Cascade Alpine Guide, by Fred Beckey. Seattle: The Mountaineers. 1973. 354 pages, 100 pages of maps, sketches and photographs. $9.95.
This edition covers routes from Columbia River to Stevens Pass. Unlike most mountain guidebooks, no pretense has been made about keeping it small and compact. Few will carry it in their packs. It weighs nearly two pounds and has more than 350 pages.
Fred Beckey has been climbing in the Cascades for 36 years and has an amazing depth of perception about the range. Although I’ve never climbed with Beckey in the Cascades, I’ve joined him in several other areas and seen him at work. My first impression was of an aging, alpine jock: a man bent on making as many first ascents as possible in a given period of time. While Beckey has been amazingly successful at this, it took me a long time to realize that his constant, almost incessant questioning was creating an unequalled memory bank of alpine information. Walking up an approach to a climb with Fred, one has the impression that he is locked in tunnel vision about climbing and climbing alone. But months, or even years later, he can tell you the names of the flowers, trees and rocks, as well as the hardware selection for the climb.
Apparently, Beckey spent several of those 36 years in the Cascades working on this book. His fetish for detail and perfection delayed his manuscript considerably and also caused some hard feelings. Advertised by The Mountaineers as “The Book Climbers Have Been Waiting For!”, the guide was long out of print. Many Cascade climbers have blamed Beckey for the publishing gap, but he himself cannot understand why the book took 17 months to publish after the manuscript, art and photos had been submitted.
The book is the subject of a larger controversy. In many ways it is too good. Never before has a guide to such a large area been so accurate, so detailed and so filled with data on weather, natural history, and geology. For some years, climbers have quietly brooded over the effect of guidebooks on the mountains. Most agree that guidebooks bring increased numbers to the mountains, many of them men and women who would not venture out if they had to approach the area as a relative unknown. Beckey’s new guide is fanning the fires of the guidebook controversy. In many areas of the country, climbers are withholding information from guidebook writers, to avoid increased impact on their favorite haunts. Times have changed since Aleister Crowley wrote that one guidebook “was as full of grotesque blunders and inaccuracies as the other.” What irony! We who have nitpicked guidebooks for their fuzzy descriptions of obvious cracks and dead trees, are now finding fault because they are too good!
Although many climbers have voiced the opinion that a guidebook should be a small, terse, concise assemblage of climbing facts, I must make an equally positive statement about a guide that covers mountains and their histories so thoroughly and so competently. Portability is not so important in this age of the Xerox machine. Most climbing trips are covered in a very few pages of the guide, and it is simple to copy those pages before a proposed trip. Some question the legality of copying copyrighted material on a Xerox, and a few cautious copy centers refuse to do it. The fine line appears to be drawn between copying for personal use from your purchased copy of the book, and copying for sale, profit, publication or avoidance of purchasing the book in the first place. Although I’m not qualified to make judgments on the legality of the practice, I’ve been told by those who are that no one has ever been prosecuted for making personal copies, not for sale or distribution, from his own copy of a book.
Another area of guidebook controversy is instructions for minimum impact. We all realize that just beyond the first bend in the trail past the Forest Service rules sign, the litter begins. Sometimes it even encircles the base of the sign. Are such instructions useless in a guidebook? I think not. In a terse, impersonal guidebook the minimum impact instructions may not have more effect than the Forest Service sign. But in a flowing, more personal, historical approach the instructions seem to carry more weight. The man who writes them is more known and respected. He is the same man who describes winter travel, geography and hundreds of approach routes; he quotes “The life of a glacier is one eternal grind,” and “People who sleep in tents lead sheltered lives.”
All in all, this is far more than a guidebook. It is a definitive treatise on mountaineering in the most alpine range of mountains in the Lower Forty-eight.