Merill Bitter has established dozens of climbing routes in the Wasatch and has seen the summit of many more, including some of the toughest in the region. The 68-year-old died last week while cross-country skiing alone at Grizzly Gulch, leaving the Utah climbing community to mourn a giant loss.
Bitter has spent the past 22 years working at IME Utah, a climbing shop in Millcreek. Scott Carson, one of the store’s owners, told Bitter, “sold a lot of people their first rock shoes,” serving as their introduction to the sport.
Bitter had also been an integral part of the Alliance of Salt Lake Climbers, a non-profit organization that works to protect access to climbing areas. He wanted everyone to have the opportunity to discover the sport that had given him so much. And keeping Wasatch’s climbing areas free of litter, open to the public, and physically accessible was a critical part of making that possible.
At IME, Bitter “always tried to help people more than trying to sell to people” and always “gave people information on routes to take,” Carson said. For many clients “it has become part of their life, at least part of their climbing life”. And climbing became a part of him.
In rock climbing, scaling the most difficult routes often requires climbers to “project” the route – trying the same route over and over again, piece by piece, for days, months or, sometimes, years. In doing so, the climber becomes attentive to every detail of the rock and learns, taking into account his individual strengths and weaknesses, how he can climb to the top. Bitter liked to project routes.
Bitter had been an integral part of the rock climbing scene in Utah since the 1970s. He got into rock climbing, but he was “very meticulous in everything he did,” Carson said. He brought that same intentionality needed to project a route to everything he loved. And Bitter “absolutely loved the Wasatch”.
With the exception of three childhood years in Detroit, Bitter has lived in Salt Lake all of her life. Carson said “it was hard for him to think about moving because he enjoyed everything this place offered.” From world-class skiing in the Cottonwood Canyons to the toughest routes in the American Fork, Bitter spent as many days as he could in the Wasatch, and he wanted to make sure the others could too.
Bitter went skiing alone Wednesday in the Grizzly Gulch area near Alta. When he did not return home that afternoon, searchers began to search for him. Bitter’s body was found the next morning.
“Rescuers said it might have looked like a small slip,” the Unified Police Department sergeant said. Melody Cutler. “He had suffered trauma.”
Bitter was skiing alone “and we may never know what happened,” she said.
The news hit Bitters’ friends and the larger Utah climbing community hard.
“He wasn’t superhuman, but he was fair, because he was in such amazing condition and he had so much stamina, he just had this courage that allowed him to do things that a lot of people don’t. ‘wouldn’t even consider,” Lance Merrill, one of Bitter’s close friends, told FOX 13. “His stories are legends and I’m sure they will grow over time.”
Over 68 years of listening to Wasatch, Bitter has sought to create a life for himself, piece by piece. The one where he could climb the best routes in the region while protecting access and spreading the joy of climbing at IME. By all accounts, he succeeded in this project. He reached the top.
Bitter “has been an important part of the climbing community for over 40 years”, and Carson has found himself overwhelmed by the number of people who have come to IME in recent days to talk about their stories with him. . He touched the lives of so many climbers in the Wasatch and “certainly will be greatly missed by the community”. A community that would be remarkably different without his influence.
Even now that he’s gone, his impact will never go away. From all the climbers he introduced to the sport to the routes he established, Bitter’s legacy looms large.
The Wasatch gave meaning to Merrill Bitter’s life. And in return, he brought Wasatch back to life.