Deconstructing guide books -


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Trad climber
the crowd MUST BE MOCKED...Mocked I tell you.
Nov 18, 2012 - 01:22am PT
Solid construction
Good overview maps
History and tidbits peppered throughout
Don't care for gps much, unless its really forested approach.
Accuracy in topos.
FA info numbered to climbs in the book.
An ethics section.
Route and formation index showing page numbers for climbs alpha'd.
Photo topos for complex formations, showing key lines.

Less important but nice to have,

Routes by rating index
Eric Beck

Sport climber
Bishop, California
Nov 18, 2012 - 01:00pm PT
Here's a plug for the Skaha guide, Howie Richardson. This is a great crag in the Okanagan Valley of BC. Lori and I spent three very enjoyable days there in September. A little less than 1000 routes, about 60% sport routes. Some features that are innovative:
1. Extensive use of color codes, both in route names, i.e. red for sport and also trails, and quality ratings.
2. Denoting the correspondence between the text and a line on a photo, not by a number, but rather by a short acronym derived from the route name. Thus, Hair on a G String, is HG on the photo.

Also helpful were some suggestions on drinking...Barley Mill, superb beer and Tickleberrys for ice cream.

Howies affection for Skaha and all its creatures, including the rattlers, pervades the entire guide.

We thought that if Skaha were in California it would be the most popular spot.

Trad climber
Nov 18, 2012 - 01:04pm PT
I think Handren's Red Rocks guide is the best rock climbing guidebook I have ever owned. Durable, full color, great beta on all aspects including approach, routes, descent, gear, etc. Which is nice if you don't live there and just want to get on the climbs and send.

Beckey's Cascade Alpine Guides are the definitive guide to climbing in the mountains, who can compare?

I do like Supertopo's guides as usually they include history and stories about the climbs, something I really enjoy, and that adds allot to historic climbs when you do them. Supertopo's Yosemite guides seem to be the go to guide, but I got to whip out the Reid guide when going to a more obscure crag there.

Trad climber
Lee, NH
Nov 18, 2012 - 03:03pm PT
Steve Levin's Eldo guide, and Jerry Handren's books on Red Rock and the Mt Washington Valley (NH), set high graphical and writing standards. With sharp color pictures, old-timer stories, and information about lots of routes, those are three of my favorites to just browse through.

Looking way back, Roper's red Yosemite guide and Pat Ament's blue Boulder book have a mystical place in my memory that later books could never surpass.

Larry DeAngelo's Red Rock Odyssey deserves mention as a unique effort, equal parts guidebook, history and storytelling.


Nov 18, 2012 - 03:53pm PT
A little humor is nice. Secor, even CMac drop the occasional joke; Roper cracks me up.

Way out there....
Nov 18, 2012 - 04:30pm PT
This one is pretty good.

Trad climber
Nov 18, 2012 - 08:39pm PT
Solid construction and good binding.

I think history sections are great where area appropriate, i.e., where no other historical record exists. Places like Yosemite have too much history to document in a guidebook and it's widely available elsewhere. To be honest, I've heard enough self congratulatory yosemite history- most historical climbing events have had nothing to do with yos or its climbing styles. At least beyond heavy handed siege tactics on walls and runout 5.9 slabs.

But I digress. Good index, good approach beta and better descent info. I've never understood guidebooks that try to hide the ball or leave some adventure- it's a friggen guidebook! Good topos are better than pictures in my opinion- again area dependent. A cliff with eight straight up single pitch cracks is different than a couple of routes up a major formation. A photo for the former might be helpful and some line drawn on the latter doesn't add much.

Some info re something that is unusually dangerous or spicy for the grade would be appreciated. FA info where it matters, probably not at the local rap bolted crag. Camping, seasons, sun/shade info is very helpful. Some local hangout info is also nice, though probably just as available on the internet these days. Iconic photos are awesome.


Gym climber
sawatch choss
Nov 18, 2012 - 11:28pm PT
I would actually like to put in a plug against the sort of cartoony, color-coded, international-icon find-a-crag-for-dummies kind of graphic style that one can find in some guides lately (none spring to mind right now, sorry).

One of the pleasures of using, say, the Reid guide is that certain kinds of gems reveal themselves only to a dedicated perusal. With not very much determination, it's easy enough to figure out the basics: a topo map shows you the aspect and elevation; an index tells you who put it up; there's a topo. The cartoony stuff detracts from this- it's a style better suited to places with lots of little crags, and lots of people just passing through. Yosemite climbers have time to dig a little, people come for weeks.

The quality rating system offers a lot of choices. On the one hand you have the no-star approach, the opposite of which is perhaps a select guide with a 5-star scale-like supertopo. Somewhere in between, and one I kind of like, is the one-star scale: there's recommended, and not. Verbal descriptions clue you in on the classics. The Rossiter Eldo guide works this way. You can always park a list of must-do megaclassics in the back.
Brian in SLC

Social climber
Salt Lake City, UT
Nov 19, 2012 - 01:00am PT
Handren guide to Red Rocks is great. Any such like inspires me to want to climb.

Concur with what's been said above, specifically Russ and Melissa.

Rockfax format has been good to me. I like a guidebook that covers a large area, broken into individual crags, that gives a grade range and count to especially the single pitch stuff. And, a realtive quality rating for not just routes, but, the crag itselt. Aspect and if I can climb when its raining really help too.

The gold standard around here has been the Ruckman guide to the Wasatch. Having the little quips about the routes from authors intimate with an area is great. Some of us quote from it frequently..."bold elegance on a sea of white granite". Route topos are great. Layout nice. Fairly easy to navigate with.

Most great guides these days seem to be in color, with route overlays. I like a great hand drawn topo, but, that's rare and hard to do.

Action shots can keep the psyche up. Quality paper, quality binding. Nothing worse than opening a guidebook, feeling that binding crack and split and knowing you'll soon have a mess of loose pages.

I like having the FA info. Some folks just have an eye for great lines, and, some don't.

Knowing the git off is super and/or if a route can be rap'd with a single or double rope, and, the length. If a 70m rope is preferred for a crag due to route lengths, good to know.

That said, low budget "crack shack" guides can be super too. Folded 8.5 by 11 works just fine.

Yeah...I have a gob of guidebooks...

Trad climber
Fumbling towards stone
Nov 19, 2012 - 02:54am PT
Thanks for a good topic Ed. Some thoughtful and interesting contributions here. Funny, I saw the photo of a "lost" Rick and Ed and immediately thought of Secor's book... and the next post by Sierra Lodge Rat mentioned just that tome!

I like Secor too. A lot of info, but it's not all telegraphed. There's some mystery there, and where there's mystery, you get a bit more chance for romance. And, of course, adventure. It may take a few tries to find a route, but part of the pleasure can be the journey.

The reason I thought of Secor and being lost is this: years ago, I went to climb the West Ridge of Conness by backpacking in via Tuolumne. I had a xerox of the route description and a photo of it. Me and my partner, who was fairly well experienced in Sierra travel, both stood there the morning after packing in, looking up at Conness and the photo to determine where to start.

"Yup," we agreed, "It's definitely way over there to the left!" We set out to have a great time. We climbed something and at first it seemed like the route. But then we go up on another ridge. WTF??? Wasn't there supposed to be only one ridge? And then we traversed under these towers and where the heck did that glacier come from??!!!!! Somewhere amidst all this comedy, we realized we had started way, way off route and end up on the North Ridge of Conness! A bit of an epic getting down ensued, but that's another tale of hilarity, tears, and redemption.

The thing is, that we still had fun. It got a bit testy at points, but if that doesn't happen, it probably isn't mountaineering! Heh heh!

I really like books with route and area history and assorted other trivia.

At the end of the day, I appreciate them all, regardless of the details (or lack thereof). They tell us a lot about their authors too.

I also really like Croft's The Good, The Great and The Awesome. The only guidebook that makes me laugh out loud whenever I pick it up and flip to a random page. And I appreciate Secor's humor too, Those you have to look for a bit more, but are worth it. One comes to mind regarding a couple of routes on Mt. Tom. The notes on the first route (long and strenuous) end with "Ug!". The second route, apparently even longer and more strenuous, ends with "Ug, Ug!"


Trad climber
Portland, Oregon
Nov 19, 2012 - 03:20am PT
99% of guidebooks tell you what you can figure out for yourself about routes and little to none about what you can't. Most particularly, the story of the FA. Information about the area is cool, but information about lines other than their location seems like all it does is create a culture of addiction similar to that of chalk and most folks never develop an eye for what they can climb because of it. All that's the reason Scary Larry's is one of the few guidebooks I care much for.

And as we all age the first ascent stories are quickly being lost. What we need is the ability for the FA parties to go online and add the story of an FA to the route descriptions.
Jay Hack

Trad climber
Detroit, Michigan
Nov 19, 2012 - 10:04am PT
One of the most useful things a guidebook can do, imho, is a photo of the 1st pitch of a climb. I seem to get the most lost just trying to find routes.

Trad climber
Twain Harte, California
Nov 19, 2012 - 10:39am PT
Things that make guidebook users idiots, from the perspective of a guidebook author (not worth starting its own thread):

1. Conversations that go like this (these are verbatum discussions):

CB: "Brad, your guidebook is just a bunch of toilet paper!!"

Brad: "Really, CB, why's that?"

CB: I was out there today and there's two routes that aren't even in your book."

Brad: "Oh, where are they?"

CB: "You know, over between XYZ Route and ZYX Route."

Brad: "Oh, those. Yeah, CB, both of those were put in two years after the book came out..."

CB: "Oh..."

2. Or, comments like this:

DF: "Brad, you fu#ked up the name of my route."

Brad: "Sorry, DF, what'd I get wrong?"

DF: "It's not X Route, it's XYZ Route."

Brad: "Oh, I thought it was X. It's been listed as X for more than ten years. It was called X Route in the last guidebook. DF, you knew I was working on a book for more than four years, why didn't you call me and give me the right name?"

DF: "Well, I thought you knew...."
Mike Friedrichs

Sport climber
City of Salt
Nov 19, 2012 - 10:57am PT

I assume your question is in general and not specific to Yosemite. I concur with what Melissa and Russ said.

The best guidebook I've ever seen is the newest book to Kalymnos. It has really good directions to a lot of different areas. There's a summary table at the beginning that gives information for each sector about approximately how long the approach is, what the aspect is (sun/shade, time of shade), and the distribution of route grades. This is really helpful. It allows one to choose an area where there are plenty of options around a given grade. Then if you want the details you can go to that section of the route and see the pictures, get the descriptions, etc.

I really enjoyed the history in the original Desert Rock but it did make for a tome. Not sure if that is better in a guide book or a companion book on an area's history.

Not sure I agree with the comments on having a super minimalist guidebook. If you desire the ultimate adventure, don't buy the book at all. Wander around until you find something that grabs you. Guidebooks are supposed to be a guide to an area and should at the very least get you to the route. That said, Dingus McGee's Devils Tower guide had everything I ever needed in about 10 pages. Sort of depends on the area.

I've thought about writing a guide myself so this is a topic I am also interested in.

Trad climber
Monrovia, California
Nov 19, 2012 - 11:56am PT
I think that what constitutes a good and appropriate guidebook depends a lot on the area being covered. I agree with the comments upthread to the point that having a comprehensive history chapter in a Yosemite guide might be redundant, and make for a fat book. On the other hand interesting historical tidbits here and there about a specific route or incident could enrich such a book greatly.

On the other hand I’m finishing up a book right now about an area where the written historical information is either incomplete or incorrect. What little information is online is mostly a rehash of previous errors. Therefore I want my book to have good historical content. Fortunately the area is not huge and this can be done in about four or five pages.

I had an English teacher once who, when asked how long an essay should be, answered “Make it like a young lady’s skirt, long enough to cover the subject and short enough to be interesting…”

Russ’s point about gear size is spot on. Of course there might be a route which has some bizarre gear requirement which would be good to mention, but for the most part “gear to 3 inches” or whatever should do it. An example of a route which I would put in the first category is Laeger’s “Top Secret” on Trapper Dome at Courtright. It is pretty much impossible to do this climb safely without double rope technique. On the other hand pretty much everything at the Needles that follows a crack is going to be situational to the individual climber. If one likes a lot of pro, take a lot. Of course there are a few exceptions there too.

Generally speaking the best guidebooks are by people who have actually done a lot of the climbs in the area about which they are writing.

And the easiest way to have a book full of mistakes is to try to present too much very detailed information. For traditional cragging areas I like a guidebook which respects my own decision making abilities. Too much beta is too much beta, whether it is coming from some loudmouth at the bottom or an over written book.
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 19, 2012 - 12:11pm PT
great recommendations on ideas for new guidebooks, already have a bunch of concrete recommendations to try out...

...the OP title is about deconstruction of guides that exist, the ones you like the most... and there is a lot of that in this thread. I thought this approach was a good one because there are bits in most guides that we like, and looking at them helps in thinking about the elements of a good guide.

When I actually "guide" someone in an area the thing I'm doing the most seems to be providing information on:
1) which routes would be good for the time of year and the ability of the climbing team,
2) where to go to start,
3) how to walk to the approach,
4) what to take (rack, ropes, water, food, additional clothing) and
5) how to get off.

The art of guidebook writing would seem to be getting this information in as natural a way possible for the area.

Thinking about the "audience" for the guidebook is also important... a hardcore group of locals? a set of one-time international visitors? the climbers of the future venturing out from their plastic venues? the grizzled weekend warriors tired of doing the same 30 routes?

When first getting to the Valley we used every day for something, if it was raining in the winter, we'd take a liter of water, some snacks, the guidebook and a rain shell and walk approaches to work out areas we hadn't been to... eventually a place like the Valley becomes familiar and even small, if only because we'd actually touched most of the rock on most of the cliffs...

...but if you're there for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, you don't have the time to do that... you hire a guide, or buy a guidebook.

I also liked JTM's response about actually deconstructing guide books into physical parts...
...there's a nub of an idea there for sure!

Gym climber
berkeley, ca
Nov 19, 2012 - 12:25pm PT
The Supertopo serves the market of people with one week of their life to spend in the Valley exceptionally well, IMO. Had it existed when I started, I wonder if I would have waited a year or two to buy Reid?

Trad climber
Monrovia, California
Nov 19, 2012 - 12:41pm PT
I also liked JTM's response about actually deconstructing guide books into physical parts...
...there's a nub of an idea there for sure!

Al Bartlett figured that out years ago when he published separate complete mini guides for each area in Josh. The result was a set of simple guides which were small and concise. Some thought they were lacking in sufficient details regarding gear, descents, etc. I have them all and still refer to them frequently.

Of course they lack the gloss and beautiful photos of the newer style of guides.

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Nov 19, 2012 - 12:56pm PT
For me the right guide book depends on where I climbing. Since I live in Seattle, most of my climbing is in the cascades. The Cascades are covered by Beckey's CAG's. A typical route description is "follow obvious left trending line to ridge, and accent good rock to summit. 5.9". That type of beta is fine for me, because I know most of the area and can figure out Fred's obscure directions.

Now, throw me in The Sierra's, the SuperTopo style guides are great for me. I don't know the area/conditions/unforseens, etc...; so pitch by pitch beta is great along with detailed idiot info (permits, stores, regs., weather, etc,,). I love the time on routes listings, detailed approach beat, and other misc. such as sun exposure etc... A guide like allows me much more climb time and to be be better prepared than a Fred style book.

I'll be making a trip to J-Tree this spring, I will be looking for a guide book that gets me on the type/style/grade of routes I want quickly; without having to spend a ton time reading through a guide book.

FA info and that is not all that important to me in a guide; although I do enjoy reading that stuff when hanging in camp.

The ulitmate guide book - well it depends.

Gym climber
Berkeley, CA
Nov 19, 2012 - 01:08pm PT
+1 on most of what Russ said (gear labeling, crux location, FA party, getting onto/off of the climb, pitch length and rope-getting-stuck possibilities for potential linking). And consider inches/centimeters for our international friends who can't think in inches.

For OW climbs, maybe some special consideration on gear beta: I know it's going to be an adventure when the Yosemite Reid guide says "pro to 3 inches" because that could be anything from cupped hands to 80 feet of pro-less chimney. Maybe say something like "pro to 3 inches = 40 feet runouts, pro to 6 inches = 10 feet runouts"

I think one guidebook can't be all things to all climbers for all routes at their level. Sometimes I want the full beta spraydown, sometimes I like "trend up and left for several pitches of moderate fifth class until you see a faint ridge."

So maybe do a merging in one guide, where a reader's desires can be segregated not just by climbing type and difficulty and pro, but also by level of experience and tolerance for uncertainty. Do some routes or areas with overview photos and route lines overlaid, some with the supertopo style topos and full gear placement beta, and some more like the old Meyers/Reid guide with a sparse topo, and some more cryptic like the Roper guides. You can even add more climbs with vague whispers of names and/or FA parties and which general area of the valley, but leave the mystery fully alive for rumors to run rampant and dreams to feverishly boil over.

This approach would feed the dreams of the most people I think, and when it's time to head out to a route, I'll bet most people copy the info onto a single piece of paper anyways. But for folks who like to go cragging, bringing the full rack to the base with a guidebook and figure out what to do after they get there, the book should not be too huge and too pretty where messing it up would make the owner sad.

So maybe there's a fundamental choice: is this a "field" guidebook or a "sitting in the lodge cafeteria on a cold winter morning" guidebook?
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