New Book on Yosemite Climbing History


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Mountain climber
Jan 25, 2013 - 11:44pm PT
Amazon lists one seller asking $201 and the used copies have highlighting. A climbing book with highlighting?
Forget Amazon. has as-new copies for $20 + $4 shipping. Cheaper than the new price.

Hobart, Australia
Jan 26, 2013 - 01:39am PT
Just scanned the book's preview in Amazon. The author calls me a "dirtbag" a couple times. I don't recall ever meeting him.

Funny thing is, these historians really have little significant source material for what I consider an important era (nothwithstanding it was the era which I thrived in), which is the early 80's to the mid/late 80's.

Roper does well to document the so-called Golden Era to the late 70's, and of course in the late 80's/ early 90's the boom of MTV, video and and print of the main threads, then followed by the internet in the early/mid 90's, but the 80's period has never really been documented very well with the type of broad perspective you see by authentic climber historians (such as Roper).

The 80's was really a time with some unique transitional characteristics between the "olden days" and the modern realm of rock climbing. Certain boundaries were innovatively explored and pushed, with some key seeds and roots of today's mainstream climbing culture (albeit which has evolved considerably since then).

EDIT--just thinking about it a bit more, and perhaps one of the things that was significant about the 80's era was that it was the last era prior to the "MTV era" which portrayed climbing to the public as "cool" which in turn influenced its essence-- and the resulting popular reformation provides fodder for academics like the Pilgrims of Vertical author to write books "explaining" climbing's evolution.

Social climber
Jan 27, 2013 - 04:10pm PT
Hey Deucey,

Yeah, incisive observation. Maybe Taylor had preconceived ideas about climbing, from the media, and, when he tried scaling rocks himself, found that it very different to the “cool” sport he envisaged.

In his book he relates a story of an ordeal he had rope-soloing Snake Dike, where he ran out the rope to the point where he suddenly realized he was both off-route and looking at a huge, perhaps deadly fall. He became very scared and eventually backtracked with care, survived, retreated. Decide that the risks in climbing were not justifiable. As written, a non-climbing reader would surely agree that he had made a heroic effort to try this sport and the unjustifiable risks make it not worth embracing. One of the big themes of the book is that climbers take unjustifiable risks. And they deceive themselves about the risks they take.

I read this sorry tale of nearly dying and thought, Why the hell would anyone rope solo Snake Dike? You have to carry all the gear up there, the route is unsuitable for rope-soloing as it is runout and has much easy terrain which would require dragging/carrying the gear with you (or rapping, cleaning and jumaring endless easy slab pitches). He made a poor decision and it seemed entirely predictable that things went wrong. But that’s not at all how it reads.

His study of Yosemite climbing started out superbly--I learned a lot from his insights into pre-WWII history--but something went wrong; maybe he was slammed and had to rush to finish, maybe the more recent material was too overwhelming in scope and scale for him to grasp, maybe personal experiences, including his Snake Dike scare, colored his judgement.

Getting into the recent decades, Taylor is roundly critical of the wanna-be dirtbags, the risk-takers, the misogynistic attitudes, the pro-environmental hypocrisy of climbers who pounded pitons and place bolts. He does not really differentiate much between the recent eras.

There are criticisms to be made, for sure.

But the book gets confused, simplistic, picking odd quotes and dubious statistics to buttress what appear to his already-formed opinions about risk-taking and environmental values. Toward the end, disappointing (maddening at times!).

All sports, all persons have contradictions. The best histories spell these out but have empathy for the characters involved. By explaining the characters (ie Robbins, Harding, Yabo, Haan, Chongo, Bachar, Hill, etc, etc, yes, even that pesky Middendorf) as best one can, with empathy, then the contradictions can be, if not explained, at least given some context.

There’s little empathy here; Taylor manages to criticize Lynn Hill, which is quite an achievement.

Roper’s faults lie in the other direction; he is full of empathy and understanding--love, really--of the Camp 4 scene and its characters--his writing is always a pleasure to read--but steers clear of wider judgments. Maybe he's too much a part of the scene to step back very far.

No one has really tried what Taylor has attempted here. Taylor’s book’s a good start to a discussion over the significance of the Yosemite/Camp 4 scene, how it fits into a larger picture--and what picture, exactly, it should fit into.

You should order a copy and read it, deucy. I know you care about this history.

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Topic Author's Reply - Jan 27, 2013 - 08:36pm PT
I agree with crunch that the end of the book seems kind of rushed. My guess is that Joseph ran out of both time and energy. He has written other academic books on other topics and probably did not want to devote the rest of his life to the history of climbing.

Perhaps a better or at least easier approach would be to limit the time span from early history to early 70's perhaps, and then write volume II, or let someone else do it who lived through the later eras. The problem with that approach is economics. The average academic book sells only 600 copies. The other problem is academic.

To be at the top of one's field, one can not write mere description if doing any kind of social science, but have to have some kind of theoretical slant that is supposed to be new and highly critical of the subject and other accounts of it, to prove the worth of one's own contribution. This approach has of course been criticized as being too formulaic and sacrificing information for theory.

I encounter this dilemma all the time in my own academic writing. I've seen numerous theories come and go in the years since I went to grad school, while the descriptive accounts of people and places (ethnography) remain interesting. Of course this brings up another problem for social science academics anyway. If social science doesn't keep theorizing then many branches of it will be subsumed into historical studies. The difference between ethnography and anthropology is that of description versus description plus theory.
Jon Beck

Trad climber
Jan 27, 2013 - 11:48pm PT
Google books has the first 49 pages you can review, looks like an interesting read

Edit: I just bought the book from Walmart online, 20 bucks including tax, I went with the free store pickup.
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Jan 28, 2013 - 12:19am PT
Awesome remarks, Crunch! As you say the initial section on early climbing history in California,
"The Sierra Club Days" period, is remarkable and I would have to say what makes the book invaluable.

Hobart, Australia
Jan 28, 2013 - 08:07pm PT
Crunch, I'm only pesky when it comes to telling the story of how you climbed the PO through storms with a lawn chair and carpenter's hammer.

Perhaps with your talent for writing, you can lead the academics to the essence of the true dirt-bag's perspective.

Someday I plan to put my thoughts and feelings to pen once I have the time and perspective to peruse the various journals I've kept of the good ole days...
Captain...or Skully

Jan 28, 2013 - 08:10pm PT
I'd say get on it, Deucey. Life is unpredictable, you know.
Maybe that crunch would also? You guys Are Our History, (like it or not)...

Hobart, Australia
Jan 28, 2013 - 08:35pm PT
now, saying all that, I do think that Paul Pritchard does well in describing the era for the British scene in Deep Play, which has just been reprinted:

The US 'scene' during that time has some parallels...


Trad climber
Jan 28, 2013 - 10:38pm PT
some good comments on this thread-- cumulatively, the good ones add up to a smarter review than the ones in the WSJ or the AAC. i'll try to do a few posts. i'm not speaking for jay here. i'll try to explain the process from the inside of the profession as best i can.

crunch (echoed by peter, jan and deuce)
I learned a lot from his insights into pre-WWII history--but something went wrong; maybe he was slammed and had to rush to finish, maybe the more recent material was too overwhelming in scope and scale for him to grasp, maybe personal experiences . . . colored his judgement.

you forgot to leave out-- maybe he didn't get good advice. heh

he wasn't rushed. except insofar as books are shaped by logistical and market forces. i suggested breaking it into two volumes. but the financials weren't in favor, and i think jay was ready to be done with it. and i honestly don't think it would've mattered, because of two generic problems.

there are two generic issues in treating history (especially US history) after the 1960s. (actually, there's more, but i'll highlight these two.) the first is a problem with all recent history: we don't know how it turns out. constructing a historical narrative means you have a temporary fix on the endpoint and can read back from there. we don't have that here. the fight over "risk" (i.e., between "trad" and "sport") is ongoing. the fight over access is ongoing. there isn't a nice clear endpoint that provides a criterion for deciding which story lines are important and which are subtext, which characters are key and which minor, and so on.

the second problem is indeed the problem of stuff getting overwhelming. this is a generic feature of sources and topics in recent history, but in climbing it's like this: for the period up to the early sixties, jay has a limited set of institutions that provide the key story threads and archival sources: NPS, Sierra Club, RCS, AAC, a few important climbing clubs, and a pretty limited total number of actors. but in the '60s those institutions collapse (save for the overwhelmed and increasingly distant and underfunded NPS), and whirl is king. C4 becomes a tent camp of randoms from god knows where, and turning over every other week. the problem isn't lack of sources-- it's the surplus.

too many potential story lines, too many actors, and way too many sources. EPA alone means that just the NPS documentary side explodes. so if it feels like the wheels are coming off at the end of the book, that's actually a pretty faithful recreation of what's actually happening.

That doesn't mean that no one can write histories of the late seventies and eighties-- but it does mean that those histories are going to get either increasingly narrow and focused. free climbing? soloing? hard aid? tourism? the changes in the NPS? the changes in the Sierra Club? changes in the sociology of the climbing community? the closing of California's mental institutions? globalization and consumer climbing culture? international air travel? we can go on forever.

i do think that as a "book," pilgrims would've been "better" or at least neater had it tied up all its loose narrative ends by ending with the dawn wall. but it would've sold way fewer copies, this thread wouldn't still be up (and may never have happened), and there are stacks of really good research in that last bit that other folks can now build on. and we would've lost that had jay taken my advice more to heart. heh

btw, jay was a serious lifestyle climber long before he became a historian. i recommended he 86 all the personal memoir sh#t in the book, but editors, publishers, and the vast majority of americans-- including everyone on st this thread just more evidence-- believe that memoire is the ultimate form of expression and way more "authentic" and believable and "historical" than anything else, let alone something as lame as histories based on primary research that has run the gauntlet of peer review.

btw2, i haven't asked him about the snake dike deal. but i have a hypothesis. heh.

McHale's Navy

Trad climber
Panorama City, California & living in Seattle
Jan 28, 2013 - 11:03pm PT
I did it again! I read halfway through this thread before realizing I was reading posts from 2010! I'll have to get the book just to see quotes like,

"I have begun my campaign to wipe out CMI and Long and Leeper too. Phuck them all. Leeper gets phucked up for even thinking he can make a better piton than I can."

Haha! That's classic. I hope there's more sh#t in there like that or I'll want my money back. I did buy a GoPro today though, so the book might have to wait. I did that even before I saw Bit'er Ol Guy's post;
it's been played.

save yer $$$$$

buy a Gopro.
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