American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Mountaineering Periodicals: Mountain, Ascent, Climbing, Off Belay, Mountain Gazette

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  • Publication Year: 1974

Mountaineering Periodicals: Mountain, Ascent, Climbing, Off Belay, Mountain Gazette

In an age when general periodicals falter, there appears to be a plunge into specialized literature. Environment, camping and mountaineering are included in this selection. Obviously such publications will influence practices, leisure trends and even standards. What do these magazines intend to accomplish? Can a proliferation of periodicals be profitable, despite the fact they are bright with printed advertisements? There is an abundance of outdoor-slanted reading, and few American climbers will purchase every English-language journal available in addition to textbooks and guidebooks needed to keep pace with the flow of information. Summit, the most venerable and successful of alpine-oriented American magazines, has the advantage of a solid subscription base and its own printing and graphics capability.

In the field of alpine periodical literature Mountain comes closest in achieving an oeuvre, a body of work. This is perhaps to be expected from England, the land of the Industrial Revolution, whose “moon landing” may have been the Oxford Dictionary. Mountain is an image builder, one that will endure because of diversity. Its immediacy is attractive, its appeal almost evangelical. The evolution came from the old, hiker-oriented Mountain Craft. There is a new format and emphasis on objective reporting of world mountaineering news, though with stress on British crag climbing events and lore due to the local subscription base. Mountain is more accessible to American audiences than Alpinis- mus, another modern glossy international publication which may have been its inspiration. There are strains of the British penchant for whimsy and self-mockery; on occasion the best reading and illustration is in the advertisements. Publication has been bi-monthly, ably edited by Ken Wilson, who keeps an editorial finger on many climbing pulses. Comment is generally informed and sensible. For instance, it is pleasing to see that one author allows that grading of ice climbing is problematic. Yet some review on techniques and equipment developed in other lands, not fully accepted, has had overly zealous presentation.

The diversity of article material runs from the explicit, like “Cerro Torre: The West Face,” to one of mystic quality, such as the treatment about ice climbing in the Sierra Nevada. Mountain was bound to stumble on gems in its all-inclusive search for biographical vignettes, as the veins they are mining are rich in character and anecdote. This surfaces in a regular series on the great alpine climbs. Here I found an interesting perspective in “Whymper—A Modern Appraisal.” One that would not be found in the American Alpine Journal is an almost lurid account about Aleister Crowley, “The Great Beast 666,” which comments heavily on the avenues of Crowley’s debauchery. A valid comment cited elsewhere does apply: this is that editorial pressures of preparing copy so frequently can result in artistic space-padding. A striking graphic layout is often imaginative, but occasional excesses overshadow the text. The editors do not escape criticism by printing a cover photo taken on Annapurna: the tilting is unforgivable. Later, there is a quite distorted view of ice climbing on the Aletschhorn face. In our decade, which produced not only some of the worst excesses in mountaineering literature, but the anti-hero in the novel and cinema, some reforms are needed. It is time we adopted standard conventions, assess climbs that do not follow our “rules.” Mountain is capable of developing continued influence here, and moderating the language so as not to incite talented novices, yet give praise where due. Let us recall how Tom Patey had the wit and perspective to satirize the absurdities of mountain competition.

An old but fundamental theme is to devote the bulk of an issue to one subject (an evocative essay of Baffin Island stresses the wilderness theme). The text on British sea-cliff climbing is amplified by John Cleare’s photography, which shows that mere words are not sufficient to convey the spectrum of climbing, and that climbing as an art can most accurately be described through the art of the photographer. Everest, which logically emerged as a mountain that captures the imagination of climbers and the public alike, is revealed in several features. There is an interpretation of what occurred on the 1924 expedition, when Mallory and Irvine faded into mystery. A later number supplies thought-provoking alternate conclusions. The mountain leviathan is again chronicled in a post-mortem on the 1971 International Expedition, an attempt to place events in context and uncover the true demons. The summary concluded the climbers were acutely aware of their own ambitions, partly from summit pressures as national representatives. Inevitably the whole idealistic basis of the expedition was challenged. For the adventure- starved public mere failure was unacceptable without scapegoats. The spate of critical reports the expedition attracted in the popular press did not present the image of mountaineering well. The editors of Mountain concluded “The whole principle of putting international relationships on trial in this way is a matter of some contention.”

The impact of Ascent is one of commitment to quality, with pictorial excellence to amplify themes that set a tone of continuity. Both the lofty and subtle aspects of mountaineering are celebrated. The plush overall image of the “Sierra Club’s pretentious annual with lofty intellectual ideals” has been called “voluptuous.” A question of its role and ultimate sense of direction has been raised, for the rationale at inception was to display the Sierra Nevada and activity of California climbers in diverse areas. Yet Ascent does not exploit the theme it sets out to depict, but provides further evidence of the wide stimulative influence of mountains everywhere. Perhaps the editors soon decided that the impact of continuing exposure to Yosemite walls diminishes in effect. Recent issues have depicted the heroic myth of boldness in “Climbing Down Under” and at “The Edge of the Sea.” In 1973 only two of nine articles portrayed West Coast climbing; prose extended to Turkey.

Diversity of material includes Chuck Pratt’s candid interpretation of the peculiar and imaginative quality of the American desert, and “Mind Odyssey,” an anguished search for meaning following the awful avalanche on Dhaulagiri. Ascent shows a continuing fascination with Cerro Torre, “that masterpiece of a mountain”, which one treatment calls the “most enigmatic summit in climbing history.” In a confrontation with honor and ethics, this peak has demonstrated that the structure of climbing depends on trust.

Features are often more philosophical than descriptive and relate the climbing team with nature, the outside world and society. Here the Matterhorn climb by Dennis Eberl made a good story in personal relationships under stress. The nuances of a short play, “In Due Time,” may be lost on most readers, but at least the locale is Yosemite. Spiritual experiences gained in the Sierra Nevada served as a theme well portrayed, “The Climber as a Visionary.” A complete contrast of style is the realism in “Tis-sa-ack,” where a paraphrasing of thoughts and attitudes depicts the difficult psychological relationships of a climbing team.

The staff of Ascent wisely makes use of bold photographic dimensions, faithfully and finely reproduced. An overall graphic success is enhanced by effective white space, typography, and such design devices as alternate columns of text and image to emphasize the vertical. Impressive visual formats by Ed Cooper, Barry Hagen, and Jim Stuart command attention by exploring snow/ice, the Waddington area, and the Canadian Rockies in winter. Only in the third issue did ink offset spoil images.

To the credit of the knowledgable editors, they have not fallen victim to literary hoaxes as the “Riesenstein” tale or the heat-balance theory of increasing body warmth through a system of ingenious tubes to the extremities. Ascent’s credibility rates highest with penetrating route descriptions such as those published on Mount Shasta and the Tuolomne domes (a utilitarian synopsis useful in that it assembles within confines of one cover a vast collection of previously scattered facts). Conversely, the recent subject on ice climbing, while well photographed, showed unfamiliarity with ice structure and contained an immature appraisal of opportunities in the Pacific Northwest. Inclusion of more material on the many possibilities in California would be of substantial value, especially since the current guide to the High Sierra is so thin.

Climbing demonstrates that the editorial pressures of competing in the bi-monthly market are enormous, and reflects the provincialism of American climbing. There is an insecurity derived from the problems of slender resources and lack of a first-rate mountaineering scholar. The outline map adjacent to the “Cairn” section places Colorado boldly central. This noticeable overexposure at first seems chauvinistic, but the distortion could well be eliminated by simply titling the project “Colorado Climbing.” This would strengthen its base and vastly narrow literary shortcomings (and excuse such mundane contributions as “Nostalgia,” a story about the Colorado College Mountain Club).

To its credit, Climbing has run some stunning covers in color and the occasional epic narrative. The fifth issue was climactic. Not only did it provide a needed editorial about destructive effect of piton removal, but it included candid accounts of the Heart Route and the north face of the Grand Teton in winter. Other issues were paradoxically exasperating, with titles that smacked of 19th century novels and distressing attempts at fiction. The satire on the El Capitan filming and the “Buhl” dialogue were on a par with script for the worst of situation comedies. News items often showed a superficiality, a dedication to trivia and hard miniclimbs best left to regional guidebooks (e.g.—one-pitch slabs in the Bighorn Mountains). In 1971 climbs were reported dating to 1962. One editorial estimated Ship Rock climbers had spent a total of $250,000 in the local town; since about 150 parties have been successful, this divides to the incredible figure of $1,666 per victorious group. Based on selective evidence, I found reportage often lacked a commitment to clarity, accuracy, and balanced evaluation. Climbs reported as “new” on and near Tahquitz Rock had already been mastered. El Capitan summaries emphasized speed; the rationale for the commentary here was ostensibly to insure that the history of the wall “can be told in story form some day.” How paternal can you get? A lesser misuse of space is self-promotion in the printing of poorly disguised subscription letters. These magic tricks are not clever and their wires too obvious.

Recently (1972) a new ownership brought a less personal element to the publication, perhaps a window to the future. The scattered interior makeup and imbalanced climb-listings were bolstered by material such as a valid theme on ice climbing. Greg Lowe wisely points out that self-arrests on steep ice are an unlikely achievement and that an axe designed for this purpose compromises the pick’s cutting and clearing ability. But Climbing continued to approve of “development,” as shown by an opinion that national news coverage on the Wall of the Early Morning Light “should do some good in promoting the sport of rock climbing.” Today numerous spokesmen question such media promotion in their essays, warning of the potential weakening of ethics and dwindling of non-renewable climbing resources. An endorsement by publisher’s note and the printing of an article about sport-climbing in the Soviet Union mirrors a continuing favorable attitude toward competition.

My first impression of Off Belay was one of Jesuit-like earnestness. If not inspiring, it is informative, with a dedicated involvement in technique, equipment and the progress of mountaineering. There is an attempt to provide vital reports on accidents, expeditions, park- or wilder- ness-rule changes. The publication is attuned to criticism and here it provides a forum for needed discussion. Some might see it as an alpine Consumer’s Report, with a focus on long subject treatments such as snowshoes, light-weight stoves, or Gibbs ascenders. Textbook material on insect stings and the Forest Service reprint, “Ponderosa Pine” are only capable of arousing interest in those with limited outdoor knowledge; fortunately the same issue contained highlights on Seneca Rocks and the Mount Lassen explosion.

There is a pervading feeling the magazine is preoccupied with safety procedures and equipment, more concerned with the means than the end acceptance of adventure. This may reflect today’s climber’s love of superfluous equipment, even for pedestrian climbs. This emphasis refutes hope that this might be the beginning of an era of more spiritual climbing, where we assault the mountains with fewer sidearms, but greater awareness, experience and courage. To quote Chris Jones, “The climb is in the mind, not the pocket book or equipment catalog.” Sometimes the reader is treated like one who can survive only if everything is spelled out for him and then underlined. Yet surveys have shown that many climbers do not know how to use the gear they own, this being a factor in the recent accident increase.

One of the polarities of Off Belay is a regionalism not admitted in print, but obvious in contact: one issue devotes nearly a page to the false summit of Mount Adams. Some extensive “guidebook” treatments, such as the one on Mount Jefferson, might best be left for regional guidebooks. In many such subjects the writing is often unusually terse and overloaded with detail. This works against what excitement the magazine can generate. Some issues need consistency in editing and proofing—an article on the Monte Cristo area contained variances between narrative and photo captions. In general the graphics show modern concepts, but some of the artwork lacks distinction. This is evident in the original drawings for the subject matter. As a general comment, ink runs too heavy on photos. Contrast is not given its best opportunity.

To explain the mystique of mountain lands, Mountain Gazette strives for a wide audience. After six years as Skier’s Gazette, the new philosophy aims to celebrate each season with material to match. There is the vibrancy of youth in its copy, and there is pleasure with the discovery of cleverness. Some subjects are far removed from the ‘mountain’ theme: 8 pages on pueblos, an article on canoeing along Vancouver Island. Although there has been incisive comment on the mountaineering instinct, the audience may be sufficiently involved with climbing to catch the ingroup allusions and technical debates.

Mountain Gazette claims to be reader-oriented, humanity-oriented. Perhaps this is what is meant by inclusion of a guide to “après ski” in Austria, or an article on bluegrass music. More polarized is a review of foods for mountain usage. What the publication does best is illustrated by a perceptive ecological essay, “A Farewell to Alaska.” There have been overviews of the environmental movement, and also examinations of local issues. A plea to keep a road off Georgia’s highest hill, where it would endanger unique plant and animal associations, hopefully will reach the hierarchy in that advanced state. In a similar context, an editorial about selling the outdoor experience questioning the sincerity of the recreation marketeers, is a well chosen subject. There are critical reviews of alpine literature, equipment and methods. Harvey Edwards delivers a delightful battering to National Geographic for their stale, inhuman and non-controversial treatment, “The Alps.” Sir Edmund Hillary laments the overkill of the “Italian Invasion of Everest,” where a military style operation even resorted to helicopter load-ferrying. Between polluting the Mediterranean, garbaging Mount St. Elias and destroying native concepts in the Himalaya, the Italians lead the world in a disregard for ethics.

Mountain Gazette expresses the joys and wonders of mountains more often than the problems involved with human association, so in this way is similar to the early bulletins of the Sierra Club. Here Galen Rowell pens a threat to the mystical power of mountain experience, which long guided the roots of this organization, founded on a tangible involvement with the natural world. If more of the general public would read Mountain Gazette, there would be a wider understanding of man’s involvement with nature and less temptation to ask that eternal query, “why do you climb mountains?”

Fred Beckey

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