The Guide Book Problem


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Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Oct 24, 2005 - 02:56am PT
refered to in the "most influential articles" thread, Steelmnkey posted the text from Ascent, v2, n2, July 1974


From Ascent, Volume 2, No. 2, July 1974

JUST WHAT is the "guidebook problem"? I've been wrestling with it for some time and the right definition still eludes me. Perhaps the best way of putting it is to say that a new awareness in American climbing is causing us to consider more carefully the implications of everything we do when we climb, and that the use of guidebooks, just like the use of pitons, must be re-examined in the light of today's reality and our hopes for tomorrow. The guidebook problem is a natural extension of the ethical-stylistic-conservation debate which has animated climbing circles for some time.

Recent concern about the role of guidebooks did not originate with the climbing public which, with a few exceptions, has been pretty satisfied with available guides. Nor did it come from the various publishers who, in the rapidly expanding climbing market, have never had it so good. But perhaps, through over-eagerness to exploit this market, publishers have unwittingly contributed to the emergence of new attitudes on the part of guidebook authors-the most crucial group of all.

Among guidebook authors, the soul-searching and discussion have been intense. I first thought of writing this piece after a four-hour luncheon argument with the editorial gang responsible for the Sierra Club's climbing guides. And more recently, Ascent organized a debate/forum of leading guidebook and mountaineering authors; their tape-recorded comments (boxed in italics below) serve to illustrate, or counterpoint, my own thoughts on the subject.

But first, to set the stage (and convince ourselves that something is happening), let's consider the following significant developments. In a petition circulated in the Pacific Northwest, we read - "We, the undersigned, urge The Mountaineers to publish future Cascades' guidebooks in a simple format with a minimum of route detailing in text, photos, and sketches. We also feel that widespread advertising and promotion of guidebooks is undesirable."

And last May the Board of Directors of the American Alpine Club (AAC) met in Yosemite Valley and narrowly defeated, by a vote of 5 to 8, a motion that the AAC go on record against promoting guidebooks "in any way, shape or form." A second motion that the AAC refrain from publishing guidebooks to any new areas passed by an 8 to 5 vote. The board then created an ad hoc committee to review all aspects of AAC climbing guide publication. Let us now try a similar review.

THE IMPACT OF GUIDEBOOKS: Change is guaranteed to make us uneasy. No one enjoys the idea that the future is now, whether we like it or not. Take the overcrowding and overuse of the mountains. The story is well known, and many serious, eloquent climbers have shared their anxiety on this score in articles and public laments. Many more have felt this same anxiety as their own 'secret' climbing spot has finally been overrun with strangers. When the latest up-dated edition of the climber's guide appears, how can we avoid suspecting that it contributes to the destruction of our private mountain paradise?

"Tuolumne Meadows didn't suffer much when it had a little narrow dirt road that people couldn't get up with all those big trailers. But as soon as you made it a little bigger, not it's having an impact problem. This is what's happening with climbing. When you centralize everything into a guidebook to a specific region, then you're building an eight-lane freeway to the area. And you've got to realize that you are and the consequences of doing it. You're setting up a vehicle for people who are going to that area." -- Galen Rowell, editor of Vertical World of Yosemite.

By far the biggest worry among guidebook authors is that actively marketing a guidebook is also a way of marketing the climbs themselves - so that the guidebook encourages people (who would never have thought of it otherwise) to visit an area. There is no hard statistical evidence, much less proof, that guidebooks encourage overuse. But this seems to be the natural conclusion.

"Well, I had to face this very question when the last edition went out of print. Whether or not to forget it, or to revise it, or what to do. In my case I was influenced by the Park Service's attitude. They have strong feelings that it promotes safety and cuts down the number of bodies they have to carry out. I don't know how they reach this conclusion, but they feel very strongly. And so they were very upset one summer when it was totally out of print and no books were available. It would be interesting to see if the accident rate were any bigger that summer. I sort of doubt it." -- Leigh Ortenburger, author of A Climber's Guide to the Teton Range

Guidebooks, in fact, have all kinds of impacts. They are certainly instruments of change as well as repositories of tradition. But let's not forget that change can have positive aspects. Today most people are climbing better and cleaner than they did a few years ago, with a finer appreciation of the nuances of style than anyone possessed in the pioneering periods of American mountaineering. So change in climbing need not be feared as such. And the same should hold true to the impact of guidebooks.

One of the most obvious impacts of a guidebook is the way it influences one's choice of climbs and the resulting frequency of use of certain climbs. If a climb is described in the guide as ugly, grungy or a real dog, it is thereby saved - at least from a rash of further ascents; while the guidebook author who has been too lavish in praising a certain route can often reproach himself for having destroyed it, or, at least, for having turned it into an ugly thoroughfare. And when a climb, classic or not, is called classic in the guide, the well-known mechanism of the self-fulfilling prophecy comes into play.

Although the results of such influence have often been regrettable, such influence is not bad in itself. A more aware guidebook author could easily manipulate people's tendency to 'follow the guide' to good ends. He could shape and restructure the patterns of use in his climbing area-thus avoiding the overuse of a fragile route, redirecting the crowd to other, more resistant lines, or better yet, spreading climbers out more evenly by refusing to put gold stars on certain routes. Up to now, most guidebook authors have preferred to avoid such responsibility.

Of course, guidebooks can also influence the style of those who use them. And this may be one of the most valid functions of the guidebook today. The author can and should stress, for example, that certain routes are to be climbed clean, and he has a real duty to transmit those local climbing traditions worthy of respect. One author who has accepted this duty is David Lovejoy, who explains his position in the introduction to his recently published guide to Granite Mountain in Arizona: "So why did we write a guidebook? ...We see this guide as more than a collection of routes. We see it as a way of transmitting information about attitudes which have prevailed in this climbing area since its beginning. A sort of 'city planning' effort in an attempt to contribute some kind of order to the threat of a 'rock-climbing sprawl'..." A praiseworthy attempt to achieve a positive impact with a new guidebook.

But if the physical impact of a guidebook is difficult to evaluate, then the psychological impact is doubly so. Overcrowding, parties queued-up at the base of routes and the deterioration of cracks, all are easy to see. But what of psychological attrition? What happens when your local climbing area is no longer an exciting place, when a whole range loses its aura of mystery and attraction, when a climbing area feels 'used-up,' even though there are a lot of routes you still haven't done? We might call this the no more adventure/no more wilderness syndrome.

Guidebooks can contribute to the above syndrome in several ways: By over-describing an actual route so that it no longer contains any puzzles or enigmas and route-finding becomes a lost art. Or by over-describing a whole area, so that it's no longer possible to find your own short-cut on the approach, no longer tempting to look for alternate lines of attack. Of course, guidebooks are not the only villains in this drama; they are, however, a tangible target at which to launch a counter-attack. (Equipment manufacturers, retailers and climbing schools might also be named if we were trying to dress a complete indictment.)

But one thing, at least, which we can agree on is that guidebooks do have an impact on the future of the climbing area they describe- so questions about guidebooks are really questions about the future. Right now, many climbers are trying to rediscover a meaningful future for their sport by re-inventing the rules of the game. Techniques, tools, ethics and style-all are being refined in the name of adventure and purity. Yet Marshall McLuhan has shown us that information is the most powerful tool of all. (The topo, the hardware list, the map and the guidebook - all are tools, each with its own ethical and stylistic weight.) And that is precisely why guidebooks and their use do pose a problem. What are the possible solutions?

A FEW ALTERNATIVES: Something, it seems, is going to change - either climbing guidebooks, or the way we use them, or both. A wide spectrum of solutions have been proposed.

A few climbers (very few) deny the existence of any need to change. The old guidebooks, they claim, are adequate; let's just keep up-dating them. Others (equally few) assert that any published information, on any route, or climbing area, is a form of sacrilege. Most guidebook authors, naturally, take a position between these extremes, and in their remarks we can discern a possible key to solving the guidebook problem:

"I have very mixed feelings about guides, and maybe I'm not a good person to have in a discussion like this because I find the arguments on both sides so compelling that I can easily take the side that says we shouldn't have guides, or I could take the side that says we've got to have guides, and I find it difficult to formulate in my own mind a really clear picture of what I would like. Guides are inevitable, whether you like it or not, and maybe the only thing you can do is to try to set standards."

"Perhaps there's a difference between a big mountain and a practice climbing area. Every time I try to cut down on the descriptions of the climbing in some of the routes at Tahquitz, I get a lot of flak from some people. My personal preference is to have local areas with rather detailed descriptions, not of handholds, but of the routes; in many cases the routes are almost artificial, because when you really get to the situation where you have eighty routes on a rock, you have to have some detail, simply to let the person know what makes the most consistently 'difficult line of attack, or which way did people go the first time, or whatnot. But on big mountains I certainly don't like to have detailed descriptions. I think ones which just give general lines of attack make the climb more pleasant for me." -- Chuck Wilts, author of A Climber's Guide to Tahquitz and Suicide Rocks

"I feel that you cannot isolate guidebooks from the context of mountaineering. You cannot say that guidebooks alone are responsible for the adverse impact that we all are concerned with, because if you took all guidebooks away, and somehow were able to prevent the development of bootleg guidebooks or undercover typed books, there would still be the journals, there would still be the clubs, there would still be the meetings, and so on. So, I feel that it is incumbent upon guidebook editors, as well as the journal editors, and the book editors, to have a similar ethical approach towards the mountain environment." -- William Putnam, co-editor of Climber's Guide to the Rocky Mountains of Canada - South

"Seems to me that what one is trying to do is present accurate information as well as one can, and in this way assist climbers who are not among the elite, but climbers that are just beginning. In the Tetons you have a large number of climbers in their first or second year of climbing who haven't a great deal of experience. In some cases (one hopes at least) the route description keeps them from getting lost and hung up and possibly from needing a rescue. -- Leigh Ortenburger

I interpret the message of these three statements (and other similar expressions of concern) as follows: There is no one single solution to the guidebook problem. If any solutions are possible, the first step is to realize that each climbing area (and indeed, each segment of the climbing public) is unique, and that therefore the climber's guide to each area must be very carefully tailored to the particular present and future needs of that particular area and its climbers; tailored to it in scope, detail, style and concept (and that includes the decision to publish a guide at all).

All this implies change. Many existing guides should, and will, be modified. What can be done? Alter the printed form of the guidebook. Eliminate the superfluous. Convey only the strict minimum on a kind of 'need- to-know' basis to a particular audience, whether first-year beginners in the Tetons, or experienced cragsmen high over Boulder (as in the case of a recent 'guide' which virtually omits starting points and route descriptions). But is this enough? Can tailoring and modifying the format, or the ethical concerns of guidebook authors really solve the problem?

There is another solution, even closer at hand. Why not change the way in which we use guidebooks? Years ago in an essay on climbing games, I theorized that as the objective becomes easier, climbers must consciously limit their technical means of ascent to preserve a certain challenge. Why not extend the concept of 'means' to cover guidebooks? Can't we learn to be judicious and choosy in our use of guides? This may not solve the problem of physical impact and overcrowding, but it will do wonders for the sense of psychological attrition we already mentioned. When our home areas are in danger of feeling 'climbed-out,' can't we stop using the guidebook on purpose, yet still reserve the option of using one when climbing as a visitor in a strange area which still possesses mystery and challenge enough?

One of the finest 'wilderness' climbing experiences of my life took place in a climbed-out, over-populated, over-described area: the Tetons. My only previous climb there had been the Grand by a normal route, but this time we wanted to traverse the main chain from Teewinot to Nez Perce. To make things more exciting, we avoided looking at the guide and refrained from asking any directions, other than the names of the peaks we would encounter en route. Result: a formidable mountain experience in which each ridge, each move, each summit was a new puzzle. And this sort of experience is available in any area, no matter how detailed the guide. Just don't use it. Unless of course the odds against you are so great that you feel it's becoming a new game; then you can reach for the guide as you would for some new piece of gear. So whether the guidebook format changes, or our way of using it does, there are a variety of ways to tackle the problem. Many of the suggestions for simplifying and reducing the amount of information presented seem particularly praiseworthy and idealistic, but there's one big hangup we've avoided discussing so far: new routes (and the egos of those who make them).

THE FIRST ASCENT SYNDROME: How many routes have people done just to get their names in the guide? Quite a few, although, of course, that isn't the major reason. Actually there are far too many different reasons to list-a real can of worms, and the subject of a separate essay. Let's confine ourselves to asking: Why should a first ascent be reported?

"We've been going around about this for about the last six months on the east side of the Sierra. There are a lot of new climbs over there, and so far they're unreported. The consensus at the moment is to leave them that way. I'm more concerned about this than most people. I would say there are between sixty and a hundred new rock climbs in the Sierra today that are not going to be reported in the new guidebook .... The feeling over there is that to leave them unreported will retain the wilderness aspect of the mountains, and then, if we can articulate this well-if we can get the word out that that's why - that there really are routes, that the thing has been done deliberately, that it's not accidental oversight, but deliberate, not reporting the climbs, then perhaps?" -- Doug Robinson, currently revising Starr's Guide to the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Region

Well, why should first ascents be reported? For history, of course, to keep the record straight. To smooth the way for those who come after so they won't make the same route-finding errors, or who maybe can do it without a bivouac. But ultimately to communicate to others that you have made a new route. If climbing is indeed an art, isn't it then necessary to publish your first ascents for them to become real 'works of art'? Can we imagine a painting no one sees, a novel no one reads? A 'climb,' after all, is a very abstract thing compared to actual climbing which is notoriously concrete and immediate. And what if, as contemporary tradition in the fine arts suggests, art is in the execution? How should we characterize the following letter to Climbing?

"In late November of this year Mike Farrell of Berkeley, Gordie Smaille and myself of Vancouver climbed several fine new routes in Southern Arizona. However in accordance with the latest advance in the development of climbing style and ethics in which one does not publicly divulge the whereabouts of new routes in order to prevent precipitating overuse on climbing areas, we remain sincerely yours."

Or should we come right out and say it? In most cases, the point of publishing your first ascent is to let other people (your peers or sometimes the general public) know how cool you are (or wished you were). This is far from evil. Surely it's healthier to gain ego-gratification and peer-group respect by making new climbs, than by joining a motorcycle gang and terrorizing the countryside. If you have the imagination to conceive and execute a bold new line, why shouldn't people admire you? Why shouldn't you be able to point to your name in the guidebook?

"I've come to see it a little bit differently and I feel less hesitation in advocating my position than I did before. Before, I was trying to find a reason for advocating guidebooks, which I felt slightly guilty about, because part of my reason is that I like to write them and I like to have my name in them, you know. In the one case, the selfishness of liking to write guidebooks, to create this way, and also to create routes and to have it be in the record that you've done a route. That's pleasing to many of us, to just about 99 and 44/100ths percent of the population - although a good percentage denies it." -- Royal Robbins, author of Advanced Rockcraft

It's impossible to refute such an open, honest statement. But there is an evolution underway in climbing which runs directly counter to the mystique of first ascents. In American climbing the major change of the last few years has been the switch from pitons to chocks, to 'clean' climbing. Sometimes the use of chocks is harder, sometimes easier than pins, but that's not why we consider them better style. It's conservation ethic in practice.

We're really climbing clean for the sake of other people, for those who come after us; to preserve the quality of their experience, so that their experience will be more like that of the first ascent. Are we moving toward an ideal in which every ascent is the first ascent? Why not? Well, for one thing, it's illogical. There's only one first. And of course there are many situations where such notions don't make sense, practice crags for instance. But most likely, the notion of first ascent (or numbered ascents) is going to become less and less important.

Eventually, in our home ranges, climbers will leave not only the cracks but the sense of discovery intact for those who follow. And most ascents will become the functional and psychological equivalent of first ascents.

It's doubtful that this evolution will soon reach the distant, high ranges of the planet, still in the middle of what must be called their 'golden age.' Twenty years from now it will be tougher to be a hero, but still possible if you go far enough from the beaten track. In remote ranges the claims of history will be stronger for some time than our obligations to fellow climbers.

Certainly, here at home, the evolution away from the first-ascent concept will not happen overnight, and it won't be easy. But it will come. Ultimately we can't have it both ways. It will become impossible to preserve the mountains and traditional mountain values, and at the same time give our egos all the public exposure they used to receive. When the time comes to choose, I believe the climbing community will be mature enough to opt for real mountains and real climbing at the expense (a small sacrifice) of seeing our names in print in every journal and guidebook.

SOME TENTATIVE CONCLUSIONS: Perhaps the only conclusion that no one will argue with is our first vague one that "something is happening." Yet given the current level of concern among guidebook authors, it's safe to say that we'll soon see some new approaches to the 'guidebook problem.'

"In certain areas, an open conspiracy of climbers will keep a guidebook from ever appearing. I'm not trying to protect the area, I'm trying to protect the experience, the exploration, which is as essential to the wilderness experience as the climbing is. This thing about people getting the best out of the time that they put in is one of the places where I stop. Obviously, you're going to spend more time stumbling around, yet on the other hand, it seems to me, one of the characteristics of Alpinism is exploration; and the more of that there is around, potentially, then the more area there is to create in. If you write a guidebook you've eliminated the unknown. In large degree wilderness consists of the unknown, maybe as much as it does in land without roads." -- Doug Robinson

In other areas this objective will be thwarted by the appearance of bootleg mimeographed guides, followed quickly by the real thing when some enterprising author/publisher team uses the old excuse: "If I wasn't selling them heroin, somebody else would be."

"I believe Doug made a very important point, and this is that the option is still available to us at the present time to leave areas unrecorded, but, as we know, if we tried to turn back the clock in Yosemite it wouldn't work at all. Information exists, there are Xerox machines everywhere. I think it's important that we leave options open for these other areas. Let our successors decide what to do." -- Chris Jones, co-editor of Climber's Guide to the Canadian Rockies - North

In still other areas, especially those that never had a wilderness flavor but were always popular socializing as well as climbing centers, the local consensus may be to retain the traditional guide format, which can easily be justified:

"A better reason now, as I say, equally selfish but different, is that guidebooks are bloody useful for pleasure in climbing. That's the primary thing. I was recently in a couple of areas in Colorado and Wyoming and the guidebooks were either non-existent or pretty superficial and I tended to waste a lot of time looking for routes to climb. My pleasure would have been increased by that much more. I would have been able to do more climbing and would have been able to enjoy it, instead of searching around in cruddy cliffs trying to find the best possibility in an area I knew nothing about. This strikes me as being the only good in guidebooks - that they make it possible for more people to enjoy climbing, really. To make the most of their climbing holiday and, in particular, make it possible for me to do so. So that's why I would advocate them anywhere I wanted to climb, with the possible exception of a few special areas. -- Royal Robbins

In the case of quite a few still partially wild ranges, new routes will just stop appearing in the guide, which will slowly become a general description of the range and a record of the "early days" of its climbing history.

"We should try to sum up an attitude that we might all agree with concerning this development thing, and that is a lot of people like to climb in areas that are heavily crowded. Take myself, I enjoy it. I enjoy the sort of communal pleasure of the thing. And I also enjoy different things, and I think most of us do, and I think we should, as much as possible, have something for everyone. Certainly not to develop everything - to leave large areas partly developed, so that everyone has as large a choice of what they want to do as possible." -- Royal Robbins

And finally, we shouldn't be surprised to see the appearance of some totally new kinds of guidebooks which cut cleanly across our present conceptions. But one thing is certain - a climbing guide is no longer just a climbing guide. The decision to write, publish, buy or use a guidebook is more complex than it used to be. Publishers, editorial committees and climbing clubs may think they've got a handle on the problem, but ultimately the response must be an individual one. There may well be as many solutions to the 'guidebook problem' as there are climbers.

Ascent's solution is to stop publishing the traditional Sierra climbing notes because of our feeling that the Sierra is too close to losing its remaining mystery and its remaining promise. At the same time we're keeping an open mind about the need for guides, notes or clues to certain new, remote or exceptional areas. In fact, Ascent would like to participate in the search for new avatars of the guidebook genre, with less negative overall impact. From its inception, Ascent's editorial position has been that the human, emotional and personal content of a climb can be more important than the statistical, historical content of a first ascent. And so we welcome the current reappraisal of climbing guidebooks.

On a personal level, I particularly admire Doug Robinson's solution. The east side of the Sierra is Doug's playground, and inevitably, many of his climbs are new routes. If a climb turns him on, Doug always shares it with his friends, but he doesn't write it up. The result of this and of his devotion to pure style is that Doug has received a lot more respect and admiration from fellow climbers than could possibly have accrued from a published list of "firsts." If we're looking for other examples, we might think of John Muir: "I have never left my name on any mountain, rock or tree in any wilderness I have explored or passed through." But no one today is a John Muir, and the Doug Robinsons are few and far between. How will the average climber respond to the guidebook problem? I have my guesses, but for now, I'm through talking. I'll work on my solution, you work on yours.

Lito Tejada-Flores & friends


right near the beach, boyeee (lord have mercy)
Oct 24, 2005 - 03:23pm PT
A lot of good stuff there Ed. Thanks.

Trad climber
one pass away from the big ditch
Oct 24, 2005 - 03:47pm PT
captures the 'to and fro' of whether to publish (relate) new climbs or keep them to yourself.

thx for the link
Nate D

Trad climber
San Francisco
Oct 24, 2005 - 04:35pm PT
Thanks Ed. It's a fairly comprehensive article, and still very relevant.

The following, however, unfortunately no longer rings very true, IMHO:

"Today most people are climbing better and cleaner than they did a few years ago, with a finer appreciation of the nuances of style than anyone possessed in the pioneering periods of American mountaineering." (That was 1974.)

Interestingly, the article doesn't mention the motivation of some climbers to create guides or topos in order to document their lines so as to "protect" them from encroachment/bolting by other parties. I suppose this is a more contemporary matter.

Trad climber
Otto, NC
Oct 25, 2005 - 03:58am PT
That's kind of a funny scenario. I climb a lot of obscure stuff around where I live, rarely drill, never 'report' routes, and it's not hard to imagine someone bosching their way up one of these things in the future. Paradoxically, it gives me the urge to at least leave something that indicates the line has been climbed, so it won't get fully desecrated later. But that makes me part of the problem too...
Nate D

Trad climber
San Francisco
Oct 25, 2005 - 02:08pm PT
Yes, obscure areas with little or no climbing community and lots of secrets typically make fine breeding grounds for this scenario.

Trad climber
Otto, NC
Oct 25, 2005 - 03:43pm PT
To call them 'secrets' might exaggerate the intention...more like lack of interest.
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