American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Mountineers Guide to the High Sierra

  • Book Reviews
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  • Publication Year: 1973

Mountaineers Guide to the High Sierra, edited by Hervey H. Voge and Andrew J. Smatko. New York: Sierra Club, 1972. 356 pages, $7.95.

Originally, says the preface, this book was to be the third edition of A Climbers Guide to the High Sierra, edited in the second edition by Hervey Voge. Hervey’s name appears on the present book without his consent being asked, and most of the book was lifted bodily from the preceding Climber’s Guide. Dr. Smatko, however, dissected out all descriptions of routes requiring hardware. Another book, not by him, will eventually be published to describe these. This is mistake No. 1. Mountaineers want to know all about a mountain. Can you imagine a book, describing the Eiger, detailing the “normal route” without mentioning the North Wall?

Mistake No. 2 is that Smatko’s additions to Voge’s consist of (a) descriptions of ascents of dozens—perhaps hundreds—of “peaks” that are actually minor excresences on a ridge, or talus heaps; (b) listings of other such “summits” as “having no records”. Numerous “first recorded ascents” (for example, six are on p. 99, three of which are Class 1) are credited to Smatko, who is an energetic hiker in the Sierra, and is out to “get his name in the books”.

Mistake No. 3 is the way in which publication was handled. The book was scheduled originally to be authored by Smatko with Steve Roper as “Mechanical and Production Supervisor”. It was edited and produced in a canyon of Manhattan, far from the Golden Trout Country. A controversy arose; Roper objected to Smatko’s rejection of information on new routes. Roper was informed that the book must be written for maximum sales, and that the Sierra Club cannot afford to “publish books for any special group”. Some climbers wrote letters siding with Roper, who was detached from the project by the publishers and given the job of editing a technical guidebook. However, indignant correspondence continued to pour into the Sierra Club, pointing out numerous deficiencies of Smatko’s manuscript, including omissions and mistakes in historical matters; and the prevalence of triviality and banality in material sandwiched in Voge’s text by Smatko.

The differences of opinion, leaving out the bickering, narrowed down to a choice between the maintenance of reasonable standards and recovering the money that had been spent in preparing Smatko’s manuscript for sale (without editing by climbers). The Sierra Club officials decided that the book was a commodity that had to be marketed.

The infelicities of the book are numerous; here are two brief examples: p. 163, “Moonshot Peak” and “Moonwalk Peak” are proposed as names for Class 2 shoulders to the east of Mount Gilbert. “Redwind Peak” (p. 263) is the name of something that was windy when Smatko et al. went up.

Recommendation to Sierra addicts: Hang on to your old copy of the second edition which cost $4.75.

Thomas H. Jukes

Editor’s Note:

No one expects a guidebook to be perfect. Climbers often submit inaccurate material or none at all. Even landmarks change. Dead trees become rotten logs and roadheads snake higher into the range. Distances and difficulties become altered in the human memory.

But the complaints about this guidebook are not limited to minor inaccuracies. They are serious questions about the basic conception of the book’s revision. For this reason we have decided to solicit the opinions of more than one reviewer.

Warren Harding read parts of the manuscript, saw that the author’s name appeared on more mountains than that of Norman Clyde, who is considered the dominant figure of Sierra climbing, saw that many of the mountains were either subsidiary summits or minor peaks on which no previous party had bothered to leave a register, and made the comment that the book indeed has a place in modern mountain literature—on the bookshelf next to, “Anyone Can Yodel”.

In a more serious vein, we print the comments of Michael Loughman. Although not an AAC member, he is a long-standing Sierra mountaineer with many first ascents to his credit. He has been a Sierra Club outing leader, a member of the Yosemite Master Plan Study Group and is now a professor of geography at the University of Montana. He is currently writing two books dealing with the Sierra Nevada.

G. A. R.

Given that the book purports to be a substantial revision and is sold for $8.00 a copy, it is little more than a fraud. It is less comprehensive,less useful, and less accurate than the two earlier editions. I am very sorry that the Sierra Club would do this kind of thing. I can only hope that the Club has the gumption to rectify its blunder and still has the ability to produce a worthy guidebook. Publishing a separate guide to technical climbs only compounds the blunder.

The guidebook should not have been revised at all. It should have been completely rewritten in a new format. It should have dealt with the history of Sierra climbing in an accurate and meaningful framework. It should have conveyed a good deal more useful information about routes. It should not have been burdened with numerous misleading and useless entries like the following: (page 109)

Peak 11,280 (0.35 S of Peak 11,382)

First ascent in 1963 by A. J. Reyman. Class 1 up the southeast slope.

If I had “recorded” every such “first ascent” I have made, they would fill another whole Sierra Club Totebook to no purpose whatever. This kind of thing is utterly ridiculous.

The guidebook should not have been entrusted to somebody with the very limited perspective and peculiar ideas of Dr. Smatko. He seems to think that climbers should spend their time building cairns and placing records on every little bump. And if they happen not to, then he does and fills a guidebook with these “first ascents.” The worst of it is that he and the Sierra Club editors think this baloney is of more interest to nontechnical “mountaineers” than the Glacier Route on North Palisade and the east face of Mount Whitney, which they have deleted. This is tragic not so much for what it takes away from the mountaineers as for what it tells about the Sierra Club.

Mike Loughman

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