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Walt Unsworth

Remembering Walt Unsworth

In June 2017, Walt Unsworth, the founder of Cicerone Press and legend of mountain writing, publishing and editing died. Cicerone's current directors and many Cicerone authors share their fond memories of Walt.

Thoughts from Jonathan and Lesley Williams

Walt founded Cicerone with his wife Dorothy and Brian and Aileen Evans back in 1969. The first guides were climbing guides to the Lake District and Cairngorms. Walt and Brian were fed up with waiting for other guide publishers so decided to show them how it should be done. The guides sold, they reinvested the earnings, and so a publisher was born.

Cicerone, which is the Italian word for a guide, quickly expanded into its trekking, mountaineering and walking niche where the business has developed ever since, adding cycling and broadening internationally over the years, so that it is now the leading specialist publisher in this field, both in the UK and worldwide.

An author as well as a publisher, Walt was also the editor of Climber magazine and one of the instigators of TGO. He wrote definitive historical studies to Mont Blanc and Everest, amongst over 20 books over four decades of writing. These were mainly mountaineering books but Walt also wrote two novels.

Originally from Lancashire and a teacher in his early career, Walt and Dorothy moved from near Manchester to Milnthorpe just outside the Lake District to concentrate on Cicerone and writing.

As well as winning a range of prizes for his writing, Walt was also a founder of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild.

Many authors, trekkers and mountaineers have been inspired by Walt’s positivity and creative ideas. Walt, with Dorothy, Brian and Aileen were fine mentors to Jonathan and Lesley Williams when Cicerone changed hands in 1999. Walt and Dorothy continued to live in Milnthorpe, about 100m up the road from the Cicerone offices and Walt used to pop in from time to time to welcome new team members and check up on what was going on, always having a cogent view on new projects.

Our thoughts are with Dorothy and the family at this difficult time.

Thank you, Walt, and God bless.

Jonathan and Lesley Williams

Words from Cicerone authors

Tom Corker (Scrambles in Dark Peak)

As a young climber in the 1960's the little winter climbs guide books were a revelation and opened up a whole new world of opportunity for us. Before it was word of mouth and speculative probings. Likewise the Snowdonia and lake district scrambles guides opened up another world of fun, which we still enjoy.

Terry Adby (The Hillwalker’s Guide to Mountaineering):

The world needs lovers of life more than ever and is ever diminished by the loss of such pioneers of the positive. Although I didn't know him personally, for someone of my generation, Walt was one of those whose very name was an inspiration and, if it happened to be on the cover of a book, a guarantee of quality, integrity and of passion. I would be very grateful if you could please pass on my respects to his family, albeit mine are the sympathies of stranger whose life Walt unknowingly touched through his good works.

Andy Newton (Welsh Winter Climbs):

As well as the winter guide, I worked for Walt for some years writing for Climber & Hillwalker magazine and I was always in awe of Walt's knowledge and experience. He was a huge figure in mountaineering literature and rightly so. He will be sorely missed.

Steve Kew (Walking the Munros):

What a fine legacy it is to have inspired and set up a company like Cicerone.

Tony Howard and Di Taylor (Jordan – Walks, Treks, Caves, Climbs and Canyons, Treks and Climbs in Wadi Rum, Jordan):

It was Walt who requested my Romsdal guide in very early Cicerone days in the late 1960s. A lovely man who I have always respected.

Colin Saunders (The High Tatras):

When as a previously unpublished author I proposed writing a book about the High Tatras, of several publishers I contacted Walt was the only one to express interest and eventually of course took it on, so I am especially grateful to him for that.

Peter Koch-Osborne (The Scottish Glens Series):

I well remember my first meeting with Walt when, much to my delight, not only did he accept my first book, he said “I’ll give you a contract for the first three books!”. The Cairngorm Glens was to be THE book; the idea of a series had never occurred to me!

Ömer Tüzel (The Ala Dag):

I read many of his books and he was the reason I chose to offer my manuscript of the Ala Dag guide to Cicerone back in the early 90s. He was not only an inspiration back home in England but also abroad as in my case.

Jim Sutherland (Walking in Torridon):

I am sorry to hear that such an inspiration character such as Walt has passed away. You'll know how sad it was when Chris Lowe died and Cicerone have made sure the Torridon guidebook is a fitting memory to him. I know that you will continue to do the same thing for Walt.

Robin Walker (Walks and climbs in the Picos de Europa):

I owe most of my first publications on mountaineering to Walt, who clearly wasn't put off by the fact that most British mountaineers at that time had no idea that the Picos de Europa even existed. I'd be grateful if you would pass on my condolences to his family, together with my gratitude for the support he showed me as a totally novice author.

Alan Hinkes (8000m):

He was a legend.

Richard Hartley (Walking and Trekking in the Sierra Nevada - new ed.):

Although I never met Walt I read plenty of his books and writings in my youth and later years. These were always an inspiration for me to cast my eyes to the hills and venture forth.

Andy Walmsley (Walking in the Sierra Nevada, Walking in Scotland’s Far North):

I first met Walt (and Brian) when I started my guide to Sierra Nevada back in the early 1990s. I always held him in high esteem, almost awe.
I hope there are mountains where he’s gone.

Alison Raju (Via Francigena: Canterbury to Rome, The Way of St James):

He didn't give me a contract straight away but suggested I prepare a sample section for him when I returned, to give him an idea of how I would do things, and on which basis I then signed a contract…It was also easier though, conversely, to ask one's employers for an unpaid leave of absence for the purpose and in the knowledge that the pilgrim's job would still be waiting for him/her on his/her return. Walt envisaged this type of pilgrim, who did one very long journey once in a lifetime, during which he/she was completely cut off from his/her home surroundings, language, culture etc. He would not have foreseen the situation we have today where, with the proliferation of budget airlines making shorter trips more practical, compounded with the difficulties of getting a job back on return (or a new one, as the case may be), all coupled with a growing disinclination of people to ‘leave home’ and disconnect from email, mobile phone access and so on so that they ‘take their house with them’ when they set out on the Camino. Walt would therefore have been unlikely to have anticipated the rise of the ‘Camino Collectors’ phenomenon, people who, having completed one pilgrim itinerary are already looking for their next project...Walt was one of a kind, of his own times in many ways but also very much ahead of it in others.

Other kind words came in from other Cicerone authors, including:

Martin Collins (The Teesdale Way)

Phoebe Smith (The Book of the Bothy)

Mike Townsend (Walking on Uist and Barra)

Sian Pritchard-Jones (Trekking in the Himalaya, The Mount Kailash Trek, The Grand Canyon)

Tim Salmon (The Mountains of Greece)

Allan Hartley (Trekking in the Stubai Alps, Trekking in the Zillertal Alps, Trekking in Austria’s Hohe Tauern, Trekking in the Alps)

John and Andrea Higginson (The Way of St James Cyclist’s Guide)

A tribute from Kev Reynolds

(too many Cicerone books to mention!)

The recent funeral service for Cicerone founder, Walt Unsworth, was a proper celebration of the life of a remarkable man who inspired thousands of outdoor enthusiasts through his editorship of Climber & Rambler, his numerous books (including his classic ‘biography’ of Everest) and, not least, through the numerous guidebooks he published via Cicerone Press.

Walt was a quietly spoken, kindly man; a one-time science teacher who took some of his pupils onto the hills and taught them to climb. His own passion for climbing led to his authoring several guidebooks before he and fellow climber and illustrator, Brian Evans, founded Cicerone Press almost exactly fifty years ago. At the time he was still teaching and writing articles about mountains and mountaineering. Then he was asked to take on the editorship of Climber & Rambler at short notice after the then-editor died.

So Walt became a teacher/editor/writer/publisher all rolled into one! But not even he could sustain that workload, so he eventually gave up teaching, then magazine editing, to concentrate on developing Cicerone and researching his own books.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Walt and Brian retired in 1999 and handed over the reins of Cicerone Press to Jonathan and Lesley Williams, so it was apt that they should throw open the doors of the Cicerone office to some of Walt’s protégés for refreshments before walking the 100 metres to Milnthorpe church for Walt’s funeral service. And there the world of mountaineering and the outdoors was represented by Sir Chris Bonington and a number of fellow writers and adventurers who had been inspired, encouraged and supported by ‘Uncle Walt’ – the man who changed lives for the better, and gave to thousands he never met, ‘a good day out on the hill’ – which remains at the heart of everything Cicerone stands for today.

Walt Unsworth Pen Portrait
Mark Richard's wonderful pen portrait of Walt Unsworth