American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Climb! Rock Climbing and Colorado

  • Book Reviews
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  • Publication Year: 1979

Climb! Rock Climbing in Colorado, by Bob Godfrey and Dudley Chel- ton. Boulder: Alpine House, 1977. 275 pages, with photos and one map.

Climb! is an impressive book, and should be a welcome addition to any mountaineer’s library. It contains a selective history of rock climbing in Colorado from 1820 to 1975, together with hundreds of black-and-white photographs and an interview with two famous climbers. The authors, Bob Godfrey and Dudley Chelton, are to be commended for their work in assembling the wealth of photographic and narrative materials.

The photographs are the heart of the book, and they are unquestionably a success. Priceless shots of Colorado Sightseeing Company excursions and the Stettner brothers with their motorcycles gradually give way to striking close-ups of modern climbers at grips with the trade routes of Eldorado Springs. The latter form a collection unique in American climbing. Although the newer photographs are uneven in technical quality, they are overall more dramatic than comparable work published to date in Britain. To obtain these pictures, climbers were persuaded to make ascents of specific routes under specific lighting conditions, while Godfrey and/or Chelton hiked, hung, or climbed nearby. The subjects sometimes chose their clothes or trailed an unnecessary haul line for effect, and in many cases entire climbs were redone and rephotographed if initial results were disappointing. The pictures finally selected show leader after leader in the middle of a crux, often from only a few feet away and from angles never seen by climbers on the routes themselves. The best shots are remarkably effective in conveying the essence of the climbs.

One sour note mars the Climb! illustrations: a number of route diagrams are drawn with surprising carelessness. For example, misplaced dotted lines confuse the locations of Rosy Crucifixion (114), Le Toit (114, 208), the initial pitches of Redguard Route (80), and the upper half of Diagonal (90, 124).

Like the photography, the text of Climb! reflects painstaking work by the authors. Many active and historical climbers were interviewed or consulted in preparing the book. Frequently, the climbers involved speak of their climbs in their own words, either through published writings, solicited letters, or through specially arranged tape recorded interviews. The text thus contains dozens of narrative fragments embedded in a matrix of the authors’ (mainly Godfrey’s) prose. Some of the writings quoted show care in construction and make good reading, and other sources—Bob Culp and Steve Komito, in particular—stand out as lively storytellers. To them, Climb! owes much of the vitality of its portraits of Kor and the sixties. Many other passages, however, resemble those detailed, forgettable discussions of moves and protection which fill so much of climbers’ conversations. Not all readers will find these fascinating.

Elsewhere in the book, Jim Erickson remarks, “It seems clear that history makes men, rather than men making history” (265). Climb! is written from the opposite premise, and belongs with that school presenting history primarily as a succession of heroes and their battles. This is, of course, the way climbers themselves usually think of it. Within roughly chronological periods the book is organized by climbs and, increasingly toward the end, by climbers. The chapter on free climbing in the sixties, for example, is subdivided into sections on Dave Rearick, Royal Robbins,

Pat Ament, John Gill, and Larry Dalke, with a brief general postscript. Given this orientation, it becomes important to ask of the history whether the right heroes and battles were included. Much of the informal criticism I have heard of the book takes this approach, complaining that specific individuals or achievements are given insufficient due. The authors readily admit their selectivity, which seems to have operated along two major lines. First, the book (like the authors) is centered in Boulder. Second, it gives alms to the wealthy. Climbs and climbers that were widely known before Climb! get even more attention here, while with a few (exclusively older) exceptions those that were heretofore obscure remain so. The two lines of selection are by no means unrelated, as Boulder is an exceptionally well-publicized climbing center.

As the first-ascent potential of Redgarden Wall became depleted, some Boulder climbers turned their efforts towards cliffs slightly farther from the limelight. Chris Reveley’s series of intimidating climbs on Rincon Wall (from 1974 on) are among the most notable products of this movement, which goes unchronicled in Climb! During the same period, perhaps for the same reasons, interest in the high and low cliffs of Rocky Mountain National Park surged dramatically. Of these only the Diamond (which Mike Covington once referred to as the “glory wall” of the region) gets much attention in Climb! Activity by Western Slope climbers in the Black Canyon, Taylor Canyon, Colorado National Monument, and elsewhere is also not mentioned. The little-known stories of the Western Slope await future climbing historians.

The state’s second foothills citadel of relative affluence and higher education, Colorado Springs, has long nurtured a strong climbing scene independent of the one in Boulder. While Boulderites were establishing the modern routes described and photographed in Climb!, Colorado Springs climbers were developing bad-rock skills (later put to good use in Utah and the Black Canyon) in Garden of the Gods and pushing free standards at high and low elevations on Pikes Peak granite. A group of Colorado Springs climbers later became leading figures in Estes Park which, like Aspen, developed its own vigorous scene in the 1970s. Others made Black Canyon ascents that stand as the boldest Colorado rock climbs to date.

It is well to forewarn the reader of these omissions. Godfrey and Chelton make clear in their preface that they are to some extent aware of them, and considered them either unavoidable or desirable. A casual or non-Coloradan reader, however, could easily finish the book with no sense of what has been left out. More regrettably, Climb! lacks the effort at analysis and synthesis—at thinking about its subject—that enriches Smythe’s Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia or Jones’ Climbing in North America. A preoccupation with heroic deeds leads to historiography of inevitable shallowness.

The authors’ twin biases, towards Boulder and towards already famous climbers, come together in the final chapter: a long interview with the two most famous Boulder climbers, Jim Erickson and Steve Wunsch. Some readers will find this interesting document, almost entirely a discussion of ideas, quite opaque. However, Wunsch and Erickson are original and intelligent climbers whose contributions may consist as much in ideas as in climbs.

Buy Climb! for the pictures, take the text with a few grains of salt. Despite its shortcomings it is one of the best books on American climbing to date.

Lawrence Hamilton

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