Big Wall Climbing

Publication Year: 1975.

Big Wall Climbing, by Doug Scott. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1974. 248 pages, profuse illustrations. Price: $12.50.

What a relief to see a mountaineering history book by an active climber! Doug Scott’s big wall climbing has taken him to the Alps, Baffin Island, the Hindu Kush, Everest and Yosemite. This considerable cosmopolitan energy has been channeled into an enormous project: the world history of big wall climbing.

Dick Dorworth, a writer who climbed Fitz Roy and held the world’s speed record on skis, once said he wouldn’t read a book unless it was written by a high-level participant. He just wasn’t interested in what somebody else had to say with second-hand thoughts and information. The problem with writing climbing history is that most of it must be second-hand, even for a prolific climber like Scott. James Ramsey Ullman, a fine writer, produced a simply horrible history of world climbing: The Age of Mountaineering, a book with glaring omissions and pompous platitudes written from no firm base of experience. Scott’s book is nearly the opposite. He is not a highly skilled writer. Precise information is often obliquely hidden in his phrasing—a technical editor’s nightmare. A strength emerges. It is like comparing a letter from home with a form letter from a real estate developer. Which one is better written? Which one rings true?

Scott’s introduction is an overview of mountain adventure. But it is much more. Often I found myself stopping and smiling at a subtle theme. A phrase would ring so true that I’d stop and think awhile before jumping into the mainstream again.

The preface tells us why the book is not as tightly focused as we might wish. Scott was asked to up-date a book on aid climbing and he decided that the revision should have a strong historical basis. He focused on the development of big wall climbing and writes: “I cannot claim the book is free from personal bias, nor is it as objective as it might have been, for personal experience and interest have dictated the length and therefore the importance of some of its sections.”

While the coverage of wall climbing is not as complete as it might have been, I found the self-indulgent sections, for which Scott apologizes, to be among the most interesting in the book. At first I was alarmed at the length of the Baffin Island section—Scott’s own stamping ground. Then I discovered a wealth of environmental guidelines told in personal terms. Climbers won’t listen to lists of rules, but they may heed a noted climber blending ecological concern with history. After describing encroachments on Baffin from a new National Park, Scott brings his remarks into context with skill: “What has all this to do with big wall climbing? If the rock is to be used as an exercise bar, then concern for the environment is probably unnecessary….”

Historically, big wall climbing has been an explosion: a sudden, forcible expansion of a substance. Few realize how quickly this has happened. To write a paragraph on each important climb would be to spend a few pages up to 1960 and several volumes up to the present. Scott reverses this. He spends much of his book early, Alpine, pre-big-wall climbs. He helps us understand intuitively what processes led to bigger climbs.

American readers will be disappointed that many events have not been included. It is hard to understand Scott’s exact definition of a “big wall climb,” but both the North Face of the Matterhorn and the Southwest Face of Everest are mentioned. The Cassin Ridge on the South Face of McKinley is not, nor are areas like Zion, Hetch-Hetchy and the North Cascades, where many American big wall climbs occurred. The chapter on “Winter Big Wall Climbing” has no American entries, ignoring such winter climbs as the North Face of the Grand Teton and the Northwest Face of Half Dome.

Historically, I’m most familiar with Yosemite, having published a book of my own on the area. Scott’s treatment of Yosemite is one of the most objective ever to appear in print. He errs on the spelling of a few names, but he treats big climbs as complex human events, avoiding sarcastic taunts as one can only wish the Yosemite climbers themselves could have done. The only deriding remarks are quotes from climbers and the National Park Service.

The most surprising sentence in the entire book reads: “In 1959 Cerro Torre was climbed by the Italian Maestri and the Austrian Toni Egger.” There is a method to Scott’s madness. Later he records that many climbers doubt the ascent, but he does not try to judge the validity of others’ achievements. A common belief of many who have climbed extensively in varying areas is that the structure of climbing depends on trust. It is far more important to preserve this fragile trust than to unearth the isolated fakers. Scott’s attitude is one that will go far in preserving the dignity and personal liberty of the modern climber.

Although incomplete in some areas, Scott’s book is a must for all who are interested in mountaineering history. It fills an open chasm in mountain literature.

Galen Rowell