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Fifty Classic Climbs of North America

Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, by Steve Roper and Allen Steck.

San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1979. 324 pages, 189 photos.

To those with a passion for active climbing or “armchair” participation, Fifty Classic Climbs may at first not seem like a meditative book. Its format, organization, and type style make it primarily an information source. Roper and Steck have presented a profile of what could be considered the Great American Dream climbs with a writing style that provides much Lebensraum for speculation and meditation. While reading, one is tempted to medidate: the challenge of the alpine adventure is always there; the dreams of the various pioneers sometimes filter through the narrative.

While it is unlikely that one person will ever have the time and resources to partake in a large percentage of the fifty selected climbs, the portrayal and route information help one to make regional choices. The map in the frontispiece suggests where these climbs are—along the Pacific seaboard and as far inland as the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. The decision to eliminate all routes less than 500 feet in height excludes coverage of some fine climbs in the Eastern States and the Midwest, admittedly a difficult decision.

The authors explore the theme “what makes a classic climb?” A survey tends to emphasize three basic criteria: (1) The peak or route should look striking from afar; (2) The subject should have a significant climbing history; (3) The rewards of the climb should include excellent climbing. The climbs chosen were felt to be the essence of American and Canadian mountaineering and rock climbing, with a representation that excluded both the easy and too difficult routes. Admittedly the personal choice of the authors as to the finest routes in important climbing areas, a list of hundreds of climbs was reduced to one of fifty. This is well accomplished, for the wide variety of excellent climbing listed here which can be done on the North American continent is augmented by some 189 photographs.

Some of the pictures have dramatic tones, especially those of Washburn and Cooper, but there is a definite problem in attaining a consistent image quality for some of the “on route” photos. Despite the skill and patience taken in getting the best possible results, some of the location pictures do not fairly present the stimulation of the selected adventures. The best of the action photography is on the desert and the Yosemite climbs, where the climate is more benign and the need for hurry is less than in maritime climates.

The book is neatly organized by sections, and the logical format introduces order into the maze of regional climbing opportunities. Suggestions on seasons best for a climb, equipment needed, and time to allow will be found welcome inclusions in the text. The “notes on sources” near the end of the book makes for a refreshing method of presenting citations and the basis of research.

For those who care to endure the hardships, dangers, and costs of Alaska and Yukon mountaineering, the choice of St. Elias, McKinley, Hunter, Fairweather, Mooses Tooth, Huntington, Logan, and Middle Triple Peak provides excellent representation. Despite the note on avalanche danger below Russell Col on St. Elias, the danger on this mountain should be stressed more. The south ridge is probably not much more difficult and is certainly safer from hazards. Many objectives and approaches can be made from within United States territory, where registration in some areas is not needed, as it is in Kluane National Park (Yukon Territory). A geographic note that can stand correction is the use of McKinley Range to express an area of mountains. The great mountain belt including our highest peak is called the Alaska Range, and at Merrill Pass the nomenclature becomes Aleutian Range (despite the fact that the Aleutian Peninsula is hundreds of miles distant).

Perhaps the best-told chapter is the one on Mount Waddington, where it is suggested that on the south face, the commitment of being cut off from civilization, and Base Camp, had rarely been seen in technical climbs on this continent until 1936. Waddington is a unique rock-and-ice- climbing problem within a coastal climate where optimum conditions are rare. Even after a storm, a good spell of weather may not help if the upper rocks of the face become badly iced. When we made the second ascent of this route, rime deposits were constantly being loosened by the action of sun and wind, a definite psychological hazard. On the technical portion of Waddington, precipitation is almost always in the form of snow, not rain. When using the Franklin Glacier approach a party should allow three weeks in the area; five days to reach High Camp are valid only in excellent weather.

In the Stikine Icecap area, airdrops minimize backpacking, but overflights are not really necessary, with the wealth of photography now available on the glacier routes. Float planes can always land on Stikine River, but not on ice-clogged Flood Lake (a dangerous alternative). In addition to the approach information given, a party should anticipate some brush fighting, mosquitoes of the most vicious order, and tedious glacier trekking. Using that approach I would not pack skis again, but use light, small snowshoes.

The climbing in Washington’s Cascade Range is described well, and the essence of Liberty Ridge, Mount Stuart, and the Price Glacier route on Mount Shuksan well captured; but the approach description for the latter has long been obsolete.

The pioneering efforts of early Teton climbers are given good perspective. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the ascent of the Grand Teton’s North Face, where such climbers as Petzoldt and Durrance proved out much of the route before its final completion by Pownall’s group. The text reminds us, “One hopes that a sense of history will permit those who attempt the climb to recall with admiration the anxious moments of the mountaineers who pioneered this great alpine route.”

To pick the most classic routes in Yosemite Valley must have been difficult. On the east buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock, the authors stress it is the quality of climbing that recommends it. With this I can agree, for it is a magnificent one-day route on superb rock. The ethic of overbolting is condemned on Salathé Wall, where a proliferation of bolts now marks the route. For those who wish to escape from the throngs of climbers in Yosemite, and the likelihood of having to share the serenity of a route with others, there is always the High Sierra. Or is there even solitude here any longer? A fine climb suddenly becomes popular; Charlotte Dome (which may now become even more popular because of inclusion in this book) recently witnessed the arrival of two separate climbing teams. Where to go for seclusion?

Fred Beckey