Being published - how climbers learned about climbing BITD


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Mountain climber
The Deep Woods
Oct 13, 2017 - 11:05am PT
This line has stuck with me ever since I read the article in 95 as a know-nothing bumbler
This is such a great line: 'I wanted to vomit all day long on the Reality Bath.' I mean, really, what was he doing? Eating raw chicken the day before?
mouse from merced

Trad climber
The finger of fate, my friends, is fickle.
Oct 13, 2017 - 11:06am PT
There is a fine article by John Long in "Yosemite In the Fifties" --Warren Harding: Man of Iron.

Largo's first paragraph:

In 1953, Warren Harding read a book about a ferocious ascent of the West Face of the Dru, in the French Alps. Although relatively old at twenty-nine, he immediately became a climber--"the first thing I was ever really good at,
he said, "because I can do only what requires brute stupidity."

I've not been able to dig up the title of that book, but suspect it might have been "Conquistadors of the Useless" because that sounds like Farceto's style all the way.

Why is this all about Tami? No offense, darling child of Squamish. :0)
Fossil climber

Trad climber
Atlin, B. C.
Oct 13, 2017 - 01:25pm PT
Great stuff Ed, Tami, Ghost! Thanks! Wish I had been in that same climbing/humour scene. But thanks to you, it lives.

A long way from where I started
Oct 13, 2017 - 08:55pm PT
What follows is long. Over 3,000 words. But I think it is very much what Ed was opening the door to with his original post on this thread. So I hope you will read it and offer your thoughts -- both on the prehistoric BITD Era, and on how today compares.

The backstory is that, in 1991, Allen Steck persuaded the organizers of the Montagna Avventura 2000 conference in Italy that I should be brought in to give the keynote address. Why? Well, the focus of that year's event was on mountain literature, and I was not only the editor of a "famus climing jernal" (to quote Ms. Knight), but my novel "Vortex" had just been shortlisted for the Boardman-Tasker prize.

So I accepted, and then found myself on the podium in front of about 100 climber/writers who were all more famous as both climbers and writers than I. It was scarier than leading unprotected 5.17 above a death fall. But I mumbled it out, and was greeted at the end with an incredibly warm reception. So maybe there's something worthwhile in the next 3,000 words...

SHARING THE MAGIC -- Climbing Writing as Ghetto Literature

by David Harris

In 1987 I was invited to take over as editor of the Canadian Alpine Journal. I accepted quickly enough, but then began a long debate with myself over the role of the printed word in climbing. Just what sort of writing was relevant to climbers?

The answer came in the mail, in the form of a submission from the Vancouver climber Don Serl who had just made the first ascent of a big, remote rock wall in Canada’s Coast Mountains. The article he sent was short, and didn’t really say much about the technical nature of the climb, but rather focused on his motives for doing the climb and for writing about it.

In the middle of his article were two short paragraphs which crystallized my own feelings and gave me the answer I had been looking for.

//Why did we do this route? We sure didn’t do it for you, so why did we do it for us? ...And why should I struggle to write anything at all about it?

The only feasible answer is: to live—and to share. We climb to live. It’s in the blood and it needs to circulate. The fears need to be confronted, the abilities need to be tested, horizons need to be gained, paths need to be followed. And these things need to be spoken of. We are all in this together and we need to pass the lore around, to share the tales. We climb for the magic of it...//

That pretty much sums up my own feeling about climbing writing: That the function of all worthwhile climbing writing is, in one way or another, to share the magic.

We climb for the magic of it.

And we write about climbing to share that magic.

Whatever its other qualities, climbing writing is important because it reassures us that we are not alone. That it is okay to want to climb, to live to climb. That it is okay to be a climber.


To me, climbing writing is not at all the same thing as mountain writing. What I call climbing writing is, in English at any rate, a relatively recent phenomenon. I feel that it is fundamentally different from mountain writing – that it represents an entirely new genre.

Mountain writing evolved from the literature of exploration and discovery, and has been with us at least since sometime in the seventeenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century a considerable amount of this writing was about climbing. But writing that is about climbing is different from climbing writing. “Mountain writing” whether it features climbing or not, was, and to some extent still is, written for the public. It is often written by climbers, but it can be written by anyone who visits or studies the mountains, and it is accessible to the general reading public.

“Climbing writing”, on the other hand, is a true ghetto literature, written only by climbers and essentially inaccessible to anyone but climbers. The seeds of climbing writing may have been planted long ago, and its roots may have been growing out of our sight for years, but it flowered as a separate genre in English only recently.

While mountains have been a part of the fabric of life in Europe and Asia for thousands of years, North Americans did not encounter their mountains until well after the European view of Nature had gone through its great romantic transformation in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. North Americans have viewed their mountains as recreational facilities almost from the start; and while some of the early North American mountain writing was based in science or exploration it very quickly became a literature of recreation.

Having reached this point, North American mountain writing continued without much change through eighty-odd years. During this period the world changed as it never had before, and climbing grew and changed almost beyond recognition, but English-language mountain writing sailed on unchanged until it was turned upside down and shaken back into relevance twenty-five years ago.


Before looking at the changes to climbing literature though, it is important to look at a fundamental change in climbing itself – the creation of an international climbing ghetto.

The social and economic upheavals of almost 30 years of war and depression from 1918 to 1945 had a profound effect on all aspects of life, climbing included, all over the world. But change did not stop with the end of the war. North America, from 1950 to 1970, enjoyed a period of wealth and prosperity unsurpassed in human history. There was well-paid work for anyone who wanted it, the future had never looked brighter, and if a single word can describe two decades of history for a whole continent, that word would have to be contentment. But contentment for the many was frustration for the few, and the makeup of the climbing population began to change as more and more young people turned to climbing in search of the adventure that had gone missing from their society. Where climbing had once been a pastime of the well-educated and relatively wealthy professional, it now became the passion of the young rebel. Where climbing had once been a healthy, if eccentric, adjunct to an otherwise normal life, it was now looked at by some as a replacement for a normal life.

These new climbers rejected the society in which they had been raised. They often rejected, or were unaware of, the history of climbing, and they spurned mountaineering in favor of rock climbing. They were philosophical refugees from the real world who saw climbing as the focus of their lives, and they found comfort in a small community of like-minded souls.

They became residents of a new ghetto.

Clearly, not every North American climber in 1965 was a committed dropout from the American Dream. But equally clearly, by 1965 climbing in North America had changed dramatically. At the physical level, the focus had shifted from mountaineering to pure rockclimbing. And at the human level the focus had shifted from climbing as a recreation to climbing as a way of life.

At the literary level however, nothing had changed. The American Alpine Journal and the Canadian Alpine Journal were still publishing the same old articles, written in the same old style. But where this style had once – fifty years earlier – conveyed a true depth of feeling, it now often rang hollow. And where these journals had once reflected the North American climbing scene reasonably accurately, they were now hopelessly out of touch.

How could this be? Why was the spirit of the new climbing not reflected in the literature? The answer lies inside the ghetto. Or, more accurately, inside the ghettos. I have spoken of these climbers being residents of a new ghetto, but in fact they were residents of many small ghettos, and they had yet to perceive their place in a larger climbing community. Furthermore, the newcomers were primarily rock climbers, and neither they, nor the mountaineering establishment, had yet perceived climbing as a continuum. It was not that the gulf between rock climbing and mountaineering was unbridgeable, but rather that, for most climbers, the thought of bridging it simply did not occur.

There were social issues involved as well. In Britain, the class system ensured that many of the newcomers, however bright, had neither the ability nor the desire to write. It also ensured that they came to climbing with an almost reflexive distrust of the kind of people who made up the climbing establishment. In North America, with a better educational system and a society largely free of class bias, the newcomers could have written if they had chosen to, but for the most part they chose not to. It was not that they had no need to share the magic of their experience – in fact for them, as for the dwellers in ghettos everywhere, the sharing of magic was an essential part of their lives – but they shared it around the campfire or in the bar, not in the official Journals of a society of which their climbing was a rejection.

If the new climbers found themselves increasingly ghetto-ized, the world around them was changing in just the opposite way. The globalization of the entertainment and news industries was shrinking the world and ushering in the age of the global village, but the influence of this shrinking world was forgotten when the rope was tied on, and Yvon Chouinard, in the 1963 issue of the American Alpine Journal, could still write:

...most American climbers are unaware of what is happening in their own country. Yosemite climbers in the past have rarely left the Valley to climb in other areas, and conversely few climbers from other regions ever come to Yosemite...

The traditional mountaineering community, made up as it was of the wealthy and the well-educated, had always been somewhat international in its outlook, but by 1963, when Chouinard wrote those words, the bulk of the climbing population was made up of rock climbers who knew very little about what was going on outside their own regional climbing scenes. Other than word of mouth there was no way for them to find out, for the existing national Alpine Club Journals simply did not reach them.
But they could not escape the twentieth century forever.


If a small stream blocked by a dam with a small spillway is fed by new sources, either the dam will burst, or the backed-up water will overflow it. In the post-war period, the literary needs of an ever-increasing number of new climbers were dammed behind the stone wall of Alpine Club traditionalism, a situation which persisted right up until 1967, when the dam finally burst – or rather when a small band of literary commandos finally blew it up.

To single out one person, or one event as the key element in an historical or literary movement is always an over-simplification, for nobody acts in isolation and nobody writes in a vacuum. But it does seem to me that there are two recognizable events which can reasonably be said to have turned the world of English-language mountain writing on its head.

The first was the publication of a periodical entitled Ascent in 1967. Ascent, edited by Steve Roper and Allen Steck, was a celebration of the new climbing lifestyle, and marks the first real flowering of climbing writing in North America. Nothing like it had been published there before. It was presented in magazine format, and was, by the standards of the day, well illustrated. This immediately gave it an approachability that was missing in both the American and Canadian Alpine Journals, which looked like academic journals.

But Ascent was much more than glossy wrapping on an old product, for not only did the writing cross geographical boundaries, but, more important, it also swept away the barrier between rock climbing and mountaineering. The article “Games Climbers Play”, by Lito Tejada-Flores addressed that issue head-on, by treating all climbing activities, from bouldering to expeditionary mountaineering, as parts of a continuum. “Games Climbers Play” has become probably the most widely read, widely discussed, and most influential article in English-language climbing literature. It has been reprinted and analyzed to such an extent that there is no need for me to comment further on it here.

What does need comment is that there was far more to the early issues of Ascent than this one article. Where the Alpine Journals of the day focused almost exclusively on mountaineering, Ascent opened its pages to climbing of all kinds. Rock climbing, both free and aid. Mountaineering. Technical ice climbing. Expeditions. All were represented, and there was no editorial bias implying that one form of climbing was better or more important than any other.

The real thrust of the writing was that the essential climbing experience was an inner one. The message that Ascent trumpeted to the multitude of climbing ghettos across the continent and around the world was that there was much more to a climb than its location and its difficulty. That the worth of a climb was measured not in numbers, but in the struggle of the climber – a struggle which took place not just on a crag or a mountain, but in the mind.

The writing in Ascent evoked the magic of climbing in a way that nothing in the Alpine Journals ever had, and it awoke in young climbers the realization that while they might not have a place in the family or the community of their birth, they did have a place in the extended family of climbing.

The second event that helped to spark the birth of climbing writing in North America actually took place in England, where, in 1968, Ken Wilson took over as editor of a hiking-oriented magazine called Mountain Craft. Inspired by what he saw happening in Europe and America, he changed the magazine’s name to Mountain, and gave it a new design and a completely new orientation. Under his stewardship Mountain became an international newsmagazine of climbing.

In an age when we know about the latest climbs in France or Argentina almost before the climbers have untied their ropes, and when the way we conduct ourselves at our local crag is influenced by what is happening in Australia or Italy, it seems strange to think of a time when climbing was largely a regional activity. But prior to 1969 or 1970, when the first issues of Mountain appeared in North America, most climbers there knew little about what was going on in their own countries, let alone in the rest of the world. The tales told on belay ledges and in the pubs by those few climbers who traveled were very nearly the only contact that the isolated climbing communities had with one another.

In Europe things were different. The German magazine Alpinismus was big, glossy, and full of climbing news from around the world; and it was on Alpinismus that Wilson modeled his new magazine. Each issue of Mountain featured climbing news from correspondents around the globe, well-illustrated articles, and a “Letters” section in which ethical issues were debated on a world-wide basis.

Ascent gave us a spiritual home, Mountain showed us that that home spanned the world.

For European climbers, and for those North Americans who have come to climbing in the years since 1968, it is hard to appreciate the impact of these two publications. If you are used to being able to make a choice from a variety of well-edited and well-designed climbing magazines, and being able to supplement your periodical reading with a choice from hundreds of books and dozens of videos, then you probably can’t imagine a time when there were no climbing magazines, no climbing videos, and only a few climbing books.

But that time existed until less than twenty-five years ago, and it is only due to the vision of a few extraordinary climbers that it ended then...

...or perhaps it was due to end anyway. Perhaps the ghetto would have come to literacy at that time regardless. But that is something we’ll never know, because those climbers did write and did publish at that time; and for me as a climber, as a reader, as a writer, and as an editor, their contribution is immeasurable. They understood our needs for membership in the family of climbing, and for a literature of our own, before we were aware of those needs ourselves. They understood that climbing could be the foundation of a life-style and of a belief system for those of us who could find no such foundation in the political, economic, and social world around us. They defined our ghetto and enabled us to be proud to live in it.


The two decades following the appearance of Ascent and Mountain saw the volume of English-language climbing writing swell, and by the late 1980s the North American climbing community was well-served with magazines, journals and books that were based on the fundamental principles exemplified in those two publications: The writing was by climbers and for climbers, it covered the whole spectrum of climbing activities from bouldering to expeditions, and it reflected the world-wide nature of the climbing community.

But time did not stop in 1987.

Climbing has continued to change, and competition climbing has brought us face to face with the fact that what was, until recently, a participants-only activity can also be a spectator sport with governing bodies, producers, sponsors, and rules. And while spectator sports may be exciting, there is no magic in them, and they can produce no magical writing. No sport with formal rules, and governance by non-participants, can produce the kind of literature that climbing has produced.

Competition climbing, if it gains acceptance as a mass sport, will no doubt produce writing that is similar to writing about golf or football, and climbing events may become part of the mainstream sports news; but the fact that non-climbers may one day write badly about climbing does not mean the end of climbing writing any more than competition climbing means the end of adventure climbing.

The mountains and the rock walls will still be there, and people who cannot find what they need in the cities and towns and climbing competitions of mass society will continue to turn to those mountains and rocks for fulfillment. They will continue to push themselves out to the edge because it is only out on the edge that they will find the magic they so desperately need to find.

And, when they come back, they will share that magic, for, as Don Serl said:

//“We climb to live. It’s in the blood and it needs to circulate. And these things need to be spoken of... We are all in this together and we need to pass the lore around, to share the tales.”

Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Oct 14, 2017 - 07:06pm PT
thanks for that Ghost!

it has been an amazing ride indeed.

Boulder climber
Andy Cairns
Oct 14, 2017 - 08:20pm PT

He was born behind the Iron Curtain. He was chums with Ivo Ninov in grades 1-3. He just got a climbing harness and helmet. He ties in through his belay loop and has trouble with the figure 8 knot.

But he says exactly what Don Serl says in the last part of David's post above.

We do it to live, and to share.
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