Skier who died in Grizzly Gulch was a local rock climbing legend

Merrill Bitter was instrumental in growing the sport in Utah over the past 50 years

(Nikki Smith) Merrill Bitter was a beloved Salt Lake rock climber who established dozens of routes in the Wasatch and grew the sport's popularity over the last 50 years.

Merill Bitter established dozens of climbing routes in the Wasatch and saw the top of many more, including some of the most difficult in the area. The 68-year-old died last week while backcountry skiing alone in Grizzly Gulch, leaving the Utah climbing community to mourn a giant loss.

Bitter spent the past 22 years working at IME Utah, a climbing store in Millcreek. Scott Carson, one of the store’s owners, said 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 Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, a nonprofit organization that works to protect access to climbing areas. He wanted everyone to have the opportunity to experience the sport that had given him so much. And keeping the Wasatch’s climbing areas free from trash, 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 try to sell to people” and always “gave people information about routes to go do,” Carson said. For many of the customers, “he became a part of their life, at least their climbing life.” And climbing became a part of his.

In rock climbing, scaling the most challenging 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 attuned to every minute detail of the rock and learns, given their individual strengths and weaknesses, how they can ascend to the top. Bitter loved projecting routes.

Bitter had been a fixture of Utah’s rock climbing scene since the 1970s. He threw himself at rock climbing, but he was “very meticulous with everything he did,” said Carson. He brought that same intentionality required to project a route to everything that he loved. And Bitter “absolutely loved the Wasatch.”

With the exception of three childhood years in Detroit, Bitter lived in Salt Lake his entire life. Carson said, “it was hard for him to ever think of moving because of how much he appreciated everything this place offered.” Whether it was world-class skiing in the Cottonwood canyons or the toughest routes in American Fork, Bitter spent as many days as he could in the Wasatch, and he wanted to make sure others could too.

Bitter went skiing alone Wednesday in the Grizzly Gulch area near Alta. When he didn’t return home that afternoon, searchers began looking for him. Bitter’s body was found the next morning.

“The rescuers said it looks like maybe there was a small slide,” said Unified Police Department Sgt. Melody Cutler. “He had suffered some trauma.”

Bitter was skiing alone “and we may never know what happened,” she said.

The news hit Bitters’ friends, and the greater Utah climbing community, hard.

“He wasn’t superhuman, but he just, because he was in such incredible condition and he had so much stamina, he just had this fortitude that allowed him to do things that a lot of people 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 as time goes on.”

Over 68 years attuned to the Wasatch, Bitter sought to create a life for himself, piece by piece. One where he could climb the best routes in the area while he protected access to them and spread the joy of climbing at IME. By all accounts, he succeeded at that project. He made it to the top.

Bitter “was a huge part of the climbing community for more than 40 years,” and Carson found himself overwhelmed with how many people have come into IME in the past few days to talk about their stories with him. He touched the lives of so many climbers in the Wasatch and, “he’ll definitely be very much missed in the community.” A community that would look remarkably different without his influence.

Even now that he’s gone, his impact will never leave. From all the climbers he introduced to the sport to the routes he established, Bitter’s legacy looms large.

The Wasatch brought meaning to Merrill Bitter’s life. And in return, he brought life to the Wasatch.