I do today. Mountain climbing is portrayed as adrenalin sport, but it is similar to running. It takes discipline and the ability to embrace difficult and uncomfortable situations. I am thankful for my time spent with coaches Charlie Bell and Ron Laurence.” Wilkinson returned to campus in January to talk about his book and equated that event to another recent experience when he did a book reading in downstate Connecticut. “My third grade teacher showed up! It reminded me how important teachers are and that they provide you with some of your most powerful and amazing life experiences. ”
Alumni page portrait of Freddie Wilkinson by Ben Ditto