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Obituary: Richard Gilbert

Monday 26th February 2018, 9:42am

Prolific hill walking writer Richard Gilbert died earlier this year at the age of 80, after battling long-term illness for a number of years.

Richard Gilbert’s name will feature on many walking and climbing bookshelves as the author of a number of books including Memorable Munros, The Classic Walks, Hillwalking in Scotland, and Mountaineering for All.

Born in Lancaster in 1937, he began his outdoor exploits at age 11, cycling 70 miles with a friend to stay in a hostel. By the time he left school at 18, he was trying to make an early ‘three peaks’ ascent by aiming for Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon in 24 hours. He failed, burnt out in the Lakes, after climbing Ben Nevis in just 2 hours 35 minutes.

He was president of Oxford University Mountaineering Club while reading chemistry there, and spent most of his weekends climbing in North Wales or Derbyshire, with holidays taking him to Skye, the Lake District, the Alps and winter climbing in Scotland.

He met his wife, Trisha Roberts, during a club weekend in North Wales and the couple subsequently had four children. Professionally, he worked as a chemistry teacher at Ampleforth College, North Yorkshire for 30 years, where he was a popular and respected teacher, and weekends saw him climbing, and holidays were spent climbing in the Alps.

However he lost his enthusiasm for technical rock climbing after a big fall in Wales in the ‘60s, followed by the climbing death of a friend and the fact that he was now starting a family. His love of the Scottish hills, especially in winter or spring conditions, also helped divert his interests away from rock climbing and onto hill walking.

After this he mostly concentrated on the Scottish Munros and non-technical Alpine ascents, as well as mountaineering in Norway, Iceland, Atlas, Wind Rivers (Rockies) etc.   

In 1971 he compleated all the Munros, becoming the 101st Munroist, compleating on Bidean nam Bian, Glen Coe.

From his teaching job at Ampleforth College, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he set up and ran the Ampleforth College Mountaineering Club where he taught boys to rock climb on local crags, and he led almost annual expeditions for the pupils to exotic locations, as well as frequent trips to Scotland, where he took teenage boys on back-packing and camping adventures in the Cairngorms and up challenging peaks in winter conditions in March.

The most ambitious of these was in 1977 when he led the first every party from a UK school to climb in the Himalaya. For this he received a Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship Award.   

However Richard was best known from his prolific writing. As well as occasional articles published in the Alpine Journal, Richard was a regular columnist for High Magazine, with ‘Richard Gilbert’s Walking World’.

And he was author of several mountaineering and hill walking books, including the classic coffee-table series with Ken Wilson: Big Walks, Classic Walks, and Wild Walks, which were the walking equivalents of the likes of Classic Rock and Hard Rock, and on which a 1980s Chanel 4 TV series called ‘Great Walks’ was based.

His best-selling book Exploring the Far North West of Scotland won Best Guidebook in the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild awards in 1995.

His books included:

1. Memorable Munros (1976, 1978, then by Diadem Books Ltd 1983)

2. Hillwalking in Scotland (1979, Thornhill Press)

3. Young Explorers (1979, GH Smith & Son)

4. The Big Walks (1980, Diadem Books Ltd)

5. Mountaineering for All (1981, Batsford)

6. Classic Walks (1982, Diadem Books Ltd)

7. Wild Walks (1988, Diadem Books Ltd)

8. Richard Gilbert’s 200 Challenging Walks in Britain and Ireland (1990, Diadem Books Ltd)

9. Exploring the Far North West of Scotland (1994, Cordee)

10. Lonely Hills and Wilderness Trails (2000, David & Charles)

11. York – a photographic history of your city (2002, Black Horse Books, WH Smith)

Richard was also an active campaigner for outdoor access, the environment and Scotland’s wild land, and he was a long-term member and supporter of the John Muir Trust and the Scottish Wild Land Group.

He was plagued with a hereditary kidney disease, and had to start dialysis in 1998, where he was tied to a machine for four hours per session, three times a week. Despite this, he managed to maintain his adventurous lifestyle by arranging visiting dialysis sessions in Inverness, Mallorca, New Zealand etc.

He was on dialysis for nine years before getting a kidney transplant, before that needing open heart surgery so that he was fit enough for a transplant, and was finally free again to travel to the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands and Islands. However, long-term dialysis and transplants came at a major cost to his health, and he suffered a major stroke in 2014 that partially paralysed his left arm and left leg. He fought hard to recover, maintained his positive attitude and still managed to feed his passion for the mountains by driving to the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and even, in 2017, to Ullapool.

He died on 16th January 2018, aged 80, at York Hospital.