American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Shawangunk Rock Climbs

  • Book Reviews
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  • Publication Year: 1973

Shawangunk Rock Climbs, by Richard C. Williams. New York: American Alpine Club, 1972, 136 pages, $6.50.

Eight years have elapsed since the publication of the first guide to the Gunks. In that period the number of climbers frequenting the cliffs has quadrupled, over a hundred new routes have been put up, many formerly aid climbs are now done free and the original guide has long been out of print.

These facts make Shawangunk Rock Cliffs a guaranteed best seller, despite its high price. Rather than being just a revision of the previous guide, the current volume is completely rewritten and reorganized. A new set of photographs has been included, covering all the climbs described in the guide. These photographs were taken from farther away than those in the old guide, and the features are somewhat harder to pick out, but they still seem adequate.

Route descriptions are more concise than in the previous book. The author has often combined short pitches into longer ones. While this often is sensible, there are several routes where the longer pitches cause considerable communication and rope-drag problems. Routes are located by the distance in feet along the base from previous climbs. This sometimes results in important climbs up prominent features being located in relation to their obscure neighbors rather than by their own apparent features. The guide appeared too late in the season for this reviewer to check its accuracy on unfamiliar routes, but while there will be exceptions, most descriptions seem quite accurate.

Gradings are always controversial, and this guidebook is certainly no exception. While the wholesale downgrading threatened prior to publication did not take place (in fact many routes are upgraded) there still seem to be many inconsistencies, both within the guide itself and between ratings in the Gunks and those elsewhere. The ideal of a uniform grading system across the country seems unattainable, and this guide does nothing to further the cause. However, controversies over grading are normal, and word-of-mouth usually corrects the most blatant misgradings.

Many of the route descriptions are followed by a little comment from the author. The exact purpose of these comments is unclear, since they are often merely puns or in-jokes. While those in the know find such asides amusing, they really add little to the book.

A more serious criticism concerns what was left out of the guide. In an effort to keep the book down to a manageable size, several of the more remote cliffs are not described, as well as most of the variations in the areas covered. While many of the variations left out are unimportant, in several cases important and worthwhile variants—some of them almost entirely separate routes—were excluded. A few routes have been described by difficult direct variants, while the more moderate original routes—often excellent climbs in themselves—are not even described as variations. Since many of the routes eliminated by these policies are in the easier and moderate grades, the level at which the majority of people climb, their exclusion is unfortunate. The decision to exclude the outlying cliffs was based mainly on a desire to preserve them from the ecological damage that has hit the more popular areas. However, it can just as well be argued that by spreading out the use the damage in all areas can be reduced. This last issue, which raises questions concerning the very concept of guidebooks, is one with which the climbing community will have to deal increasingly in the immediate future.

Despite the rather critical tone of this review, I believe that Shawan- gunk Rock Climbs is a very worthwhile publication. It is not perfect, but what guidebook is? Anyway, it gives us much to argue about in the long evenings at Emile’s, and these arguments themselves are an intrinsic part of climbing.

Alan Rubin

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