Although North America is not the birthplace of climbing, it is a continent that has given the pursuit many of its defining characteristics: crack climbing, ice-climbing, big-wall climbing and V-grades among them. In contrast to Europe, it’s a place where getting to the route sometimes poses as much of a challenge as climbing it.
The literature of the North American approach to climbing is as vast and varied its geography suggests. While books like Into Thin Air have largely set the public perception of the sport, they are not the ones that have caught the imaginations of the genuine aspirant. The books that really matter are those expunge all other thoughts from your mind, that tell you that everything you read or experienced previously was mere contrivance. They are the ones tell you not stay in bed when the alarm rings in the Freudian darkness of 3 a.m.
1. Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills 1960-2010.
As unstructured athletic environments go, mountains must surely be among the most complex and unforgiving. The eight successive editions of The Freedom of the Hills have sought to reduce the demands mountaineering places on its practitioners to a set skills and know-how that can be learned and successfully mastered through experience. It remains the most iconic and widely read instructional book in the English language, reaching far beyond its roots as a manual for climbing in Pacific Northwest.
Written by teams working under an editorial director chosen for each edition, it has grown to be a reference book taking in new advances in equipment, technique, style, and understanding of the mountain environment. In this sense, it’s always been a work of consolidation rather than innovation whose sympathies have been with the recreational climber seeking advancement and safety. Reflecting its North American character, the premise is that mountaineering is a wilderness experience where competence in building an emergency snow shelter counts more than gymnastic virtuosity. That’s not to say that advanced mixed climbing techniques like stein pulling aren’t covered. It’s that they are placed in a much larger context. This is not surprising for a book that was shaped by the values of self-reliance fostered by experiences of washed out logging roads, torrential rain, and scant beta. There’s so much foundational material that it’s easy to get lost in it without being inspired by the acts of irrepressible daring that make climbing the crown jewel of all outdoor activities.
It’s difficult to know how relevant The Freedom will be going forward. Might wiki technology evolve to the point of self-assembling reference books? Might general mountaineering experience be relegated to becoming a niche pursued by traditionalists while the rest of us pursue randonnee racing, deep water soloing, or backcountry bouldering?
2. Basic Rockcraft / Advanced Rockcraft (1971, 1973)
Intended to be the first North American instructional book purely devoted to rock climbing, Basic Rockcraft offered the reader an entry point into the sport as it was understood in the early 1970s. Its companion volume sought to present a set of techniques, values, and attitudes that could be applied to more ambitious objectives. Softbound in digest format and whimsically illustrated by Sheridan Anderson, it is more resonant with beat novels than mountaineering texts. Although its vision of climbing as a craft primarily motivated by considerations of parsimony, self-reliance, and aesthetics, the rapid developments in equipment and methods in the 1970s made much in these books obsolete by the time Learning to Rock Climb was published in 1978.
When these two books were written, pitoncraft had accomplished great things, especially in Yosemite Valley, and Royal Robbins had been at the centre of it all. The future, as Royal writes in the second book would be clean climbing, both in the sense of aid elimination and the use of nuts. That’s how things went, but not quite in the parsimonious ways of Basic Rockcraft. Shoes, it turned out, did matter, as did harnesses and “specialized devices.” Neither the “F9” grade nor “balance climbing” would remain part of the lexicon. Needless to say, training finds no place in Royal’s craft paradigm.
Although skills such as copperheading and pin stacking have ceased to be important, the values that Royal Robbins sought to bring to the fore remain influential in North American climbing, and can be felt in a place like the Red River Gorge, as radically different from the slabby world of Lover’s Leap where he set up his short-lived Rockcraft school.
3. Climbing in North America, Chris Jones (1976)
The new world got its first comprehensive climbing history from an old world author. While recovering from a ski injury, Chris Jones pieced together a hundred years of hearsay, campfire stories, journal accounts, and other forms of self-aggrandizement to write a richly anecdotal, yet thoroughgoing narrative. Since then, we’ve had histories of bouldering and Canadian climbing, but nothing with the sweep of Jones’ seminal work.
If there is a single theme to the book, it’s this: North American climbing is best understood as a series of regional pursuits whose techniques and attitudes would affect one another. Sometimes the influence would be global, as was the case with the development of hard steel pitons in California following the war that set the stage for a Yosemite school of international significance. Figures like Fred Beckey, Yvon Chouinard, and John Turner gave the US-Canadian border as little respect as it deserves. Likewise, the interplay between cragging, big wall and alpine climbing is explored in the way each had influence on the other in the evolution of attitudes and techniques.
Today, the book remains an indispensable, if out-of-date, starting point for anyone looking at the emergence of North American climbing as from its frontier roots to its countercultural leanings in the 1970s.
4. Climbing Ice, Yvon Chouinard (1978)
If there was ever a climbing book can be said to have created a genre, its Yvon Chouinard’s classic published at time when dramatic advances were being made on ice. Tracing developments in Scotland and Chamonix and their migration to North America, Climbing Ice opened up an entire world of possibilities to those willing trade EBs for crampons. Even though it marks the clearest separation of ice climbing from its origins in alpinism, Chouinard’s book is chock-a-block with what we would consider vestigial techniques like step-cutting and flat-footing. Ice screws are referred to as type of piton, leashes as wrist loops, and wooden shafted axes (made by Chouinard Equipment), are still the norm. The beginnings of what we would call ice tools show up as derivatives of piton hammers. Aid climbing techniques are directly transferred over to ice in way that seems ludicrous in the present, leashless era.
The fundamental premise of the book is that the methods and attitudes of that separated rock climbing from mountaineering could be applied to frozen water. Central to this premise was the idea that steep ice could be protected and that front points could be trusted, allowing one to take a much more aggressive approach on what was possible.
These anachronisms aside, Climbing Ice took the richly visual format of the magazines Ascent and Climbing and gave it a position independent of alpine climbing. It made the prescient claim that a whole new set of experiences could be had at familiar crags in winter, as was the case in the North East, and on the previously unconsidered waterfalls of the West. Needless to say, in the decade after it was published, a revolution took place in ice climbing equipment and standards making the book obsolete faster than the author could have imagined.
5. Yosemite Climber, George Meyers (1980)
If there was ever a book that made you want to quit school, work, or whatever might suggest mediocrity, and push out into uncharted waters of rock, this was it. In every sense classic, Yosemite Climber showed what it was to be a climber, circa 1979. Everything from the 2″ swami belt around your waist, the white painter pants, the dangling chalk-bag, and the rolled-up sleeves, told the story that you had left the prejudices of the world behind and you had embarked on a journey of unremitting steepness and commitment to the vertical world. The setting couldn’t be more dramatic, nor could the photos that graced this hardcover collection of “action photos from the world’s leading rock climbing area.” Whatever the transcendental pretensions of the time, this was no disco.
In a stroke, the book established North American rock climbing in a league of its own, unhindered by the traditions of alpinism. It celebrated free climbing virtuosity that had never been seen before on granite cracks and slabs. None of the climbers pictured were over thirty, and none had anything less than a surfer’s grace and disposition. At the time of its publication, nothing comparable existed anywhere in world. In ethos the look and feel of Yosemite Climber survives to this day in places as varied as Kentucky and Kalymnos.
Among the iconic images presented are: Ron Kauk on A Separate Reality, Bridwell, Long, and Westbay at the base of the nose following their one day ascent looking like they were Jimi Hendrix’s backing band, a robust Ray Jardine making his up Space Bubble protected by his still experimental Friends. Dale Bard laughing at the RURP belay anchors on the Sea of Dreams. These photos have since been re-shot many times without high-tops and headbands.
Yosemite Climber offered a view of climbing unfettered by access issues, route crowding, garbage and human waste that was to scar the most popular routes in the Valley. It’s a glimpse at a time when climbing and freedom could be said in the same breath in all seriousness.
6. Fifty Classic Climbs, Steve Roper, Allen Steck (1980)
Soon afterwards referred to as “fifty crowded climbs,” Roper and Steck’s large format guidebook became a tick list of sorts even if it was largely out-of-date when it was published in 1980. Their definition of a classic seemed to include every type of long rock and alpine climb as long as it was west of Boulder. Their thick black route tracings obscured the actual routes. And even if you accept their thesis that only a multi-pitch route can be considered a classic, the omission of Astroman, Naked Edge, and Primrose Dihedrals and the inclusion of a hard alpine aid route in Alaska reflected a stilted view of what best characterized the North American climbing experience. Also, ice climbing, which had seen an explosion of new route activity in the decade leading to the book’s publication is totally ignored.
Nevertheless, there is a certain ethos that captures the spirit of North American climbing that still rings true. It emphasized adventure over athletic prowess. It made the implicit assertion that a great day out began and ended in twilight. And it illustrated the sheer variety of climbing experiences to be had along the western cordillera, from sandstone towers, to granite walls, wet volcanoes and dry ones to polar massifs.
In many ways, Fifty Classics represents the last time climbing and mountaineering were viewed as two sides of the same coin. Since then, mountaineering has become a genre of climbing, and no one feels you have to know how to use an ice-axe as well a Gri-gri.
7. Learning to Rock Climb, Michael Loughman (1984)
The black and white cover says it all: a woman in cut-offs layback-stemming up a granite crack, seemingly effortlessly, with no harness in sight. The dramatic step taken by Learning to Rock Climb was to put movement at the core of the climbing experience. Belaying, rope work, and the placing of gear were pushed off stage. This change of emphasis, so obvious today, was nothing short of revolutionary when this widely read instructional book published by Sierra Club Books in 1981.
He tells us that “balance climbing is the basis of technique on steep slopes. The position of hips and shoulders is perhaps the most important single element of technique” the author builds a complete thesis on the ballerina principle of rock climbing. Good footwork trumps raw power, along with its corollary: effective movement originates from a relaxed mental state. Although the notion of what is steep seems comically outdated, and few of the techniques described would be of any use on a trip to the Red River Gorge, these premises remain true.
Reflecting a time when Skip Guerin advocated climbing barefoot, Loughman makes the case against Friends, arguing they are a retrogressive form of insertion akin to pitons. He states that sensitivity to the hidden geometry of cracks can only be gained by nutcraft. Talus running is promoted as an effective means of training along with a table showing the upper bounds of weight for a given height for anyone wishing to break the “5.9 plateau.” Involving children in climbing is cautioned, as well as couples.
All these idiosyncrasies aside, Learning to Rock Climb took the then radical approach to climbing practiced by the self-named Stonemasters and made it accessible to the beginning climber. With its high production values, this became the book which gave a new generation of climbers the confidence to free climb with pretty much anything that was naturally protectable. If movement lies at the centre of the climbing experience, why bother with gear at all, or at least why not push it to the periphery? This was the argument that led to the birth of sport climbing and the massive popular appeal of bouldering.
8. Hueco Tanks Guidebook, First Edition, John Sherman (1991)
In the late 1980s, John Sherman, having spent time in the obscure area of Hueco, near the Mexican border saw what everyone saw, but thought what no one else did. Yes, there are rope routes at Hueco Tanks – hard and poorly protected for the most part – but it is ultimately a bit niche-y as a roped climbing area. But Sherman saw that the bouldering, offered a broad range of experiences, unrivalled by anyplace in North America, and few in the world.
While, Fontainebleau’s proximity to Paris suggested a day’s outing, Hueco’s remote location put it at the end of a flight or, at the very least, a long road trip. Sherman’s guide, in effect, created North America’s first destination bouldering area and in broader terms, made the case that bouldering was an activity worth pursuing for an extended period of time and abandoned Hueco route climbing altogether. As thick as George Meyer’s guide to Yosemite, peppered with wry humor, it gave the world the open-end V scale; cutting bouldering loose from the obscure B-scale. It was a step as far-reaching in its consequences as the introduction of the Tahquitz decimal system. The general style of the book, with approach maps, marked photos, and anecdotal descriptions set the precedent for all successive bouldering guidebooks. Twenty years on, the only noticeable thing lacking are the presence of double V digit problems.
Sadly, Hueco isn’t the destination it once was, since it was the victim of access issues and competition from other, less regulated areas. In some ways, Sherman’s bouldering history, Stone Crusade was a follow-up, placing the sport, for the first time, in a historical context; however its sheer influence didn’t match the first Hueco guidebook.
9. Performance Rock Climbing Dale Goddard, Udo Neumann (1991)
There was a time when you ran the risk of being outed for training, as Royal Robbins apparently was when caught doing push-ups on a patch of ground not quite far away enough from Camp Four. Things have changed to the point that training specifically for gym climbing, itself conceived as training, is not uncommon. The view that training is central to climbing experience has its roots in the aid elimination movement of the 1970s, and arrived full force a decade later with the rise of sport climbing. This shift in emphasis was accelerated by the publication of Performance Rock Climbing by outstanding practitioners Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann. In essence, the book took the emerging schemas of sport science and applied them to rock climbing. It’s time to get structured was the message. Block diagrams, graphs, and worksheets came to the fore, as did the perspective that climbing was, in essence, an athletic activity. In North America, it brought about a reformulation of what it means to be climber.
The fundamental questions that Performance Rock Climbing sought answer were: how, in fact, does one improve? What are the physiological processes behind gains in strength, endurance, flexibility, and body awareness? How can climbing performance goals be achieved most effectively? What’s the appropriate level of specificity? Today, these form the basis of any serious approach to climbing. Goddard and Neumann’s book was written in a time when climbing gyms had just come into play, having evolved from homemade structures and radical pocket pulling was considered an essential part of the repertoire alongside tights and tank tops. Today, you can buy a training app and you are more likely to want to climb steep than crimpy and you probably started climbing in a coached environment as a youth. You might even happen on Performance Rock Climbing on your parent’s bookshelf.
10. Masters of Rock (DVD), Eric Perlman (1989)
In the way that Yosemite Climber used photos to capture the spirit of the activity, Masters of Stone used to video to accomplish much the same. Filmed in the aftermath of the Milli Vanilli scandal, the sensibilities of this climbing DVD anticipate much of the soon to released Nevermind . Never before had the virtuosity of rock climbing been presented as movement, first and foremost. Neither had climbing ever been given such a closely coupled soundtrack. Eric Perlman took the definitive step of taking rigging and camera work seriously, seeking to match the increasing production values of skiing movies. He also realized that viewers wanted to feel the moves and motivations of the best climbers of the day by letting them largely speak for themselves as they make their way up routes with a degree of passion and precision previously unseen on screen. There are several moments of self-inflation that turn out to be rather funny, in an unwitting way. It’s the first time verbal tone appears directly in the historical climbing narrative and it serves to remind us of the duality between utter seriousness and complete jest in the heart of every climber worth spending time with.
Not only did Masters of Rock set a precedent of what a climbing DVD should be, it silenced the early critics of sport climbing by putting it on par with skiing in terms of mojo. The best climbers are those that tear away at the forces of gravity in the same mighty way as the denizens of Apollo moon rockets. That is to say: thrust set to maximum.
Tom has climbed and read about climbing for three decades. He lives in Toronto.