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A Climber We Lost: Dr. Phil Watts

Each January we post a farewell tribute to those members of our community lost in the year just past. Some of the people you may have heard of, some not. All are part of our community and contributed to climbing.

You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2022 here.

Dr. Phil Watts, 71, December 29

Locally known as the “Godfather of Marquette Climbing,” Dr. Phil Watts was a catalyst for the climbing scene in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. An internationally acclaimed rock climbing and mountaineering researcher, Phil spent 38 years teaching at Northern Michigan University, directly introducing more than a thousand people to climbing through his classes at NMU and indirectly influencing many more through his research. 

Phil was also a pioneer in developing local crags. Starting in the early 1980’s he discovered and put up many first ascents at the AAA Wall, Cliffs Ridge, Slugg’s Bluff, Negaunee Slab, Incarceration Crag, and Phil’s Hill

He was also a co-founder of the Upper Peninsula Climbers Coalition, an Access Fund affiliate, and served as the UPCC’s first President. During his time on the board, Phil led the effort to secure access to Presque Isle, and the recent acquisition of Slugg’s Bluff, which is now wholly owned by climbers. 

“Phil understood that, with the increasing popularity of climbing, the Upper Peninsula would have its own access issues,” says his friend John Miller, the current president of the UPCC. “Through his stewardship, closed crags were reopened, threatened crags were preserved, and generations of climbers learned how to be stewards. His passing leaves a giant pair of Mythos to fill.”

“Climbing is hard, but it sure is easier than growing up.” —Dr. Phil Watts (Photo: Courtesy of Bill Thompson)

As a researcher, Phil authored 111 papers/presentations about rock climbing, mountaineering, and Nordic skiing. He was twice selected to give the opening keynote lecture at the International Conference on Science and Technology in Climbing and Mountaineering as well as the keynote address at the 3rd Congress of the International Rock Climbing Research Association. In 1996, Phil authored the Outdoor Pursuits Series book Rock Climbing. Bill Thompson, a former student and climbing partner, describes the book as “a complete text of the adventure sport of rock climbing. A Phil Watts trait, it was very detailed with descriptive chapters that educated the beginner as well as the advanced climber. Phil Watts added a unique and personal touch to make this a valuable addition to any  library. Always a climber’s climber, Phil was the pillar in our community and his passing is an enormous loss.” 

A very detailed and organized person, Phil kept extensive notes on all of his climbing adventures, big and small. In 2022, he published (with a limited release), Collecting Butterflies: Four Decades of Climbing Notes Volume 1 and 2, which he described as “a partially complete story of the climbing side of his life.”

Phil also was an accomplished mountaineer with a passion for the North Cascades. From the mid 80’s through the 2000’s Phil summited many of the Cascade’s most classic peaks.

John Rebers, a colleague of Phil’s at Northern Michigan University and one of his climbing partners, remembers him as “a great storyteller, a connoisseur of pancakes, and a leader of the climbing community in Marquette. He also helped me grow as a new faculty member at NMU, and we enjoyed many climbs over the years. Phil was a wonderful person.”

Phil is survived by his wife, Annette; his daughter, Salem; and his grandchildren, Zoey and Anya.

He will be remembered as a lover of pancakes, mochas, and ice cream, but most of all, as a kind friend, mentor, educator, and leader to our climbing community. He will be sorely missed.



Of the Crux

Such a tenuous dream

This gossamer state between “Stick and Pop.”

That I could stay here forever,

Suspended within the aurora

To savor…

Let time stand still;

but, no,

It’s nail it or sail it.

Then a mere recollection

Until the next


—Phil Watts


—Bill Thompson

You can read Phil’s family’s tribute to Phil here. You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2022 here.