Alumni Profiles

Far from the Madding Crowd
Jed Williamson '61, '69G loves to teach, and climb

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Perry Smith/UNH Photographic Services

In April 1963, John "Jed" Williamson '61, '69G and five climbing pals squinted up at a supply plane that would, with any luck, drop enough food to sustain them through the final leg of their ascent up the East Buttress of Mt. McKinley. At 12,400 feet, their blustery camp was perched on a knife-edge ridge atop a 150-foot, 70-degree ice wall.

Awaiting the drop, Williamson recalled his first major expedition three summers earlier, when as a UNH junior, his party was forced to bushwhack out of western Canada's Selkirk Mountains, subsisting for five days on foraged mushrooms and the rationed remains of a goat.

The supply sacks thudded on target into deep snow, and one contained a long-awaited telegram informing Williamson he had been accepted into the Peace Corps in Nepal. It was his dream assignment. Then he read the fine print: Please respond within 48 hours.

"In those days, no cellphones," Williamson reminisces from his home in Hanover, N.H., now able to laugh at the untimely twist of fate. "The short story is I got drafted instead." The Army assigned Williamson to be an instructor at its elite Northern Warfare Training Center, which fused his love of the outdoors with a passion for teaching.

Williamson grew up on a farm in Pawling, N.Y. He enrolled at Villanova, but transferred to UNH in 1958 after waking up one morning thinking, "What the heck am I doing in the city?" In Durham, he joined the Outing Club and fell in with experienced, enthusiastic mentors. He put his English literature degree to use by teaching, alternated with first ascents around the globe. Along the way he started a number of Outward Bound programs and returned to UNH for his master's of education degree.

In 1974, Williamson was invited to be part of the first American expedition to climb the Pamir Mountains in Russia. An avalanche swept away four team members, killing one. The slide passed directly over Williamson, but he had hunkered down in a hollow. "It was bloody scary," he says.

Returning home, he focused on helping others avoid similar perils. As chairman of the American Alpine Club's safety advisory council, he has edited the investigative handbook Accidents in North American Mountaineering for the past 38 years.

As a faculty member at UNH, Williamson established Live, Learn & Teach in 1976, an intense graduate-level program that uses wilderness immersion to guide aspiring teachers. The highly acclaimed course is still in demand today.

In 1996, Williamson seized the opportunity to become president of Sterling College in Vermont, putting the small school on the map for its emphasis on experience-based education and environmental stewardship. He retired in 2006 after achieving his goal of getting Sterling accredited as a four-year liberal arts college.

Williamson continues to explore the world as a certified guide: Mt. Everest, Mongolia and China, plus the Swiss, Italian and French Alps. "I'm a lucky fellow," he says. "These days I'm back to my childhood—I do a lot of hunting and fishing."

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