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Master of Rock: The Biography of John GIll

Master of Rock: The Biography of John Gill, by Pat Ament. Boulder: Alpine House Publishing, 1977. 197 pages, many black-and-white photos.

The idea of someone who can climb levels harder than anyone else, which is what I had always heard about Gill, is completely intriguing. So when Master of Rock came out I was delighted and couldn’t wait to read it. Unfortunately the book was for me no better, and perhaps even worse, than the ten or more other climbing biographies I had read. It is different from many biographies in that it isn’t merely a chronological account of a climber’s life, with route description followed by route description. The different format helps, but it doesn’t save the book.

In the first section of the book Ament hears a climbing partner of his telling about Gill. In the second, Ament is climbing with Royal Robbins and decides he has to meet Gill. In the next three short sections the author and Gill climb together. These are somewhat interesting sections because they show how important Gill has been for some climbers and also because they contain some nice scenes of relaxed, pleasant afternoons bouldering in the sun. On the other hand they contain so much about the author that I got impatient to hear more about Gill.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the middle section, in which a number of climbers write about Gill. The best is an amusing anecdote in which Kevin Bein uses Gill’s reputation to “sandbag” Steve Wunsch.

The last half of the book is a tape-recorded conversation that Ament has with Gill. In it Gill gives the impression of being very courteous and modest, and also of being very controlled. There seem to be no hesitations or exclamations in the interview. Gill seems to speak always in complete, well-thought-out sentences. It is almost like hearing a lecture. He tells Ament where he went to school and what areas he climbed at. He talks about getting into gymnastics and some about training, but somehow we don’t get any sense of passion or even of real excitement.

The only two dramatic events that Gill and Ament talk about are Gill’s ascent of the Thimble, and Gill’s being 90 feet out on a lead during a windstorm. They are very interesting, but both are dealt with so briefly and rationally that the reader scarcely has time to get involved.

We don’t find out about any deep relationships. We don’t see the source of inspiration in Gill’s life. We don’t see any crises or any really decisive moments. There also seem to be no great issues to involve the reader. Issues are discussed that relate to bouldering, but they are talked about in such a dry, intellectual way that the reader begins to yawn.

The book is filled with photographs—well over 200 of them. All black-and-white, mostly snapshot-sized, they are particularly interesting when one is familiar with the climb. But when one isn’t, they start to blur together. Partly, I think, this is a problem of photographing boulder problems. The climber could be standing on thin 5.8 footholds or on B-3 footholds and the reader couldn’t tell the difference from a picture.

I was delighted, as I’ve said, to see the book come out. I think John Gill is such a unique and important figure in climbing in the United States that, despite its shortcomings, the book is well worth looking at.

Ed Ward