Home > 2010.02

How Goes the Guide Book?

When we think about getting out for a day on the rock, up a peak, or a week away, a natural first thought is usually the climbing itself. The second thought is how to get there and succeed.

When we think about getting out for a day on the rock, up a peak, or a week away, a natural first thought is usually the climbing itself. The second thought is how to get there and succeed. Perhaps we already know by heart, or a friend is going to give us the word, but however we see it, information is the first gateway to getting up climbs. This enquiry, or discovering, has always been part of the greater attraction of climbing.

A century ago it required travelling by train, or bus, bike, or walking to find a distinguished hard-bound journal. The basic motive of ‘get information’ is just as true today, but a kind of parallel universe has also evolved, of climbers hunched over laptops, hoping to learn the moves of a boulder problem, or the racking order of the exact 13 pieces needed for a difficult pitch, before their coffee goes cold.

Even into the late 1960s, most climbers’ guidebooks in Europe (very few existed in North America) were almost entirely of the written word, typed out by scholarly climbers, with a few painstakingly crafted illustrations from climbers who were artists of the pen. Reading a book was essential to get the information you needed, and there wasn’t much of it. Dick Culbert in his 1974 guide described the difficult eight-pitch upper section of the Northeast Buttress of Slesse with only twenty-two words and two centimetres of photo-topo. “difficult” could mean an epic in the making, or climbing that was just a bit hard. Adventure sprung from spartan phrases like “formidable and unrepeated” (Ben Nevis, 1970). The uncertainty that was inherent in terse guidebook descriptions was inspiration to many climbers go find out.

In the mid-1980s when Petrifying Wall and Back of the Lake were being opened up, who could have known that this genteel, spartan approach was about to be upended by a plastic box with a mess of wires stuck into what looked like a small television?  In the relative blink of an eye the personal computer, followed by the world wide web brought a radical change to how climbers’ gather and share information about climbs. And not only the internet, climbing itself has changed: for every climber about twenty years ago, there are now four today, and we’re headed toward eight in a decade or so. Sport climbing in particular has encouraged a much broader public to embrace climbing, and that has ushered in values of a quite different nature. Climbing is fracturing into different disciplines, guidebooks follow, and the larger view of community is at risk of slowly diluting.

All this has brought considerable change to how guidebooks are created. Everyone has gained from the push-pull of climbers wanting better guides and authors trying to deliver. A significant upside has been the shift away from words toward a more visual approach. The ambiguity inherent in text descriptions often requires a willingness to explore. Some people like that. Highly detailed topos, skilfully drawn, offer more precision. Everyone likes that.

The growing interest in select guides is a consequence of growth. Climbers on the move may understandably not want to trawl through four hundred pages for three climbs. Selects can bring many benefits if a person needs to reconcile less time with more certainty (and who doesn’t?) However, their popularity demands they be well conceived, even synchronised with comprehensives, to avoid devaluing the bigger story.

Across western Canada where a few hundred new routes, rock and alpine, continue to be developed every year, the task of sustaining comprehensive guides to the major areas threatens to become overwhelming. Few seem willing to sign up for the meticulous effort and thousands of hours that are needed to create diligent, well-presented guidebooks that ensure a complete reference base exists. Across the west a half-dozen or so authors have been grinding it out for twenty years or more sustaining the major guides. I’m one of them. We’ve persisted because of the high value such guides play in presenting the common story of a climbing community.

The sustainability of alpine guidebooks in particular, which can contain century-long histories, presents special concern through their vast scope, an ever-increasing appetite for more detail, and the many far-flung climbers now involved creating new routes.

The internet gives us a formidable avenue for gathering information with little effort, whether about climbs around the world or our own backyard. Forums and personal blogs can be excellent resources for targeting popular climbs, and Google Earth for mountain approaches. Dedicated new route websites such as tabvar.org and skaha.org provide an invaluable service (typically held together by a few determined individuals.) But the internet is an inconsistent place, and across its rough anarchy a lack of accountability and thoroughness are common. There are thousands of voices, nobody’s in charge, and the result is a kind of benign chaos. However it is a far more nimble tool than a once-in-five years guidebook, and therein lies one of its great strengths.

Digital book publishing is headed for major change in the years to come with Amazon, Apple and Google in a global war for power. No-one can be sure what it means for climbing. Will we be stuffing Steve Jobs’ new iPad loaded with a few cheap e-guides in the pack?  Or need to use his iPhone to find an iClimb that’s got an iGPS at Bataan?  On the internet the attitude to information is that if it’s not free it should be. Who’s willing to be the guinea pig and put up a major comprehensive guide for sale as an e-book?

Climbers have to put out good money for a guidebook, so they can expect at least a decent standard and hope for more. The climbs it portrays becomes someone’s dream, someone’s character-building adventure, or aspiration to step up the ladder of skills. At its best the guidebook can also be a cultural bedrock of shared common ground and community, the record of the collective experience we all engage with. Worth the effort.