New Book on Yosemite Climbing History


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Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Topic Author's Original Post - Sep 14, 2010 - 12:13pm PT
I just received my copy today of Joseph Taylor's recently published, Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk.

In some ways it is like a rock climbing version of Ortner's Life and Death on Mt. Everest in that it is an academic book critical of the sport in a typically post modern way.

It is unique in rock climbing literature in that it relies heavily on personal letters and other documents which have not been previously published, along with accounts from the time, rather than personal recollections after the fact. As a result, it captures the spirit of the various climbing eras as they appeared at the time, rather than through a romanticized remembrance.

The portrait is undeniably accurate though not always flattering, and is thus sure to provoke much controversy on sites such as this one. On the other hand, it is full of details which have never before been revealed, which most members of our community will want to be privy too, so I predict that it will sell rapidly.

Patrick Oliver

Boulder climber
Fruita, Colorado
Sep 14, 2010 - 05:59pm PT
I guess I've never heard of James Taylor (other than the singer).
I have always been suspicious of writings by people who weren't a
direct part of the scene somehow. Maybe he was, but I don't know. I've
never heard his name, associated with the climbing history. Is
this an early history or later? We know of quite a few histories that
have been written by people who look back fondly at a time but were not
part of it, and thus they don't get the spirit of things right or even
close. Two notable British climbers wrote histories and, all the many
wonderful and good things notwithstanding, loaded those pages with
errors. I've learned that Yosemite is a very precious place to a lot of
people, and to which people are very protective, and most have
their own memory and take on things. No one really has much more
than his or her own sense of things, and most find
everyone else's viewpoint quite different from their own. I mean, even
our most respected friends, such as Roper, see things very different
than others did.
Not sure exactly what I'm saying here, other than that I am
naturally a bit skeptical, but I am happy to learn and
have my skepticism proven entirely wrong.

Sep 14, 2010 - 06:07pm PT
It's Joseph Taylor III, not James...

Seems he's a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.


Patrick said, "I have always been suspicious of writings by people who weren't a
direct part of the scene somehow."

And I'm always suspicious of writings by people who were part of that history. Perhaps it'll be nice to see how you/we're viewed outside our "scene". Look forward to reading it.

A long way from where I started
Sep 14, 2010 - 06:17pm PT
I have always been suspicious of writings by people who weren't a
direct part of the scene somehow.

On the other hand, history also teaches us to be suspicious of stories from participants in just about anything -- war, finance, politics, even climbing.

Whether this guy's book is worth the paper it's printed on remains to be seen, but there's certainly no law of the universe stating that research by a non-participant is necessarily wrong or worthless.

Like you, I'm a skeptical, but hoping to be proven wrong.

Trad climber
Douglas, WY
Sep 14, 2010 - 06:43pm PT

You really need to write the first review on Amazon!

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Sep 14, 2010 - 07:33pm PT
It will have to be exceptional to get my attention, that particular part of climbing history has been picked over with a fine tooth comb.
Spider Savage

Mountain climber
Sep 14, 2010 - 08:08pm PT
Looks like the author is a Journalist. Probably writing by formula to the non-climbing crowd. Filling their heads with crap. (sorry Tony)

I've not seen it up close. Hope I'm wrong.

I've found the best source on Yosemite climbing history to be this forum.

Trad climber
Santa Cruz/New Zealand/South Pacific
Sep 14, 2010 - 08:11pm PT
If Cohen recommends it, i'm in for a read. Just ordered it.

Clear, original, rigorous, and convincing, Pilgrims of the Vertical is like nothing else written on the subject. It represents a huge advance in the history of climbing as a sport and lifestyle. Taylor argues that climbing was always a complex social activity and offers valuable context in which climbers can accurately assess the value and risks of their sport. I believe this book has the ability to alter the way climbing literature is written, and I recommend it with great enthusiasm.
--Michael P. Cohen, author of The Pathless Way and The History of the Sierra Club
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Sep 14, 2010 - 08:40pm PT
Yeah, I just Amazoned it too. We will have to regroup in a few; should be interesting.

Trad climber
Sep 14, 2010 - 08:46pm PT
I have always been suspicious of writings by people who weren't a
direct part of the scene somehow.

Pat, I trust you're referring specifically to Yosemite?

Otherwise, you'd be arguing that the only reliable writings on Nazism would be those by Goebbels or Goerring.

Jay's book isn't focused on who climbed what when. It's not really a different version of Wizards of Rock or even of Mountaineering in North America. It's a scholarly work and it's primary interest is placing climbing in a larger historical context. Although Jay make some judgments at the end that I expect will make a significant chunk of ST readers unhappy. And that's partly a good thing.
Chicken Skinner

Trad climber
Sep 14, 2010 - 08:47pm PT
Let me know what you think Jan. I have a copy but no time to read. I took him climbing several times.


Spider Savage, You are wrong. He did not write it for the masses. He is intellectually intrigued with climbing and it's historical/cultural influence outside the climbing world.


Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Sep 14, 2010 - 08:47pm PT
The context in which climbers evaluate their "sport" is themselves. Why an individual climbs is too personal and complex for academic examination. Surprisingly, the decision, when made, seems so intuitively obvious that it becomes simple.

Trad climber
Sep 14, 2010 - 08:53pm PT
The context in which climbers evaluate their "sport" is themselves. Why an individual climbs is too personal and complex for academic examination.

You could say the same thing about any activity, from pinochle to Civil Rights Marches to terrorism.

Actually, Donini, I think you'd be inclined to like the earlier part of the book, especially, since one of the things Jay found was just how vital and important social institutions-- namely club culture--were to making climbing an accepted and legal recreational practice in the National Park.

All that metaphysical navel-gazing came later, once community organizers had done the hard work of making it possible for baby boomers to go in search of their inner mystic.

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Sep 14, 2010 - 08:58pm PT
KLK, I respect your and Mike Cohen's opinions- I'll give it a go. I'll probably learn something

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Topic Author's Reply - Sep 14, 2010 - 09:44pm PT

I think you will be very surprised at how individualistic climbers turn out to be much more a product of their times and the American social milieu, even when reacting against it, than we would like to believe.


Trad climber
Sep 14, 2010 - 09:46pm PT

likewise, and i was especially happy to see cohen's puff on the book, because a lot of what jay says differs from cohen's pathless way. in this business, the best friends you can find are the smart, hard-working people with good craft skills whose judgments sometimes differ from your own.


Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Topic Author's Reply - Sep 14, 2010 - 10:05pm PT
Spider Savage-

There's not a single person, event, or issue in Taylor's book that has not at least been touched upon in this forum, particularly from the 1950's on, but the advantage of Joseph's book is that he is able to put it into one continuous and coherent narrative.

One could certainly put together a narrative of quotations from what has been posted here, but that would be a gargantuan task.

Sep 14, 2010 - 10:31pm PT
He was a professor of history at Iowa State University when he wrote to me on February 9, 2001 saying such things as , "Steve Roper suggested that I contact you about my project." "I want to assure you that this is a serious academic study." "Yosemite climbers have been articulate and verbose..." He must have meant to say full of it.

Sounds like he spent 9 years on the project and is a serious academic. If he can write an interesting book, then it's worth a read before speculation about it.

I must admit, however, to this feeling that if you want to know something about Yosemite climbing, search Supertopo and you'll find it. It's worked for me in my recent bout of attempted authorship.

Bill Amborn

Trad climber
It ain't El Cap, Oregon
Sep 15, 2010 - 02:00am PT
I am in the process of transcribing an interview with this author for a climbing film project. The film project was done by serious climbers so I imagine they sought him out as he had something valuable and accurate to add to the project.

Having said that... does anyone remember a climber/author named Michael Tobias who wrote a obtuse, intellectual treatise in Mountain magazine entitled, "“The Anthropology of Ascent.” ? Well, I must admit that the current interview has the same tone of "WAY above my head" and far removed from the day-to-day activity of runouts, manky bolts and life in the dirt.

Oh well, should still be a worthwhile addition to the library.
Mighty Hiker

Vancouver, B.C.
Sep 15, 2010 - 02:01am PT
Maybe we should have a book club discussion of this at the FaceLift. Does anyone know if the book is available anywhere in the Valley?

The historiography of climbing is an interesting subject. I certainly agree that someone who's a non-climber may be quite able to write something original and illuminating about climbing. Not that it's happened much, but an academic (sociologist?) might have some interesting and perhaps uncomfortable things to say about us.
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